Hyperion” is an uncompleted epic poem by John Keats. It is based on the Titans and Olympians, and tells of the despair of the former after their fall to the latter. Keats wrote the poem for about one year, when he gave it up as having “too many Miltonic inversions.” He was also nursing his brother Tom, who died in January of 1819 of tuberculosis. Hyperion relates the fall of the Titans, elemental energies of the world, and their replacement by newer gods. The Olympian gods, having superior knowledge and an understanding of humanity’s suffering, are the natural successors to the Titans.
Keats’s epic begins after the battle between the Titans and the Olympian gods, with the Titans already fallen. Hyperion, the sun god, is the Titans’ only hope for further resistance. The epic’s narrative, divided into three sections, concentrates on the dethronement of Hyperion and the ascension to power of Apollo, god of sun and poetry. Book I presents Saturn fallen and about to be replaced and Hyperion threatened within his empire. The succeeding events reveals the aftermath of the situation and the Titan’s acceptance of defeat after Oceanus’ speech. In Hyperion, the quality of Keats’s blank verse reached new heights, particularly in the opening scene between Thea and the fallen Saturn:
“Deep in the shady sadness of a vale,
… Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone”
Many themes introduced in the Hyperion are identifiable as those associated with Romanticism. Hyperion, which marks the exchange of the old powers for the new, addresses ideas about poetry, beauty, knowledge, and experience. Hyperion’s dominant themes address the nature of poetry and its relationship to humanity and the sublimity of human suffering the knowledge gained through it. The narrative suggests a thematic consideration of progress, particularly toward enlightenment and depictions of beauty, even as it evokes classical ideals found in Greek mythology. Visual and verbal representations, in the use of language and of Greek sculptural forms, contribute to this exploration. Through his representation of gods, Keats’s commentary on Romantic opposites includes the real and ideal, history versus myth, finite versus infinite. The theme of truth is also prevalent. The speech of Oceanus and the ascension of Apollo both point to Hyperion’s concern with truth and its relationship with beauty, knowledge, and suffering. Truth is closely associated with knowledge and both are acquired through pain, which results from the understanding and acceptance of change and impermanence. However painful, truth is pure and beautiful, and what is beautiful is eternal. It is this honorable truth that the human spirit strives to attain. That is why Keats calls Hyperion:
“the agonies, the strife of human hearts”
The poem is tragic with most of the qualities of a tragedy. Oceanus is working as a chorus giving the poem’s moral and working as a mediator. Keats says: All I hope is that I may not lose interest in human affairs. In his later poetry, the realm of Flora and Old Pan are gone. His early poems were sensuous, but later he became aware of human sufferings. He thought that poetry of escape is not the real poetry. Real poetry deals with human beings. The function of poetry according to Keats is a friend to soothe the cares of man and lift up his thought. In the poems, gods have been given human qualities symbolizing sufferings of man. Gods are huge and Titanic, but have been given human characteristics effectively and realistically. Saturn’s misery, Thea’s stature all perfect human as exemplified in the line, ‘I have no comfort for thee, no, not one’. Keats has humanized the gods to reveal human sufferings as frther in Saturn’s speech:
“Who had power
To make me desolate? Whence came the strength?”
For Saturn, dethronement is a question of identity as Napoleon or any human being, may be Nawaz Sharif or Musharraf, could have felt. Thea’s reassurance to Saturn is a typical human activity. The suffering of Titans is the collected suffering of humanity at large. Hyperion is a militant whose spirit is dampened by danger. So Keats, unlike other poems, has human concern in this poem. The Confidence with Saturn reminds us of Duke in “My Last Duchess” by Browning as “I gave commands and all smiles stopped”. Saturn is like Milton’s Satan who doesn’t want to establish his own kingdom for sovereignty as much as to take revenge on God. So the gods are all humanized. This is also visible in the Hyperion’s apprehensions about his dethronement and mock-determinations.
“I will advance a terrible right arm
Shall scare that infant thunderer, rebel Jove”
He has seen certain omens which indicate that his downfall may be imminent. Human beings feel apprehensive when they hear a dog howling or an owl screeching; and this god is feeling apprehensive because the wings of eagles darkened his palace and because the neighing of steeds has been heard which had never been heard before “by gods or wondering men”. The omens are different no doubt, but Hyperion’s reaction to the omens is the same as that of human beings is. And just as a human being might still resolve to fight against a coming danger, so Hyperion too says that he will use his terrible right arm. He feels most restless to think of the fate which might overtake him. But his restlessness is human restlessness under the pressure of a coming danger. Just as a wealthy man is afraid lest he should become bankrupt, so Hyperion is afraid lest he should lose his ‘‘lucent empire”. Just as a wealthy man is afraid lest he should be deprived of all his gains, so Hyperion is afraid lest he should lose “the blaze, the splendour, and the symmetry”. Hyperion is at this time like a fish out of water. Ha would like to begin the day sooner than usual, but the laws of Nature do not permit him to do that. He picks up courage only when his father whispers to him from somewhere in heaven and urges him to go and join his fellow-Titans on the earth; another human activity.
Keats suffered from the two experiences of entirely different nature: imagination and reality. It is evident, then, that Keats was grappling with the problem of human suffering and with a human dilemma. He even suggests the simple formula: What cannot be cured must be endured. Human beings should face the facts squarely and calmly, and such a calm acceptance of realities shows not a defeatist mentality but a manly or even a divine frame of mind. Having arrived at this stage in his thinking, Keats went on to write the great odes in which his human concerns find a full utterance. Keats has like Apollo, acquired the tragic vision and become a great poet. Had he lived longer, he would have written even greater poetry and it would have been a poetry marked by profound thought, intense emotion, and a portrayal of the stern realities of human life.