Characteristics of an Epic Poem
An epic is a long narrative poem with a lofty theme treated in a lofty style. An epic generally deals with the mighty deeds of heroes, be they men or gods or both. An epic Is always written in the same metre throughout. The subject of an epic poem may be some well-known legend or some momentous sequence of historical events. An epic poem portrays characters on a grand scale. An epic is written in a grand style. An epic has a grand underlying idea. Thus grandeur is the keynote of an epic poem. Some of the best-known epic poems in western literature are the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, and the Divine Comedy by Dante. (In Indian literature the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are outstanding examples of epic poetry recognized by the whole world).
The Subject of Keats’s Epic Poem “Hyperion”
Keats intended his Hyperion to be an epic poem. It was originally meant to be an epic in ten or twelve books. Keats’s purpose was to describe the warfare of the earlier Titanic dynasty with the later Olympian dynasty of Greek gods and, in particular, one episode of that warfare, namely the dethronement of the sun-god Hyperion by a younger god called Apollo. The theme of the war between the Titans and the Olympians who overthrew the former often occurs in the literature which Keats was fond of reading. The specific theme, namely the dethronement of Hyperion, the old sun-god, by Apollo, the new god, is Keats’s own. Apollo is also the god of poetry, and so the story of Apollo and Hyperion was perhaps going to. symbolize the fate of the poet as a creator. Since the poem is unfinished, we cannot be sure. In any case, it is obvious that Keats’s poem has a lofty theme.
Very Little Action in This Epic Poem
An epic poem abounds in heroic actions. However, there is a dearth of action in Hyperion. The reason for this dearth is that, when the poem begins, the Titans have already been defeated by the Olympians. In other words, the main action of the story has already taken place. Perhaps, if Keats had continued with the poem, he would have narrated some of the major episodes in the warfare retrospectively. But as the poem stands, there is some talk of heroic action, especially by Enceladus and Hyperion himself, but there is actually little of such action in the poem. (The material for the poem has been drawn from Greek mythology, a knowledge of which was derived by Keats from various sources.)
The Characters in The Poem: Saturn
As already indicated, an epic poem has an exalted theme treated in an exalted style, but the portrayal of characters is perhaps even more important. The characters must be heroic beings. They may be men or gods, or both. Hyperion deals only with gods. There is, to be sure, one human being: namely Apollo, but he has a divine origin; and, what is more, he is deified in the poem, thus becoming a. god (who will challenge the sovereignty of Hyperion). The leading characters in Keats’s poem are Saturn, Thea, Hyperion, Oceanus, Enceladus, Clymene, Mnemosyne, and Apollo. Keats’s portrayal of these characters is certainly very impressive, even though most of the gods including a few from this list are suffering from a deep depression of spirits on account of the defeat which they have suffered at the hands of the Olympians. We meet Saturn in the very opening lines where he is hardly depicted as a heroic figure. Saturn is described as sitting in a valley, silent and motionless, with “his old right hand” lying on the ground “nerveless, listless, .dead, and unsceptred”. Subsequently also he produces as impression, more of weakness and helplessness than of heroism. In reply to Thea’s speech, for instance, he laments the defeat of the Titans in language which arouses our sympathy rather than admiration. Later still, we find him experiencing all those emotions which would become a human being more than an immortal god who had been the chief ruler of the universe. The ex-ruler of the universe is described as experiencing such emotions as grief, rage, fear, anxiety, but most of all despair. It seems that Fate has poured a mortal oil upon his head and deprived him of his god-like qualities and attributes. In spite of all this, the figure of Saturn does create an impression of hugeness and vastness. His very lament over the loss of his empire conveys to us some idea of his past glory.
The portrayal of Thea produces a slightly more favourable impression. Her very size and stature give rise to a feeling of awe in our hearts. The tall Amazon, we are told, would have looked like a pigmy by the side of this goddess. Thea would have seized Achilles by the hair and twisted his neck. She could have, with one finger, brought to a stop the ever-revolving Ixion’s wheel. Her face was as large as that of Memphian Sphinx pedestalled in an Egyptian palace. Her face could be called beautiful if the expression of sorrow on it had not seemed to be even more beautiful than the face. She has one hand upon her heart as if she were feeling a cruel pain even though she is an immortal.
Of Oceanus we are not given any physical description, but he emerges as one of the most impressive figures in the poem. He is a sage and a philosopher. The defeat of the Titans has not made him despondent. He has been able to reconcile himself to the defeat by his cogitation, contemplation, and musing, so that there is an expression of “severe content” on his face. He tries his utmost to provide comfort to the grief-stricken gods and goddesses by his philosophy. His discourse is one of the grandest passages in the whole poem. It is, indeed, a memorable exhortation, pregnant with wisdom. His heroism lies in this capacity to explain and justify the defeat which the Titans have suffered at the hands of the younger gods. It is his great intellect and his deep wisdom which make a hero of him in our eyes.
Enceladus is another striking character in the poem. He was once tame and mild like an ox grazing calmly in a pasture. But at this time he is tiger-passioned, lion-thoughted, and wroth. In his imagination he is hurling mountains at his opponents in the second war which is yet to come. Oceanus’s exhortation produces no effect at all on this fearless giant. He dismisses the counsel offered by Oceanus as of no account at all. He addresses Oceanus as “thou, sham monarch of the waves”, and reminds him of the scalding which Oceanus had received during the war. Enceladus’s view is that the Titans must not lose heart because of their defeat but should get ready to fight again in order “to stifle that puny essence in its tent” (that is, to destroy the power of Jove who, in the eyes of Enceladus, is a puny or insignificant being as compared to the older gods). Enceladus’s defiance reminds us of Satan’s in Paradise Lost.
Another character who wins our sympathy and even our admiration is Clymene. She is a modest goddess who speaks somewhat shyly and timidly but who strikes us as an admirable being by virtue of her sensitive and artistic temperament. She is fond of singing and playing on musical instruments. When she suddenly hears a new kinds of music, which comes to her from an island in the sea, she feels enchanted and bewitched. Although she tries to run away from that music, she is chased by a voice which keeps shouting the name of Apollo. Evidently, Clymene has felt completely overwhelmed by the sweetness of this new music the like of which had never been heard before.
Mnemosyne is another unforgettable character. It is she who confers godhood on Apollo. She has appeared to him in a dream, and she had placed by his side a golden lyre from the strings of which he was able to produce unprecedented music. It is by looking at her face that Apollo undergoes a transformation and “dies into life.” In her face he reads a wondrous lesson; there he reads names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions, majesties, sovran voices, creations and destroyings, all at once. She personifies the past, the present, and even the future. She is undoubtedly a grand figure in the poem.
However, it is the portrayal of Hyperion which stirs in us feelings of awe, terror, admiration, and sympathy. Keats devotes plenty of space to a portrayal of Hyperion. Hyperion still retains his sovereignty, his rule, and his majesty. Blazing Hyperion sits on his “orbed fire”, inhaling the incense sent up from man to the sun’s god. He paces from hill to hill with “stride colossal”. Entering his palace, he gives a roar which scares away the Hours. On he flares from vault to vault till he reaches the gate of the central dome where he stamps his foot fiercely. And yet, despite all this show of strength, the great sun-god is experiencing fear and apprehension lest he too should be dethroned. However, he takes heart when Father Uranus speaks to him in a whisper from heaven, urging him to rise above his fears and to go down to the earth in order to give whatever comfort and help he can to the defeated Titans. If Keats had continued the poem, he would have surely depicted Hyperion in action against Apollo, waging a mighty though losing battle against the younger god.
A Grand Idea Behind the Poem: Evolutionary Progress
There is thus no doubt at all that the characters in this poem have been drawn on a grand scale and are worthy of an epic. We then come to the idea behind the poem. As already pointed out, this idea too is grand. In fact, there are two grand ideas behind the poem. One is to be found in the speech of Oceanus who urges the defeated Titans to accept their defeat with a good grace. He explains to them that evolution is the law of nature, and that no one can govern the universe for all time. He says that just as chaos and darkness had given way to light and life, and just as Heaven and Earth had been conquered by Saturn and his fellow-Titans, so the Titans must now accept their dethronement by the Olympians as an essential and inevitable part of the scheme of things. Saturn was not the first and he cannot be the last of powers. “So on our heels a fresh perfection treads”, he says. Those who have conquered the Titans will themselves be conquered one day by some other gods. We may define the principle underlying the speech of Oceanus as evolutionary progress or as revolutionary development (coup d’etat). We can also regard his speech as advocating the ideal of beauty. Perhaps the most important lines in this speech are:
for ‘tis the eternal law
That first in beauty should be first in might.
That first in beauty should be first in might.
From this point of view Hyperion may be regarded as an epic of beauty’s triumph.
The Other Grand Idea: A Knowledge of the Past
The other grand of idea underlying this poem is that a poet can attain the height of his powers only if he comes into close contact with the stern and stark realities of human life. A poet must not live in an ivory tower. Apollo has been experiencing a vague sorrow. His sorrow has been a source of great perplexity to him because he cannot understand what is tormenting him. There are several questions which he puts to Mnemosyne, and he receives an answer simply by looking at her face more closely. From her face he derives enormous knowledge which makes a god of him. What is this knowledge which he obtains? This is knowledge of the entire history of mankind. Apollo’s attaining this knowledge means that he has become fully acquainted with the sorrows, sufferings, agonies, and the tumults of the life of mankind. It is his acquisition of this knowledge which transforms Apollo into a god. In symbolic terms, the transformation of Apollo into a god means that the poet Keats has attained ripeness and maturity. So far Keats had only been theoretically talking about the strife and the agonies of the human heart; but now he has come into a direct contact with those aspects, of human life. Like Apollo, Keats now “dies into life”.
Certain Other Features of an Epic in “Hyperion”
Then there are certain other features of this poem which give it the character of an epic. There is an invocation to the Muse at the beginning of Book III. Invocations are generally a part of the machinery of an epic poem. Then there is a long passage in which the various gods and goddesses are named and briefly described and individualized. This passage reminds us of the catalogue of warships in Homer’s Iliad. The description of the fallen Titans in this poem reminds us of the description of the fallen angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The conference of the Titans is akin to the conference of the angels in that poem. Enceladus, like Moloch in Paradise Lost, urges open war; while Oceanus, like Belial in Paradise Lost, stands for more moderate measures. And there are several other points of contact between this poem and Paradise Lost. Besides, Keats’s poem moves within all the three worlds. The fallen Titans are hiding in a cave, that is, in the under-world; Hyperion is described as still ruling his planet of the sun in the sky; while Apollo is described as dwelling on an island in this world.
Another important feature of Hyperion is the use of epic similes by Keats. A famous simile is the one found in the passage which describes the tall oak trees dreaming all night without a stir. Thea’s words to Saturn came and went like a gust of wind blowing suddenly through those oak trees which are regarded by the poet as “green-robed senators of mighty robes”. Another epic smile is found in the passage where the noise heard from the immortals when a god proceeds to make a speech is compared to “the roar of bleak-grown pines”.
In Praise of “Hyperion”
Hyperion has received some glowing tributes from poets and critics. Byron said: ‘‘Hyperion seems actually inspired by the Titans and is as sublime as Aeschylus.” Shelley said: “If Hyperion be not grand poetry, none has been produced by our contemporaries.” Cazamian writes: “Hyperion is an epic poem in which Keats, competing with Milton on a footing of equality, set out to relate the celestial revolutions of pagan mythology, as did Milton the Christian cycle of a paradise lost and regained. Scarcely outlined as it is, already arresting by the vastness of conception which it promises by its visions of a gigantic and primitive world, this work stands out in wondrous majesty.” Another critic describes it as “one of the grandest poems in our language and in its grandeur one of the most spontaneous”. According to yet another critic “no English poem of any” length since Milton—complete or fragmentary—begins with a more majestic sureness of phrase than Hyperion.”
A Fault of Structure
All this does not, however, mean that Hyperion is a perfect poem. It suffers from several imperfections and faults. In the first place, there is a fault in the structure. The first two books of the poem certainly form one compact unit. Here the poet sticks to the main line of the story. There is no digression, and no deviation from the chief concern of the poem. Every single line is relevant to the theme. But Book III marks a sudden and unexpected departure from the subject, thus giving a jolt to our minds. Book III has not been integrated with the first two books of the poem as it stands. Of course, if Keats have gone on with the poem and completed it, Book III would too have fallen into its proper place. In that case, Keats would have picked up the thread of the story where he left off at the end of Book II and, after describing some of the main episodes of the war between the Titans and the Olympians retrospectively, he would have depicted the conflict between Hyperion and the newly-deified Apollo, leading to Hyperion’s defeat. But as it is, the reader cannot see any connection between the first two books and the third. There is thus a discontinuity.
Too Much of the Miltonic Influence, Another Fault
Another fault of the poem is an excess of the Miltonic influence. The Miltonic influence is certainly not altogether a fault because it is responsible for much of the majesty and grandeur of the poem; but too much of the Miltonic influence is certainly a flaw. Keats himself realized this and said that he had abandoned the poem because there were too many Miltonic inversions in it and because he could not write in Milton’s artful humour.
Lack of Action
There is a lack of action in the poem. An epic deals with mighty deeds. But no mighty deeds are performed in Hyperion as the poem stands. The mighty deeds lie either in the past or in the future but none in the present poem. There are certainly some dramatic situations such as Clymene’s experience and Apollo’s deification, but no heroic actions. This too is a weakness in the poem. Besides, the epic strain of the first two books gives way to a lyrical note in the third. This too is a flaw.
Other Faults, As Pointed Out by a Critic
At least one critic raises certain fundamental objections to the poem. According to him, the poem begins with a premature sense of an ending. The poem emerges into a scene of inaction, immobility, and silence. From the very beginning, then, Keats’s epic threatens to collapse under an impossible contradiction. How can a narrative move beyond its origin when that origin is itself both beginng and end. This critic also says that Keats portrays Saturn merely as a great fragment. “Farest on forest” hung above Saturn’s head; Saturn’s old right hand lay nerveless and listless; Saturn’s realmless eyes were closed; and Saturn’s head was bowed. Saturn is thus a thing of fragments: parts of him are magnified, but never, the whole. This critic further says that the state of spechlessness depicted at the beginning of the poem extends to the Titans themselves. The poem produces an impression not of an Aeschylean sublimity of style but the sublime immobility of death. However, it is not possible for us to agree with much of this criticism.