Keats and ‘Hyperion’: Beauty, Knowledge and Power

‘Apollo in a Chariot’: Orest Kiprensky, 1817.

Keats is most popularly known for the Great Odes he wrote in 1819, in particular ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, which have been established as some of the greatest poems in English Literature. Though I love the Odes, for me, ‘Hyperion’ has always been the most fascinating and beautiful of Keats’s poems. Published with the Odes in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems, this tragic fragment caused Keats immense frustration, culminating in his abandonment of the poem. He later rewrote and reshaped the poem in ‘The Fall of Hyperion. A Dream’, but this, too, was left unfinished.

Before we approach the poem, a word on the sketch by Kiprensky which fronts this post. Born the illegitimate child of a nobleman, Orest Kiprensky was raised by a serf, Adam Shvalber, before being sent away to the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts by his birth father, aged six. Having made his name as a portrait artist in Russia, he travelled to Italy in 1816 where the above sketch of Apollo was composed. Devotedly pursued by the Nine Muses, there is a cool, assured ease to the god’s facial expression and his dexterous handling of the reigns, as well as a preternatural wonder, power and strength captured in his stride and the beams of light emanating from his body. Strangely, Keats and Kiprensky both died in Rome.

Keats’s ‘Hyperion’ fragment cuts off at the moment when Apollo first realises the strength and glory of godhood depicted in Kiprensky’s sketch. Indeed, concluding with this incredible metamorphosis has caused some critics, such as Harold Bloom, to suggest that the poem is, after all, complete. The poem opens with the majority of the Titans having lost their godhood to the fledgling Olympians, their last hope being Hyperion, God of Wisdom and Light, father of the Sun (Helios), the Moon (Selene), and the Dawn (Eos). But, as mentioned, Apollo soon uproots him and the rule of the Olympians is firmly established.

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale

Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,

Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,

Sat grey-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone,

Still as the silence round about his lair

So the poem begins. For some reason, these lines have always stuck with me, have always seemed immensely memorable. Keats’s handling of blank verse is far improved here from his earlier attempts at epic poetry, most notably in ‘Endymion’, and the rhythm of his words skips off the tongue. Abandoning the strict, rhyming couplets of the earlier poem, here, the natural assonance carries the sound: ‘shady’ ‘sadness’ ‘a’ ‘vale’. This effect, accompanied by the slant rhymes of ‘morn’ and ‘stone’, ‘star’ and ‘lair’, creates a smooth, easy flow, as if bringing on some dreamlike state. Indeed, the revised ‘Fall of Hyperion’ opens with a poet figure entering a dream state.

Keats’s craft, then, has undoubtedly improved. But what about his ideas? his philosophy? ‘Endymion’ famously begins, ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’, arguing for the eternal supremacy of all things beautiful. But in ‘Hyperion’, Keats’s notion of beauty is conveyed as a power struggle: ‘first in beauty should be first in might’ (I. 229). Towards the end of the poem, Apollo’s proclamation that, ‘Knowledge enormous makes a God of me’ (III. 113), encapsulates the notion that ‘power and knowledge directly imply one another’ (Foucault, Discipline and Punish). Thus, we have a three-pronged dynamic consisting of power, beauty, and knowledge.

If we analyse these key phrases which work to set out Keats’s specific philosophy, we uncover some interesting talking points. Firstly, the modal verb ‘should’ in the former quote suggests that this ruling, that ‘first in beauty should be first in might’, is not always employed, and is not the case the world over. Though it is suggested that this doctrine is ‘eternal law’ (II. 228), there seems to be an uncertain tone regarding the reality of this. It is true that Apollo (AKA ‘first in beauty’) does eventually take the reigns from Hyperion, but the poem does not seem to suggest that this is the case in wider society.

H. W. Garrod labels the poem an ‘indeterminate allegory’, open to numerous metaphorical readings. Generally, though, ‘Hyperion’ is understood as paralleling the kind of political revolutions seen in America and France in the previous century: the destruction of an old order, and the raising of a new. Britain resisted such substantial reforms, and perhaps what Keats’s poem is doing is pushing for the wide scale changes various other countries were going through. Drawing this back to the issue of ‘knowledge’, we can see that through the ‘beauty’ of political allegory, Keats seeks to instil the public with the ‘knowledge’ that injustice should be refuted, change is possible, and with this combination of beauty and truth, the public can stake a fair claim for power.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, Lines 49-50.
These busts of Keats (left) and Percy Shelley (right) come from the Keats-Shelley House twitter account (@Keats_Shelley).

2 thoughts on “Keats and ‘Hyperion’: Beauty, Knowledge and Power”

  1. I must start saying that I enjoyed reading this entry. First, because it is clear that you love Keats and his work, when reading this entry, I felt the impulse of reading Keats’ works again.
    You start saying that his odes are more well-known than the rest of his works. I completely agree with that, I think it might be because when it comes to teach poetry, the style Keats presents in his odes are revolutionary in contrast to Percy Shelley’s odes. Despite both are poets from the Romanticism, Shelley used complex words to express his delight on what he was praising, whereas, Keats is more direct in using more simple words, which I personally believe, makes him a genius. I must confess that when I read “Ode to a Nightingale”, I could not take out of my head the stanza here it says: “Fade away, dissolve, and quite forget/ What thou among the leaves hast never known”… You are right when saying that Keats’ words stay easily in the reader’s mind. Years later, I was on a Shakespeare exam in the uni, and we had to complete the blanks with quotations said by the characters. I had forgotten some of them, I was trying to remember the quotes when, suddenly, inside my head I listened to those words from Keats’ ode instead of Shakespeare’s quotes. I wrote down those lines, continued with the exam, but when I gave back my test to the professor, I realised I had forgotten to erase them! To my amazement, when I got the exam back, the professor had completed the missing lines of the poem! Does Keats saves lives in exams? My answer would be affirmative.
    Anyway, I want to continue reviewing your entry. I found very interesting to read about different approaches on whether the poem was complete or incomplete. Additionally, the analysis you make about using the conditional verb “should” is very important. If I could only remember where I read that one of the main characteristics of the poems written by Romanticism poets was this idea that nothing that is seen or perceived is certain, which gives this atmosphere of doubt that leads them to a spiritual seek through poetry.
    Your approach on politics and philosophy on “Hyperion” was very original, I would really like to read more about your thoughts on other poems.


    1. Thank you so much for your comments! I love that you call Keats a “genius” and absolutely agree – passages like the one from “Ode to a Nightingale” you noted really do capture the immense talent he had.
      I love that story, too, of your teacher completing the lines; there’s something so beautiful about that, about the way in which poetry should bring people together, and Keats knew that absolutely.
      There’s always so much to dissect and reflect on, especially in Keats, but also in poets like Shelley too. I’ll definitely be putting out some similar posts soon – thanks for the support! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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