First in Beauty Should Be First in Might
The fragmentary epic, Hyperion, is concerned chiefly with beauty. A war in heaven was the basis for the narrative which Keats had planned to write. An older race of gods known as the Titans had been overthrown by the younger Olympians.
Hyperion, the sun-god, after whom the poem was named, had been visualized by Keats as the champion of the Titan cause because he was the only one of them yet undefeated when the poem begins. The main action of the poem would almost certainly have been the overthrow and supersession of Hyperion by the Olympian Apollo. The fundamental theme, then, is the war which had taken place between two classes of gods. From the outset we find ourselves in the company of the defeated Titans, experiencing their bitter sorrow and asking their questions; and the centrality of beauty is asserted precisely here, because the only theatrical answer to the question why the older gods have suffered at the hands of the younger gods is that beauty should triumph and that in the present case it has actually triumphed. The victorious Olympians are more beautiful than the Titans; there is no more to be said on this point because “it is the eternal law that first in beauty should be first in might.” This one statement made by Oceanus not only puts beauty at the centre of the poem but interweaves it with pain by denning a metaphysic of suffering out of beauty’s triumph. To the riddle of the defeat of the Titans, the solution is that the less beautiful must be superseded and pushed into the background. In this poem Keats simultaneously vindicates the beautiful and gives his explanation of the pain and suffering in this world. In his view the pain and suffering of the world are the price of beauty’s victory. The survival of the fittest is the tune to which creation dances; this constitutes the world’s outward drama and equally its inner sense. The greater or the fitter is one who is the more beautiful because Nature’s law is that first in beauty should be first in might.
The Problem of Suffering and Pain
The poem opens with a striking picture of Saturn sitting still and silent after his defeat. He is joined by the goddess Thea (who was the wife of Hyperion, the sun-god). She rouses Saturn from his stupor in order to stress his total discomfiture and to say that she has to offer no explanation of these recent events and that she has no comfort to offer either. “I have no comfort for thee, no, not one”, she pointedly says. In reply, Saturn asks her if his feeble shape is really his and if his voice is really his. In other words, through Saturn’s questioning, Keats raises the problem of human suffering (even though the questioner is a god). Thea only understands that disaster has befallen the Titans. Saturn only understands the pain of defeat. Both of them want to understand more; and Keats now sends them together to that sad place where Cybele and the bruised Titans sat in mourning. Some of the defeated Titans are then named and described, whereafter Saturn proceeds to address them. His speech goes deeper still into the sheer puzzle of pain. He puts it thus:
Not in my own sad breast,
Which is its own great judge and searcher out,
Can I find reason why ye should be thus: (II, 129-31)
At the end of his speech he turns to Oceanus whose “severe content”, which is the result of thought and musing, has surprised him and from whom he now seeks guidance.
Stoic Resignation to the Truth
It is Oceanus who, in his reply to Saturn’s question, urges his fellow-gods to see their Titanic woes as part of a process called beauty’s triumph. Whether the process justifies the pain involved is not easy to decide. Oceanus proclaims his message to be “the pain of truth”; but at the same time he asserts that those who take his message to be painful are foolish. The dominant note of the speech of Oceanus is Stoic resignation to the truth rather than welcome of it. He concludes with the following advice:
Receive this truth, and let it be your balm.
But there is no suggestion that pain can be transformed into something else. In other words, pain and suffering remain pain and suffering, and cannot undergo any mystic transformation. All that Oceanus can say is that the defeated gods have to suffer but that they are suffering in a good cause. So his mandate is that the sufferers must achieve calm and tranquility.
The Superior Beauty of the New Sea-God and of the New God of Music
Oceanus cites his own individual defeat as an illustration of the general principle which he has just laid down. He refers to the new Olympian god who has overthrown him. He speaks about the new god of the sea in ardent terms, praising the beauty and the glow of the new god. Oceanus was so impressed by the new god that he voluntarily relinquished his position as the sovereign of his empire and came away from his headquarters, so to speak. Following Oceanus, the goddess Clymene expresses her own sense of bewilderment but then goes on to speak of Apollo in the same eloquent and glowing terms in which Oceanus had spoken about his successor. Says she:
A voice came sweeter, sweeter than all tune,
And still it cried, “Apollo ! Young Apollo!”
I fled, it follow’d me, and cried “Apollo”! (II, 292-94)
Thus the reference to Apollo emphasizes a singing voice of the utmost beauty. And the beauty is, of course, the point, because the final triumph of beauty will be the triumph of Apollo; and in this way Oceanus’s assertion of the eternal law of Nature will be vindicated. No doubt, Enceladus, who speaks after Clymene, rejects both her opinion and the view of Oceanus. Enceladus describes Oceanus as “over-wise” and he describes Clymene as “over-foolish”. Enceladus speaks in a militant tone, and he relies on Hyperion to come to the rescue of the defeated Titans. But the event described in Book III, in which Apollo achieves his deification, clearly shows that Enceladus’s defiance and militancy would come to nothing, if the poem had been continued, it would have described the conflict between Hyperion and the new god Apollo, and it would have described the triumph of the latter who is more beautiful by virtue of his music and melody the like of which had never before been heard in the universe.