Re-evaluating negative criticism of ‘Endymion’

by Wendy Shreve

 

Two hundred years ago, John Gibson Lockhart, in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, reviled John Keats’s ‘Endymion’ thus:

As for Mr. Keats’s ‘Endymion’, it has just as much to do with Greece as it has with ‘old Tartary the fierce’; no man, whose mind has ever been imbued with the smallest knowledge or feeling of classical poetry or classical history, could have stooped to profane and vulgarise every association in the manner which has been adopted by this son of promise’.

Among Keats’s contemporaries, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron recognized Keats’s potential as a poet but not his execution. Years later, his mechanics in ‘Endymion’, or lack thereof, continue to be the subject of debate. What’s more, in the context of the early 19th century, education, class and/or political affiliation (Keats’s Tory sympathies had been well-known) often affected reviewers’ judgment. For example, Lockhart’s vitriol continued: “Mr Keats has adopted the loose, nerveless versification, and Cockney rhyme of the poet of Rimini”. Nor did it help that Keats undermined his own credibility by publicly acknowledging ‘Endymion’ should not have been published. In essence, the odds were stacked against him.

Given the period, when ‘Mad’ King George III’s reign had begun to wane and the upstart colonies had emerged victorious, the negative criticism could also have come from the strenuous objection to the racial overtones in ‘Endymion’ Book IV. Endymion, the shepherd king and poem’s hero has spent the previous three books lamenting his love and loss of the moon goddess and poetic muse, Cynthia. His long journey toward reclaiming her has left Endymion without hope: “What is there in thee, Moon! that shouldst move/My heart so potently?” (Book III). In Book IV however, he meets a mortal woman with whom he falls in love: “My sweetest Indian, here, /Here, will I kneel, for thou redeemest hast/My life from too thin breathing…”.

There are several references to this woman’s cultural heritage, which must have rattled those who considered interracial love taboo. How must the gentry, including the nouveau noble, Lord Byron, have responded to such an overt description? (By contrast, Lord Byron’s lyrical work, Hebrew Melodies of 1815, later set to Isaac Nathan’s songs, was well-received by conservative pundits, though the Jewish connection would be suppressed by future publishers.) Keats extricates himself from these treacherous waters when, during the dénouement at the end of the poem, the Indian woman is revealed to be Cynthia in disguise. Yet, even the suggestion of such a relationship would have sparked controversy, given the fact that mythological figures were conventionally depicted as white-skinned:

The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis
Jacques-Louis David, 1818

 

Is this a revisionist viewpoint? I think not; the British colonies were a means to an end—trade, commerce, wealth, imperial dominance—but to accept actual intermingling with the indigenous people would be tantamount to treason, and would continue to be so into the 20th century. For example, during the waning days of Queen Victoria’s reign, her friendship with an Indian-Muslim attendant, Abdul Karim, would evoke outrage.

The greatness of ‘Endymion’ lies in Keats’s willingness to experiment, and make a radical departure from poetic convention by his choice of heroine. Some contemporary critics lambasted the poetical mechanics and the verbiage, but others – including Byron – realized that the poem was challenging both the subjective and technical boundaries of verse. How sublime, then, that in ‘Endymion’ John Keats’s Shepherd King exemplified Romantic ideals—a reverence for love, the individual, as well as beauty in all its colours.

 

My Indian Bliss!
My river-lily bud! one human kiss! (Book IV)
‘Golpa Ma’ watercolor – Rare Books of India

 

 

Writer Wendy Shreve graduated from Smith College and received her Master’s Degree in English at the University of Montana. Her poetry, short stories, novels and articles have been published on-line as well as in print. Wendy’s film blog, www.featuringfilm.com, has a local, national and international following.