Beauty and John Keats – Endymion

Looking at the poem Endymion by John Keats (1795 – 1821)

Context – Diana, Roman goddess of hunting, chastity and the moon, (also known as Selene or Cynthia in this poem) fell in love with a mortal, the handsome shepherd Endymion. According to myth Diana used to come and kiss Endymion when he was asleep on the top of the mountain each night. Diana’s light touch partly drew Endymion from his slumber and he caught a brief glance of her. Incredulous at her beauty, he attributed it to a dream and began to prefer his dreamlike state over mundane daily routines yet he was never awake when she was present. Through her love, Endymion was granted eternal youth and timeless beauty (mainly from Wikipedia)


Endymion (Keat’s Poem of that name)


Many remember the opening lines from this 4.000 line poem, if nothing else …

From Book 1 … an extract …

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.

Also the ending lines from his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

And from Keat’s Letters of which two hundred and forty survive today. His letters cover everything from the philosophy of poetry to the joys of a juicy nectarine; his darkest depressions to the exhilaration of backpacking in Scotland . And, always, his deep love for his siblings and his Fanny Brawne.

But for interest here are some extracts from his letters involving ‘Beauty’:

On Tuesday 3 February 1818, Keats wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself — but with its subject.

How beautiful are the retired flowers! — how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway, crying out …

On Friday 27 February 1818 Keats wrote to his publisher John Taylor:

In Poetry I have a few Axioms, and you will see how far I am from their Centre.

Here is one of his axioms mentioned in this letter …

Its touches of Beauty should never be halfway thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him — shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight — but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it

Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21, ?27 December 1817 (On Negative Capability)

… the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth—Examine King Lear & you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness—The picture is larger than Christ rejected—… I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

On 23 February 1821 Keats died in Rome. A year earlier he had written to his fiancée Fanny Brawne:

‘If I should die,’ said I to myself, ‘I have left no immortal work behind me — nothing to make my friends proud of my memory — but I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember’d.’

Well, I think it great if you have a philosophy of looking for beauty in all life. A little idealistic, and a little romantic perhaps but John Keats was part of the romantic poetry movement at the time.

John Keats didn’t put much value on being remembered stating that he thought his writing was ‘on water’. But little did he know that he would be reverently remembered by his work especially on that word ‘beauty’.

I remember Something Beautiful for God a 1971 book by Malcolm Muggeridge on Mother Teresa. The book was based on a 1969 documentary on Mother Teresa (also entitled Something Beautiful for God) that Muggeridge had undertaken. A great legacy – to leave something beautiful for God.

John Keats on Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “Beauty and John Keats – Endymion

  1. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” was written in the front of every Nature Study book of every pupil of the teacher I remember as having the greatest influence on me, Mrs Slaney. She taught me at age 10/11.

    • My poetry influence … Walter de la mere’s grand daughter went to the primary school I attended … I had to recite ‘Silver’ – slowly, silently now the moon …

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