The Subject of the Epic: the War Between the Gods
Although Hyperion is an incomplete poem and was therefore described as a fragment, yet the idea behind it emerges clearly as we go through it. The subject which Keats chose for his poem was the war between the Titans and the Olympians, and the victory of the latter over the former.
If the poem had been completed, Keats would almost certainly have described retrospectively some of the main episodes in the war which has ended when the poem begins. After describing the course of the war, he would have gone on to pick up the thread of the narrative from the point where Apollo is transformed into a god. Then would have come the crux of the whole saga, namely an encounter between Hyperion and Apollo, and the triumph of the latter. As it stands, the first two books of the epic describe the state of affairs after the war between the two classes of the gods has ended in the defeat of the Titans, with the exception of Hyperion who still retains his sovereignty over his realm of the sun. The Titans are feeling very despondent and are on the verge of total despair, with exception of Encladus who is still in a defiant mood.
Oceanus, Asked For His Views
The chief of the Titans, namely Saturn, is feeling even more grief-stricken than the others. Hyperion’s wife Thea comes to him and concurs with him so far as his bleak view of the situation is concerned. Satan laments the loss of the power and authority, which he says, he had always exercised in 3 benevolent manner so as to keep his subject happy. Thea takes him to the den where the other Titans sit or lie in a despondent state. There Saturn makes a speech to his fellow-gods, expressing his puzzlement over the defeat which they have suffered. At the end of his speech he turns to’ Oceanus, the “sophist and sage”, and asks him for help and guidance in the present situation. Saturn has perceived an expression of “severe content” on the face of Oceanus; and this makes him think that Oceanus may be able to throw some light on the problem which is baffling Saturn.
The Underlying Idea of the Poem, Stated by Oceanus
It is the speech which Oceanus makes in reply to Saturn’s question that contains the underlying idea of the whole poem. This underlying idea is that things can never stand still in this universe and that change and development are the law of Nature. According to Oceanus, progressive change must always take place (whether by evolution or by revolution). That is why we may say that the concept of evolutionary progress is the theme of the poem or that Keats is here writing an epic of the revolutionary idea. Oceanus makes some very significant and memorable remarks, his object being not to incite the gods against the victorious ones but to make it possible for them to reconcile themselves to their defeat.
Saturn, Not the Beginning Nor the End
Oceanus tells the gods that the proper course for them to follow now is to be contented with their lot and to accept it even if means a loss of dignity. He says that he would be able to provide much comfort to them by his arguments provided they are willing to draw comfort from the facts as they are. He says that the Titans have fallen from their high positions as a result of the operation of the law of Nature and not because of the destructive thunderbolts of Jove. He tells Saturn in particular that, having been the supreme ruler of the universe and having held a position far above the others, he had missed the small point which minds of a lower order would fully perceive. According to Oceanus, Saturn has missed the route to wisdom and truth. Oceanus says that Saturn should realize that just as he was not the first ruler of the universe so he cannot be the last ruler. Saturn could not have remained the ruler of the universe for ever. “Thou art not the beginning nor the end,” Oceanus tells him. Originally chaos and darkness had prevailed in the universe. From the chaos and darkness had come light, and with light had come life. It was at this point that the first gods, Heaven and Earth, came into being. Then Saturn was born, the first issue of the union of Heaven and Earth. Then all the rest of the race of Titans and the race of Giants followed, so that they all found themselves to be the rulers of the various beautiful kingdoms. Oceanus points out to his fellow-gods that they should not be depressed by the loss of their kingdoms, because the real height of supremacy lies in the ability to look facts in the face in a spirit of complete calmless:
And to envisage circumstance, all calm,
That is the top of sovereignty.
First in Beauty Should Be First in Might
Oceanus, countinuing his discourse, says that the Titans who were born of the union of Heaven and Earth had surpassed their parents in beauty, in compactness, in symmetry, in will-power, in the freedom of action, in the spirit of comradeship, and in a thousand other ways. And just as they had surpassed their parents, so the next generation of gods, led by Jove, had surpassed the Titans:
So on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us,………
Oceanus says that the Titans had to be succeeded by a power more beautiful and more strong than the Titans, even though that power had been begotten by the Titans themselves. The law governing the universe according to Oceanus is that “first in beauty should be first in might.” According to this law, the Olympians (Jove and his comrades) would in course of time be dethroned by another race which would be more beautiful and therefore more strong. Oceanus then cites his own ease, saying that the new god of the sea possesses greater glory than Oceanus and has such a glow of beauty in his eyes that Oceanus had voluntarily surrendered his empire to him and departed thence to come to this den to meet his fellow-Titans. Oceanus ends his exhortation by saying to his fellow-Titans: “Receive the truth and let it be your balm.”
Keats’s Message in the Fragmentary Epic, Expressed Fully
Now, this is the truth which Keats wants also us to recognize and accept. Change, flux, ferment, development, evolution, revolution—these are inevitable. Change may come steadily or change may come in the form of the French Revolution or the Russian Evolution; but change must come. Change may take place peacefully or change may come through conflict and war; but come it must. Mankind should remain prepared for change: slow and steady, or violent and swift. And change in this universe has always been progressive. Saturn claims that his rule was a benevolent one. Speaking to Thea, he deplores the fact that he would no longer be able to exercise his benign influence on the planets, on the winds and seas, and on the life of mankind. He deplores the fact that he would no longer able to perform those acts by means of which he, as the supreme deity, used to give an outlet to his love for mankind as well as for the forces of Nature. He deplores the fact that he has lost his “strong identity” and his “real self”. He says that he would try to re-establish himself as the chief ruler of the universe. But, in the light of Oceanus’s discourse which comes later in the poem, we feel sure that Saturn’s reasoning is fallacious. His rule must have been benign, as he says. But what makes him think that his successor would not prove even more benign or that his successor would not do greater good to the universe than Saturn himself done? The continuity of Saturn’s rule would have meant stagnation. There is no end to the good that can be done to mankind, and there is no end to the evolutionary process so far as the universe as a whole is concerned. This is the valuable lesson which we are expected to draw from Keats’s poem as it stands. The narrative about the war between the defeated gods and the victorious ones, and especially the encounter between Hyperion .and Apollo, is certainly not complete; but Keats’s message is complete, though the poem is a fragment.
Oceanus’s View Reinforced By Clymene’s Experience
The lesson urged by Oceanus is reinforced by Clymens’s account of her strange experience. She had suddenly heard a new kind of music which had enchanted her. The new “blissful golden melody” which she had suddenly heard had made her “sick with joy and grief at once”. She had felt joyous because of the repturous notes of music which she had heard, but she had felt sad at the thought that her own music had been superseded by this new music. She had fled from the spot but had been chased by a sweet voice which kept uttering the name of Apollo. Clymene’s experience implies that a new musician has appeared on the scene and will now dethrone the existing deity governing the realm of music. This again is a case of evolutionary or revolutionary change. Clymene herself is reconciled to this change, but gods like Enceladus are not.
Enceladus’s Militancy, Unjustified
Enceladus refers to Oceanus as “over-wise” and to Clymene as “over-foolish”. Enceladus is still in a defiant mood, and in his imagination is hurling mountains upon his enemies. Enceladus speaks scornfully about Oceanus, calling him “thou sham monarch of the waves.” Enceladus is burning with the fire of revenge. He is not only sorry because the Titans have lost their realms but he is even more sorry at the loss of those days of peace and “slumberous calm” which the Titans used to enjoy during Saturn’s reign. Enceladus argues that Hyperion is still undefeated, and that there is still a hope for the Titans to win a victory over the Olympians-and to re-establish themselves as the rulers of the universe. The point here is that Enceladus’s whole approach is wrong because Enceladus has not been able to grasp the truth contained in the speech of Oceanus. Enceladus is an uncompromising militant. He would learn his lesson only when Hyperion too is overthrown.
An Epic of Beauty’s Triumph: The Meaning of Beauty
One other point that deserves attention in connection with the theme of this poem is that beauty is Oceanus’s criterion of superiority. The eternal law, according to Oceanus, is that “first in beauty should be first in might.” now, we can understand the idea of evolutionary progress and we can understand also the revolutionary idea; but it is somewhat difficult to understand the concept of the progressive change brought about by superior beauty. Science teaches us the theory of evolution. This biological theory needs no explanation. We can also understand evolutionaty development or revolutionary changes in the political, social, and cultural life of mankind. History provides countless examples of such changes. In fact, changes of this kind are taking place before our very eyes. But what does Oceanus or Keats mean by saying that first in beauty should be first in might? Well, this poem is not a scientific discourse. Keats wants us to look at the evolutionary development or progress with the eyes of a poet and not with the eyes of a scientist. For Keats, beauty was the supreme consideration. Beauty was the supreme power in his eyes. Beauty was a magnificent obsession with him. “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”, he had written. Later he was to write:
Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Of course, beauty does not merely mean physical attractiveness. For the mature Keats, beauty came to be identified with truth. Beauty has thus intellectual and philosophical connotations in Keats’s eyes, Truth implies all the facts of life in the aggregate, all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of all mankind. It is only a man with a vast vision who can accept the entire range of the life of the universe, including the life of mankind, and who can be said to have a capacity to appreciate beauty. Interpreted thus, Oceanus’s criterion of beauty does not conflict basically with the scientific view of evolution. Thus considered, Keats’s poem becomes an epic of beauty’s triumph. Keats’s approach to the whole issue is aesthetic, as is con-finned by the experience of Clymene who represents the artistic temperament.
The Relevance of Apollo’s Deification in Book III
A discussion of the theme’ of the Hyperion cannot end here. There is something more to it. While the first two books form a compact unit, Book III marks an abrupt transition which mars the structure of the poem. Book III contains an account of the experience by which Apollo was transformed into a god. Now, if Keats had been able to complete the poem, this particular episode would have fallen into place. After describing the process of Apollo’s deification, Keats would have gone on to describe a second war between the Titans (with Hyperion and Enceladus at their head) and the Olympians (with Jove as their leader). The central episode in this second conflict would have been an encounter between Hyperion and Apollo in which Apollo would have won, not by the force of arms but by the sheer power of his enchanting music. Perhaps, Hyperion, overwhelmed by that music, would have surrendered as readily to his opponent as Oceanus had previously surrendered to Neptune. But the poem breaks off at the point where Apollo has been transfigured and deified.
A Second Theme of the Poem: The Symbolism of Apollo’s Deification
The process by which Apollo becomes a god is itself significant because here we have, in additions to its obvious meaning, a symbolic description by Keats of Keats’s own emergence as a mature poet. In symbolic terms, Apollo is Keats himself. Apollo has been feeling afflicated by a vague grief and has often wept because of this grief. When he comes into contact with Mnemosyne, he experiences a strange exhiliration and asks her several questions regarding the nature of this universe and the divinity who controls the powers of Nature. He speaks to her of his “aching ignorance”. Mnemosyne makes no reply. Apollo thereupon suddenly discovers a wonderful meaning in the expression of her silent face. Her face proves to be a source of infinite knowledge to him and he says that this new knowledge which he has derived from her face makes him think that he has become a god. He reads in her face names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions, majesties, sovran voices, agonies, creations and destroyings. Thereupon he is shaken by convulsions and tortured by an indescribable agony. He experiences the agony of a dying man but in the very moment of his death he is reborn. He dies into life, and he is reborn as a celestial being. Apollo has become a god. In symbolic terms, Keats the poet has attained matarity and the ripeness of his poetic powers. Keats has acquired “the lore of good and ill” and, leaving the world of Flora and old Pan far behind, he has passed to the nobler world of human suffering and human strife. Now he will write truer and higher poetry than before (and the great odes were a specimen of that poetry). It is to be noted that Mnemosyne’s face contains all life, past, present, and even to come. She is the eternal existence of the universe, as it were. She belongs to the old order, and also to the new, for she is immanent and everlasting. She is a mirror of all the essential facts of life—”agonies, creations and destroyings.” And of her Keats had dreamed. She was “the vast idea” that had come to him that night as he slept on Leighs Hunt’s sofa. She had become the “might abstract idea of beauty in all things”; and Keats had struggled through “purgatory blind” for a vision of her, face to face. Now he had achieved what he sought, and “knowledge enormous mode a god of him” through the pain of a death and a second birth. Keats has become a true poet through a comprehension of history and change human suffering.
A Complete Poem in One Sense
Thus Hyperion is a complete poem so far as its basic themes are concerned. What is not complete is the story of the conflict between Hyperion and Apollo.