The Autobiograpical Value of the Portrayal of Apollo in Book III
We can read more than one meaning into the poem Hyperion (the first version known as a “Fragment”). One way of looking at this poem is to regard it as an indirect and allegorical treatment by Keats of himself in his character of a poet. Book 111 of the poem, which deals with Apollo, is particularly autobiographical, but the first two Books also have certain autobiographical elements in them. According to one reading of the poem, Apollo and not Hyperion is the chief character in it.
Apollo is, after all, the god of poetry, and therefore the immortal poet. The portrayal of Apollo must therefore have been determined completely by Keats’s own knowledge of the poetic nature. In other words, in presenting the character of Apollo to us, Keats had his own nature, and his own nature only, to draw upon for his material. The legend about the Titans was rather vague, but the inward reality of Apollo had nothing vague about it because Keats himself was the model for the portrayal of Apollo. In Book III of Hyperion, Keats said all that he could possibly say at that point of time concerning the poetic nature, and therefore concerning Apollo. And because he said here whatever he could have said about the nature of Apollo and consequently about himself as a poet, the poem is in one sense complete and not just a fragment. In Book III Keats reveals the secret of the poetic nature, and therefore of his own nature as a poem. Hyperion is therefore a complete poem. It can be understood wholly in and for itself. It may be a fragment, but it is a finished fragment.
The Writing of “Hyperion”, An Escape From the Pains of Life
When Keats began to write Hyperion, he was in deep distress on account of the continuing illness of his brother Tom, an illness which seemed to have reached its final stage before killing the patient. Keats tried at that time to escaps from the pains of life by creating a new world in his new poem. The greatest of those pains was, of course, the continual watching of his brother’s lingering death. At the same time to watch Tom moving towards death also meant a warning to him of his own premature end, because he had returned from his tour of Scotland with the beginnings of consumption .in himself. And then, to aggravate matter’s, there was the hostile criticism of his poem Endymion, which too weighed heavily upon his mind. Yet another cause of anxiety to him was his unsatisfied desire for a woman’s love. The only refuge from all these pains could be a world of the imagination. And so he started writing Hyperion, the mythological personalities of which would be a source of distraction and comfort to him. However, he started writing the poem somewhat unwillingly because he knew that, concerning the character and destiny of the poet-Apollo he was still in the condition of “purgatory blind”. (He had used the phrase “purgatory blind” in one of his letters to describe his mental condition of confusion and ignorance).
No Evidence of the Superiority of the Olympians Over the Titans
Hyperion begins with an elaborate description of the misery which god Saturn experienced as a result of his defeat at the hands of the Olympians, a misery which seemed to have almost paralyzed both his body and mind. Hyperion is one of the saddest poems in English, but its sadness is not the icy chill of intellectual despair; it is the warm, rich sadness of a suffering heart determined to control its pain. The poem throbs, even though all its figures are divine and immortal, with “the still, sad music of humanity.” The characters in the poem, though divine and immortal, are essentially human; their sufferings and anger are human, and their wisdom is human. Keats could not help it. He was writing from his heart, of what he knew. The life of these Titans was the life in which he himself was involved. That is why, although his story for its own progress demanded that the defeated Titans should be inferior to the victorious Olympians, yet no Olympian could be wiser, kinder, and more beautiful than Saturn. That Saturn has been overthrown by other gods simply means the defeat of the wise, kind, and beautiful by the wise, kind, and beautiful. That he should reconquer his throne from the usurpers would be just another victory of good over good. Oceanus, indeed, says that just as the Titans are far superior to Heaven and Earth, so the Olympians are far superior to the Titans. According to Oceanus, there is a higher perfection than that represented by the Titans, and that higher perfection is to be found in the Olympians. The Titans have therefore to be succeeded by a power which is more beautiful and more strong than they. That power (represented by Jove) is destined to surpass the Titans, just as the Titans have surpassed the old darkness and chaos. Now, the speech made by Oceanus is undoubtedly a noble utterance, but the poem itself does not confirm the views expressed by Oceanus. Oceanus speaks about the new dynasty as being far more beautiful and therefore more strong than the Titans, but when we consider the various characters in the poem—Saturn, Rhea, Oceanus, Mnemosyne, and Clymene—we do not think that any power can be more beautiful and therefore more strong than these characters. Certainly we cannot conceive of a greater majesty than possessed by Saturn, or of greater wisdom than is displayed by Oceanus, or of greater splendour than that of Hyperion.
The Power of the True Poet Higher Than that of the Titans
The only one of the Olympians to appear actually before us in the poem is Apollo. He is perhaps more beautiful than the dethroned Titans, but he has had no hand in their defeat. He is a poet, and a divine singer, while the Titans have no singer except the child-like Clymene. Perhaps Keats is here saying that the only “power more strong in beauty” to excel the Titans was the power of the true poet. Just as the pain of the Titans is the pain of life itself, inflicted without cause and suffered without demerit, so all that can be added to the sufferers is first a comprehension of that pain, and then an utterance of that comprehension. Oceanus comprehends it, but he comprehends it only partially. The “fresh perfection” which he visualizes will not be what he thinks it will be. Jove is certainly not going to be nobler than Saturn, and Neptune will not be wiser than Oceanus. There is only one “fresh perfection” which may come, and that is the perfection of a vaster knowledge than that of Oceanus. Yet even that perfection Mnemosyne already possesses.
Apollo, Only a Golden Voice and No More in Books I and II
Mnemosyne, like Apollo himself, does not enter into the poem until Book III. She is an entirely new conception, just as Book III itself is an entirely new phase of the poem. The first two Books belong together; they were written mainly before Tom’s death. The thought of Apollo had been kept in the distance in those two Books; we know no more of him than that Clymene had heard the calling of the golden singer’s name. Clymene, giving an account of her experience, to the assembled Titans, says that she had heard a voice sweeter than all tunes, crying: “Apollo, young Apollo, themorning-bright Apollo.” Evidently, Clymene had heard Apollo’s own voice crying his own name. Apollo was just shouting in a sweet voice his own name because lie was drunk with his own lovely destiny. And that golden voice, described by Clymene, echoed amid the Titans and their cave. In the first two Books of Hyperion, Apollo is nothing more than a golden voice. Till Tom was dead, Apollo could be no more than a golden voice. What Keats was to know and to be, could not be decided till after Tom’s death; and Apollo could know only what Keats knew, and Apollo could be only what Keat, was.
Sorrow, Joy, and Sorrow Again, in the Beginning of Book III
The opening lines of Book III touch directly on Tom’s death, when Keats asks the Muse to leave the Titans to their woes and to concern itself with a “solitary sorrow” and a lonely grief. The death of Tom had undoubtedly brought great sorrow to Keats, but the ordeal through which Keats had been going had at last ended. With the death of his brother, Keats was able to breathe freely again. He had starved himself of life for his brother’s sake; now life passed into him again, and for a moment into his poem. There is a burst of new confidence in the lines where Keats calls upon all Nature to commemorate the Father of all verse, namely Apollo. Let the rose glow intense and warm the air, says Keats. Let the clouds float in voluptuous fleeces over the hills ; let the shells turn rosy through all their mysterious interiors; “let the maid blush keenly as with some warm kiss surprised” ; and let the island of Delos rejoice with its olives, poplars, palms, and beeches. All this because “Apollo is once more the golden theme.” We cannot miss the inrush of new and intoxicating life in these lines. Nothing could be a more gay prelude to he coming of Apollo. And yet, after only ten lines more, Apollo appears weeping not joyfully but in an agony of pain:
He listened and he wept, and his bright tears
Went trickling down the golden bow he held.
Nor were those tears such that any immortal could wipe them away, not even Mnemosyne.
Keats’s Frustration in Love, the Reason Behind the Sorrow
What had happened was simply this, Tom had died; Keats had entered into life again, and he had fallen in love. There had really been a moment of triumphant confidence. He had begun to pour it into his poem, but for a moment only. The rapture soon faded away because a new sorrow came to him. This sorrow came from his knowledge that he could not hope for the fulfilment of his passionate love. “The burden of the mystery” had descended upon him more terribly than ever. Morning-bright Apollo’s fleeting moment of radiance was over; and therefore he wept.
Apollo’s Encounter with Mnemosyne
To the weeping Apollo comes a stern comforter, the goddess Mnemosyne who had been guarding him, unseen by him and unknown to him. But Apollo had seen or rather felt traces of her great presence; and now, as she stands before him, he cries to her that he had seen the eternal calm of her eyes and had seen her face, adding that he had perhaps not seen her eyes and face but dreamed of them. The goddess confirms Apollo’s view that he had dreamed of her. She also says that, on waking up from his dream, he had found a lyre by his side and that the exquisite music, never heard before had come from that lyre when he had played on it. She then asks what sorrow it is which is troubling him. She gives him some idea of who she is by saying that she is an ancient power who has forsaken old and sacred thrones for his sake and for the sake of the new loveliness which he represents.
The Two Phases in Keats’s Knowledge of Mnemosyne
Who is this Mnemosyne who has forsaken the old order for the new, of whose face the young Apollo had dreamed and then woke up into a possession of a matchless power of song. In the present poem there are two phrases in Keats’s knowledge of Mnemosyne: the first is Apollo’s dream of her, by which he becomes a poet; the second is Apollo’s waking sight of her, by which his whole body is convulsed and, changed by “knowledge enormous”, he become a god. This only shows that Apollo and Keats himself are essentially the same.
The Deification of Apollo
Mnemosyne means memory; and she has forsaken the old gods to guard the new-born loveliness of Apollo. When Apollo sees her before him, he cries, in answer to her question about his sorrow, that she already knows the cause of his sorrow and that he need not tell her anything. However, he expresses his dissatisfaction with the kind of the life that he is leading, especially because he cannot comprehend the mystery of the universe. He wants to know which is the power controlling the forces of Nature. He speak of his own “aching ignorance” and he asks the goddess to tell him why he keeps raving about the groves on the island. To Apollo’s appeal in aching ignorance, Mnemosyne makes no reply. Apollo looks at her face again, and the secret is revealed to him. He reads a wonderful lesson in her silent face. In that face he reads names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions, majesties, sovereign voices, agonies, creations and destroyings. All this enormous knowledge makes a god of him; all this has the effect of deifying him. He feels as if he had drunk some bright elixir and become immortal. The poem ends with Keats’s description of the fierce convulsions through which Apollo goes and as a result of which he “dies into life.” In other words, the poem ends with the deification of Apollo. Apollo’s dreaming of Mnemosyne had made the boy Apollo a poet, a lovely and unconcious singer. But his beholding her face to face has made of him a great poet.
The Identification of Keats with Apollo
Apollo is Keats himself. In the pain of his death into life, brought upon him by what he sees in the face of Mnemosyne, he had conquered that which he had sought through the year of purgatory blind; he had conquered the lore of good and ill. For Mnemosyne’s face contains all life, past, present, and future. She is the eternal existence of the universe. She belongs to the new order as well as to the old because she is immanent and ever-lasting; she is a pure mirror of what is—agonies, creations and destroyings—and in that reflection what is revealed is what must be. And of her the boy Keats had dreamed. She was “the vast idea” he had mentioned in his early poem Sleep and Poetry. She had become “the mighty 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 made a god of him, through the pain of a death in life and a second birth.
A Symbolic Emergence of Keats as a Mature Poet
And so the first Hyperion ends. Keats has become a great and true poet. The great poet is not a mystic; he is a doer, a maker, a revealer, a creator. The continuation of Hyperion is all the later poems which Keats wrote, the few that were written and the many that he could not write on account of his premature death. Those which were written are among the very loveliest and profoundest poems in the English language. They are all the great odes, Lamia, and the second Hyperion. And they were only a beginning, and in Keats’s own opinion a very small beginning. If Keats had lived, he would certainly have equalled Shakespeare, and he might even have turned to the writing of dramas and met the great Bard on his own ground.
Hyperion’s Apprehensions, a Reflection of Keats’s Own
There is something autobiographical in Keats’s portrayal of the sun-god Hyperion also. Hyperion is represented as feeling very apprehensive about his future. He yet retains his sovereignty over his planet of the sun but, having seen certain bad omens, he has an uneasy feeling that he might be overthrown. In this state of mind he asks himself if he is going to lose this “haven” of his rest, this “cradle of his glory”, this “soft clime”, this “calm luxuriance of blissful light”. He asks himself if he is going to lose his “lucent empire”, and if he is going to bid good-bye to “the blaze, the spelendour, and the symmetry.” Now, the apprehensions and fears of Hyperion in a way reflect Keats’s own fears and anxieties. His brother Tom died in the course of his writing this poem. He had been much oppressed by his financial worries. His poem Endymion had been bitterly criticized and condemned by reviewers. His love for Fanny Brawne did not seem to be bearing any fruit. His own health had greatly deteriorated, and he was already apprehending a premature death. All these facts of his life had made him feel miserable. In the misery of the Titans, and especially in Hyperion’s misery, may be seen Keats’s own misery.