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John Keats : Endymion or The Quest for Beauty

Dernière mise à jour : 17 avr. 2023

Extract from:

The Persistence of "Endymion"

by Futin B. Antunes (1976)

"The Greek myth of Endymion tells the story of a beautiful shepherd with whom Cynthia (or Diana, Phoebe) fell in love when she saw him sleeping on Mt. Latmos. She caused him to sleep for ever that she might enjoy his beauty... According to another version he obtained from Zeus eternal youth and the gift of sleeping as long as he wished. (...)

Keats' Endymion is long narrative poem is made up of four books, each containing one thousand verses.

In the first book, we learn that Endymion, the shepherd prince of Mt. Latmos, feels very despondent and alienates himself from his people's celebration of Pan's festival, "Like one who on earth had never stept". His sister Peona leads him to a pleasant bower and after calmingly him to sleep, induces him to tell her the reason for his apparent grief.

Endymion then eases his breast "of secret grief", and reveals to her how one day he fell asleep and a beautiful moon, a "completed form of all completeness" appeared to him in his dream, and he could not avoid loving her. Such a mysterious being smiled to him "in the clear well", and fondly called his name in a "secret mossy cave". Thrice she manifested herself to him, and since he was deeply in love with her - a deity - earth's delight no longer appeals to him. Therefore he decides to go on "pilgrimage for the' world's dusky brink", in quest of his love.

In Book II, the lovelorn Latmian is informed by a nymph that he must wander "past the scanty bar / To mortal steps". He finds himself near a cavern's mouth, and prays for Cynthia (without knowing the identity of his dream-goddess) to help him to discover his love's dwelling. Endymion is in a kind of trance, and a voice from the deep cavern commands him to descend into the bosom of the world: He now understands that "airy voices" will lead him to immortality (of love) through the "silent mysteries of the earth". Therefore he descends. The cavern is studded with gems and full of winding passages.

Endymion feels lonely and miserable in the dark under world. Wandering and watching the wonders floating before him in the deep, he arrives in a chamber where Adonis is sleeping. The shepherd prince then beholds the goddess of the sea, Venus, awakening her lover to a sumer of love. Venus promises Endymion that one day he will be blessed in his pursuit.

Being one again alone, he strides through caves, places of "mottled ore", streams, fountains, descending more with the help of an eagle, till he comes to a green nook, a jasmine bower "all bestrown / with golden moss" where he falls asleep and in a dream, has his goddess in his arms. The “known Unknown" feeds him with moments of ecstasy, but soon departs leaving him sorrowful again.

Endymion continues his pilgrimage in the underworld and meets the river god Alpheus and the fountain nymph Arethusa. Alpheus flows trying unsuccessfully to melt his stream with Arethusa's ; Endymion feels sympathy for their unhappy fate, and, for a while, forgets his self. He now can lend to the sounds of the two streams - Alpheus and Arethusa - a human significance. Then, the vision of the earth vanishes and the Latmian faces the giant sea.

Book III presents Endymion striding the floor of the sea where he sees a vast hollow with dead things which hide long-forgotten stories. Again he prays to Cynthia, praising the glory of the moon. He meets an old man, Glaucus, who tells his story. Glaucus was a fisherman of immortal stock who left earth and his fellowmen to dive into the water-world which meant his ideal. Here he falls in love with an elusive nymph, Scylla, who keeps running away from him. Glaucus then tries to find relief in Circe's sensual love.

However, he soon discovers the cruelty of Circe who used to transform her lovers into beasts; he cannot' escape her malignancy and is doomed to ten centuries of old age and consequent impotence. The enchantress kills Scylla whose body Glaucus keeps in a niche inside a "fabric crystalline". The half-divine fisherman tells Endymion that he was even deprived of saving other people's lives - his senility was a bar separating him from human acts of whatever sort.

The shepherd prince learns that he was expected to restore Glaucus' youth (and strength, then), and that both could resurrect drowned creatures lying in the crystalline palace. Endymion performs his humanitarian mission, and with Glaucus (now a beautiful youth), Scylla, and the multitude beings he brought to life, enters the palace ot Neptune, where there occurs a celebration. Here the wandering Latmian swoons and his inward senses listen to a voice saying that he will be snatched into endless heaven".

In the fourth book he is again on earth; this is the last stage of his pilgrimage, when he lives complex experiences. Endymion hears a woman's lament and comes upon an Indian Maid who sings to him a Song of Sorrow relating her frustation while tring to forget an unfulfilled love. He falls in love with her, and after declaring his love to the dark girl, both mount winged steeds which Mercury (Hermes) brings to them, and they fly through the air.

They enter the region of Sleep; Cynthia visits him in his dream. Now he knows who the goddess of his quest is; he awakens and finds her near him.

René Antoine Houasse - Diana and Endymion (1660-1710)

Yet he decides for the Indian Maid who pressed his hand in slumber. Cynthia then disappears, and to his astonishment and despair the Indian Maid fades away as well. Now he is lonely and exhausted in the "Cave of Quietude", where emotions do not disturb the soul. Here he falls asleep while his spirit is refreshed.

Then he is brought back to earth in Mount Latmos, and on awakening he sees his human love, the Indian Maid, near him. Peona, his worldly-minded sister, appears and he asks her to take the Indian Maid, who mysteriously claims that she cannot accept his love, with her; he decides to live the life of a hermit. Yet he wishes to see his love once again, for the last time, at the sunset hour. When the moment comes for their final meeting, Endymion sees the Indian Maid change into Phoebe, who carries him to the long-promised immortality of passion.

This is the summary of the story Keats narrates in his poetical romance. "Endymion", I believe, should be read as an allegory of the soul's yearnings for its ideal (whatever this may be), and the process ot spiritualization necessary for the attainment of it. Each book represents one condition which he must satisfy before his soul is ready to undergo new maturing experiences.

"Endymion" has the basic characteristics of an allegory ; we watch in the poem a series of equations between its several elements (Endymion, the journey, the cavern, the undersea, the air, the earth, the moon) and a set of ulterior meanings (the soul," human life, the trials, the ideal). In other words, the shepherd prince's pursuit stands for the human heart's pursuit of Beauty, or Truth, Happiness, Love, Light ; Endymion stands for Everyman ; Cynthia stands for his most secret and vital yearnings.


"Endymion" follows closely the mythical tradition: the hero starts on a journey striding a road of trials where despondency and stagnation often haunt him in his Quest; his symbolical pursuit is completed when he escapes from his imprisoning ego and, becomes proud of his inescapable mortality. Before the shepherd prince (Endymion) may be awarded with enlightenment, he has to pass through painful experiences which widen his knowledge of the world and sharpen his awareness of the nature of mortals; that is, Endymion attains the sought-for fellowship with Beauty through suffering.

Earlier several times, sensory delights granted him communion with the dream-goddess (Cynthia), the principle of Beauty, yet such ecstatic moments of happiness were transitory and could only leave his soul more hungry for love; Serene and permanent union with the Essence is not possible without a preparatory stage of pain and thought.

Endymion's quest, to quote J.A. Allen's remarks on mythical poetry in general,

"is the age-old Quest of the hero in myth and literature for enlightenment, for it provides dramatic testimony of the unconscious urge of Everyman for the creation or recreation into a world of experience transformed by hard-won understanding of the human condition as it relates to eternal life and its inexhaustible source."

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