A Review of Keats’s Hyperion poems

I wrote this a few hours ago on Facebook,

Keats’s “Hyperion, A Fragment” and “Fall of Hyperion” — considered as a single work — are well worth the hour or so they take to read. The premise is AWESOME: they are two failed attempts (the latter a revision of the former) to finish his final grand project, an epic poem about the fall of the titans and the rise of the Olympian gods. The pathos of failure, the maturation of style, the shift from an epic narrative to a dreamt story, the increasing sense of bitterness and renunciation, the possible shift in sympathies, and his own impending premature death combine to make this not only touching but also formally unique.

There is the feeling of exploitation here, certainly, this recommendation reads like an elevator pitch. It’s impossible, perhaps, to separate the premise from true aesthetic enjoyment, whatever the later may mean. There is the sense that what makes Keats so amazing is precisely how uneven his poetry is, there are bits and pieces that stand out and then long passages that seem all but impossible to read. The lingering question for me, as I finally discover a work of Keats that I unequivocally enjoy, is whether I am not simply attached to a set of cheap premises.

What makes Keats’s poetry so difficult is precisely it’s sensuality. There is an absence of characterization, which makes the Fall of Hyperion in some sense the most accessible but also the least Keatsian —

— I remember a similar experience with Star Trek, I’m a big Star Trek fan but not a Trekkie or anything. Anyways, my favorite episode is actually the pilot, which was so different from the rest of the series that it gives a purposiveness to everything that came later. You suddenly realize that everything is intentional — well, I suspected as much, of course. It turned Star Trek into a kind of attempt or an experiment — the main character became, you know, the writer. Once you watch the pilot, it becomes possible to read, for example, the brown color of Kirk’s uniform.

— and so this occurs with the Fall of Hyperion too, where we have Keats finally, it seems, experimenting with characterization and intentionality. There is a central speaker that guides us almost — in retrospect — like a laugh track. We come to experience the world indirectly through him, we feel his bitterness, or his muteness, or his pathos. We realize, with a tinge of embarrassment maybe, that this was what we were after all along, and that this is how we make sense of things, ie, not as they appear to the imagination but rather as mediated by a figure. So, for me at least, this most unKeatsian poem seems to throw the rest of his work in a new light. It seems to make clear all the things that he was avoiding, or maybe even all the things that were already there. The feeling is very much like La Belle Dame Sans Merci, where the knight wakes up with memories of the pathos of the belle dame (“Her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild”, “she wept full sore”, “I set her on my pacing steed, and nothing else saw all day long”) but very little recollection of anything else.

Or rather — even if the fall of Hyperion makes it clear what sort of style Keats had been avoiding — cf, also, This Living Hand, where there is a central speaker as well — it’s not simply that this is a moment when Keats accepts defeat or establishes a newer style. This later style is in fact primarily melancholic and in fact looks back on the earlier poems — the inplication is that everything was already there. Sp the implication is not victory of a new style, nor is it the response to criticism, but rather that of a complement. I’m always reminded of Wordsworth’s Nutting

… I felt a sense of pain when I beheld
The silent trees, and saw the intruding sky. —
Then, dearest Maiden, move along these shades
In gentleness of heart; with gentle hand
Touch — for there is a spirit in the woods.

— I’m probably belaboring the point but the idea here is that the earlier poems were, despite being barely readable, somehow what was really important, precisely where the action was taking place, even though they were almost unreadable.

1) Is power (ie, in society) formed precisely by the linking of the future and the past?
2) Is that earlier time (of childhood) real? Were there really spirits there? Or does this question only make sense in retrospect?


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