Endymion was the only long poetic work John Keats ever
completed. He wrote most of it in 1817, and finished up revisions the
next year, and it was published by Taylor and Hessey in 1818.
The poem was criticized at the time for being overly sentimental, too
in form, and for having a weak plot, which completely falls apart in
the last book. He was twenty-one years old when he wrote Endymion,
and changed a great deal over the course of 1817, which is clearly
evident in the poem.
Endymion retells the ancient Greek myth, where Endymion, a mortal,
loves the goddess Cynthia, and must go on a journey and overcome
a series of obstacles in order to win her. However, by the time Keats
was writing the last book, his own experiences were leading him in a
different direction than the myth dictates. Endymion met and fell in
love with an Indian maiden while on his quest for Cynthia, and is stricken
with guilt for betraying his goddess. The story finally ends when
Endymion abandons his quest for Cynthia, and declares his love for the
Indian maid, who then reveals that she has been Cynthia in disguise all
along, and was testing him. The ending feels horribly contrived, as Keats struggled to reconcile
his vision of Endymion's story with the myth.
Keats himself was certainly aware of the poem's weakness. He considered
rewriting the entire thing, but by that point he had moved on, and was now
considering his next epic, Hyperion. So he published Endymion
as it was, but with the following introduction:
A Poetical Romance
"The stretched metre of an antique song"
Inscribed to the memory of Thomas Chatterton
Knowing within myself the manner in which this Poem has been produced, it
is not without a feeling of regret that I make it public.
What manner I mean, will be quite clear to the reader, who must soon
perceive great inexperience, immaturity, and every error denoting
a feverish attempt, rather than a deed accomplished. The two first books,
and indeed the two last, I feel sensible are not of such completion as to
warrant their passing the press; nor should they if I thought a year's
castigation would do them any good;--it will not: the foundations are
to sandy. It is just that this youngster should die away: a sad thought
for me, if I had not some hope that while it is dwindling I may be plotting,
and fitting myself for verses fit to live.
This may be speaking too presumptuously, and may deserve a punishment: but no
feeling man will be forward to inflict it: he will leave me alone,
with the conviction that there is not a fiercer hell than the failure
in a great object. This is not written with the least atom of purpose
to forestall criticisms of course, but from the desire I have to conciliate men who are
competent to look, and who do look with a zealous eye, to the honour of
The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is
healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment,
the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted:
thence proceeds mawkishness, and all the thousand bitters which those men I speak of must
necessarily taste in going over the following pages.
I hope I have not in too late a day touched the beautiful mythology of Greece,
and dulled its brightness: for I wish to try once more, before I bid it farewell.
Teignmouth, April 10, 1818
By 1820, however, critics were starting to sing a different tune. Those
same papers that had lambasted Endymion in 1818 now declared it
the work of genius.
But Endymion is both brilliant and flawed, as any modern reader
can see. However, it retains its position of importance in spite of its flaws,
as it was Keats' largest and most significant completed work.