A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever by John Keats

In Greek mythology – a vast component of Romantic-era education – the Aeolian shepherd Endymion, who resided in Olympia, attracted the attention of the Titan goddess Selene, of the moon. So enamored was she of the mortal that she asked Zeus to make him immortal, so that he would never leave her as mortals did when they died. Zeus decides to grant her wish, and puts him into an eternal sleep, which allow Selene to visit him every night. The subject of the story of Endymion has gone through a few variations over the years, but it was on this that John Keats based his 1818 poem, Endymion.

 

Summary of A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

Although panned by critics, Keats himself was fond of Endymion, and saw it as a necessary evil: for him to progress through the literary pantheon, and to become acquainted with great writing, he had to write a variety of things that critics did not enjoy. What he did, in hindsight, regret, was making Endymion public.

Critic John Wilson Croker, in the 1818 edition of The Quarterly Review, wrote, ‘Reviewers have been sometimes accused of not reading the works which they affected to criticise. On the present occasion we shall anticipate the author’s complaint, and honestly confess that we have not read [Endymion: A Poetic Romance]. Not that we have been wanting in our duty – far from it – indeed, we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it; but with the fullest stretch of our perseverance, we are forced to confess that we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books of which this Poetic Romance consists. We should extremely lament this want of energy, or whatever it may be, on our parts, were it not for one consolation – namely, that we are no better acquainted with the meaning of the book through which we have so painfully toiled, than we are with that of the three which we have not looked into.

It is not that Mr Keats, (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his sense would put his real name to such a rhapsody,) it is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius – he has all these; but he is unhappily a disciple of the new school of what has been somewhere called Cockney poetry; which may be defined to consist of the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language….’

Suffice it to say, critics were pleasantly surprised by Keats’ more famous Odes.

 

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever Analysis

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.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Of the entire book of Endymion, it is the first stanza, and in particular, the first line, that draws the most attention from scholars and critics alike. A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever, it starts, a phrase that has since been immortalized in English parlance, and it goes on to explain that, without beautiful things, the world is a grim, dark place, despondent and full of misery. It is beauty, ultimately, that makes the world go round, or at least it did for Keats and many of the Romantics (Wordsworth was another nature fanatic who was obsessed with the idea of sublime beauty). ‘Some shape of beauty’, Keats writes, ‘moves away the pall’.

Ultimately, the full epic is based on the tale of Endymion, whose beauty was of such joy to Selene that it immortalized him for the rest of his days. Likewise, Keats feels as though the beauty of the world immortalizes itself, and us, in some small way. He goes on to describe this sublime beauty:

With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:

Spinning forward an image of ripe flowers and greenery, Keats pulls the reader of Endymion in, perhaps without the subtlety of his later Odes, but with such a delicate touch that it is almost impossible to resist thinking about beauty the way that he refers to it. To Keats, all such beauty – even stories, and the ‘grandeur of the dooms /we have imagined for the mighty dead’ – leads to immortality. Endymion is thus a reflection of this: of how lovely things grow more beautiful by the passing years, and how nature, and its beauty, keeps human beings happy and satisfied on this earth above all other people. Life, although full of problems, provides us with nature to lose ourselves in when we need it.

 

Historical Background

The term ‘Cockney school of poetry’ arose from a particularly harsh review in Blackburn’s Edinburgh review, which stated ‘ his school has not, I believe, as yet received any name; but if I may be permitted to have the honour of christening it, it may henceforth be referred to by the designation of The Cockney School. Its chief Doctor and Professor is Mr Leigh Hunt, a man certainly of some talents, of extravagant pretensions both in wit, poetry, and politics, and withal of exquisitely bad taste, and extremely vulgar modes of thinking and manners in all respects. He is a man of little education. He knows absolutely nothing of Greek, almost nothing of Latin, and his knowledge of Italian literature is confined to a few of the most popular of Petrarch’s sonnets, and an imperfect acquaintance with Ariosto, through the medium of Mr Hoole. As to the French poets, he dismisses them in the mass as a set of prim, precise, unnatural pretenders. The truth is, he is in a state of happy ignorance about them and all that they have done. He has never read Zaïre nor Phèdre. To those great German poets who have illuminated the last fifty years with a splendour to which this country has, for a long time, seen nothing comparable, Mr Hunt is an absolute stranger. Of Spanish books he has read Don Quixote (in the translation of Motteux), and some poems of Lope de Vega in the imitations of my Lord Holland. Of all the great critical writers, either of ancient or of modern times, he is utterly ignorant, excepting only Mr Jeffrey among ourselves.
With this stock of knowledge, Mr Hunt presumes to become the founder of a new school of poetry, and throws away entirely the chance which he might have had of gaining some true poetical fame, had he been less lofty in his pretensions.’

It primarily attacked the backgrounds of the poorer of the poets: Keats, Hunt, and Hazlitt. Keats was in particular mocked for his poor language; at the time, he was considered to have a low quality of writing.

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4 Comments

  1. A F September 27, 2018
    • mm Lee-James Bovey September 30, 2018
  2. BachanSingh October 5, 2019
    • mm Lee-James Bovey October 9, 2019

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