• Daniel Ethan Finneran

John Keats - Endymion - Preface To Podcast

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

Two brief, prefatory notes were written by John Keats for the purpose of introducing the greatest of his longer works, Endymion. One was kept, one rejected. The latter included the following, portentous line: “So this poem (Endymion) must rather be considered as an endeavor than a thing accomplished; a poor prologue to what, if I live, I humbly hope to do”.

In this line, there’s a single phrase on which one can’t but linger, to which, having been apprised of the poet’s sad fate, and informed of all his unrealized dreams, he’s compelled time and again to return. He does so with downcast eyes, with two pensive globes about whose corners pooling tears begin to gather. It is, If I live. For Keats—all but twenty-two years of age at the time of Endymion’s writing—was foredoomed by some higher power, sentenced by some jealous god, not to live very much longer beyond this given date. His sole condition, then, would not be met. He would hardly make it to the vernal noontide, to the happiest season, of his second decade of life.

Within three years of writing this foreboding preface, Keats would be dead. At the youthful age of twenty-five, having suffered for months the ravages of tubercular disease—the great respiratory peril with which so many Europeans were infected—the boyish poet would die. Deprived of his breath, and racked by the contagion, Keats could do little else than gasp for the small amount of air that remained to him. His failing lungs, in their desperate search for renewed inflation, no sooner crumbled than collapsed. Shorn of his oxygen, and depleted of his strength, within a short period of time, Keats succumbed to the terrible blight.

There, in the tranquil clime of Rome, so congenial to the pure, classicist’s spirit, Keats died of the horrible affliction. It was a fitting scene for so dreamy a scholar, an apt place to die for a writer whose works were populated by nearly every Latin or Grecian myth.

If, in his preface, Keats foresaw his own fate, he didn’t much pursue the matter. Instead, he took the opportunity to dedicate his work to a one Thomas Chatterton. Unknown to all but the most studious of English scholars, Chatterton—as a consequence of his death—had succeeded in cultivating a small but devout following. His, like Keats’, was a sad but short life, whose upshot was to be the unfelt joy of posthumous fame.

Chatterton, fatherless and impecunious, was very poorly suited for a literary career. He hadn’t adequate means by which to support himself, much less the disposable income required for the acquisition of more books. Still, somehow, Chatterton was able to come into possession of enough texts to round off what was a painfully informal and sparse education. That, along with his remarkable native genius, allowed him to develop a unique and precocious literary voice.

His uncle gave him a stack of old parchments upon which, in the dank cellar of a Bristol church, mounds of dust and mildew had likely settled. Chatterton, undeterred by their reeking stench, devoured them entire. They were works preserved from the Medieval Age, an era largely untouched by contemporary thinkers and neglected by modern artists. He thus set out to create a series of poems ascribed to a one Thomas Rowley, a fifteenth-century monk born of his own imagination.

The works were good, but proved commercially unviable. Many critics, including the renowned and polymathic Horace Walpole, had suspected the young writer of crafting forgeries—an accusation to which Chatterton hadn’t a convincing response. Marked as a plagiarist, and thus, as a scoundrel, Chatterton struggled thereafter to find buyers of his work. When, on occasion, he did so and was paid, the amount was so paltry, that he couldn’t even buy himself bread.

Despondent and ashamed, destitute and weary, Chatterton decided to perform one final act of self-violence. With whatever money remained to him, he purchased a vial of arsenic. After writing a valedictory poem, a farewell couplet whose final lines read, “Have mercy, Heaven! When here I cease to live; and this last act of wretchedness forgive”, the poet consumed to the dregs the toxic drink. Within moments, the mortal tincture took its effect. He died precisely where he sat, and, when later found, was buried in a pauper’s grave. He was seventeen years, and nine months of age.

He was also now a celebrity for the younger half of the Romantic generation. To its irreligious members, his suicide was the kind of apotheosis in which they were only too eager to believe. Chatterton, like Caesar before him, was now raised up to live in the society of the gods. In the rapt opinion of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, Chatterton had left behind his fleshy corpse, only to ascended to the level of diviner beings.

None thought so more than Keats, to whom Chatterton was, at this point, a tragic idol. Aside from dedicating his Endymion to the suicidal teen, he wrote an elegiac poem entitled, Oh Chatterton! How very sad thy fate! (from which I quote: “How soon that voice, majestic, and elate; melted in dying murmurs! O how nigh; Was night to thy fair Morning! Thou didst die’ a half-blown flower, which cold blasts amate”). And so, along with this short fourteen-line poem, Endymion was inscribed to him.

Endymion, unlike Paris, Narcissus, Oedipus, or Agamemnon, isn’t a character with whom we’re very intimately familiar. He was a shepherd of Caria, a city located outside Miletus on Anatolia’s southwest coast. As is the tendency of every lad in his profession, he was handsome beyond compare. He grew strong in the bleating company of his sheep, and brawny as a consequence of his daily exertions. The sun bronzed his skin, and the flowers perfumed his hair. Yet, to the unrelieved frustration of his would-be lovers, he remained stubbornly chaste. He was unsusceptible to the intrigues of the lusty maidens, from whom he received many an amorous eye. He was immune to the encroachment of their passionate zeal, at least until the fall of night.

It was then, when the sky exchanged the light of one celestial globe for that of another, that Endymion’s walls were to be breached. As he slept atop the summit of Mount Latmos, the goddess Selene (or Diana, or, in Keats’ work, Cynthia) took the occasion to visit the dashing, slumberous youth. Desirous to preserve for eternity his peerless beauty, she asked Zeus to maintain Endymion in that restful, immaculate state. Olympus’ thunderous monarch agreed, and promptly granted the lunar goddess her prurient wish. Suddenly deprived of the ability to consent, Endymion became the father of Selene’s fifty-fold brood.

I leave it now to Keats to expand on this peculiar story...

From the text:

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness; but still will keep a bower quiet for us, and a sleep full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing”. Indeed, forever joyous is that beautiful thing—its fair image upon the Grecian urn so fitly stamped. For beauty knows not death, nor feels the whips and scorns of time. It fears not the slings and shocks to which flesh is heir, nor the pangs of love denied. It cannot fade; it cannot be but young, for “beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.

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