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Endymion: A Poetic Romance by Keats - Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Keats & 'Endymion'
  • 1:50 Main Narrative
  • 4:17 The Ideal Society
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Keats' 'Endymion' is a poem representative of the Romantic movement, demonstrating the poet's preoccupation with nature, reimagining of themes from mythology, and belief in emotion as the surest guide to truth.

Introduction to Keats and 'Endymion'

'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.' You may have heard this line from Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, from an enthusiastic English teacher, or from an eccentric aunt. Its original context is as the opening line of John Keats' 'Endymion.' Although this poem was criticized by most reviewers when it was published in 1818, it has since been hailed as one of the masterpieces of the early nineteenth-century Romantic movement in English literature. As indicated by the title, the poem's subject is Endymion, the mythical shepherd so amazingly gorgeous that Diana, the chaste goddess of the moon, fell in love with him. But, starting with that famous opening, Keats clues the reader into the fact that the poem is about a lot more than that. In 'Endymion,' Keats explores ideas about nature and our relationship to it; about myth and history; and about melancholy and desire. He also expresses in it—not just in the opening line—his deep belief in the importance of beauty for its own sake.

Although the language of Endymion is flowery in every sense (Keats loved flowers... a lot), the events of the poem are easy to summarize. Ready? Here goes. First, Keats gives a prologue (lines 1-62) about how nature is really awesome and great for combating depression, and how he's excited to retell a Greek myth and how he hopes he doesn't die before finishing his work as a poet. This last is not Keats being melodramatic; he lived with chronic illness and died less than three years after publishing this poem. That's also worth remembering when considering that one of the first things that Keats compares the spiritual and emotional benefit of beauty to is 'a sleep / Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing' (lines 4-5.) Sound sleep and quiet breathing were things the poet could never take for granted. I know, that's really sad. Let's return to how awesome nature is.

The Story of Endymion: Main Narrative

After the prologue, Keats sets the stage for his narrative: Latmos, in ancient Greece. Here, the hillsides are occupied not only by shepherds and their flocks, but by gods and goddesses (lines 63-88). In this ideal atmosphere, all the shepherds, their priest, and their king, Endymion, come to celebrate the god Pan and thank him for protecting their sheep. While everyone celebrates, the older shepherds go aside with Endymion to talk about their lives—and the afterlife. Endymion is obviously depressed and tunes out of the conversation, becoming unresponsive to anyone or anything around him. His sister Peona takes him aside and has him first sleep and then tell her about what's bothering him. Then, at some length, Endymion tells Peona about why he's been troubled and withdrawn; he had a strange experience that he's been obsessed with. While exploring the hills and forests (here's the importance of nature again), he was visited in a dream by the goddess of the moon and made love to her. Ever since, Endymion has been trying to find the goddess again. Keats evokes Endymion's depression by showing that even his response to nature has become negative. He tells his sister:

Away I wander'd--all the pleasant hues
Of heaven and earth had faded: deepest shades
Were deepest dungeons; heaths and sunny glades
Were full of pestilent light; our taintless rills
Seem'd sooty, and o'er-spread with upturn'd gills
Of dying fish; the vermeil rose had blown
In frightful scarlet, and its thorns out-grown
Like spiked aloe.

But, with his sister's encouragement, Endymion says that he will do his best to reenter their community after this extraordinary contact with the divine, and with desire.

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