The first book of “Endymion” by John Keats consists of three stanzas which can be split into smaller sections for simpler analysis. The poem is constructed with a consistent and ever-present rhyme scheme of aabbccddee… etc. This rhyme scheme was chosen by Keats in order to sustain a sense of forwarding momentum in the poem. The pattern carries the reader from one line to the next as they become accustomed to what will come next.
“Endymion” is named for the Aeolian shepherd and king of Elis in Greek mythology. He was said to rule at Olympia and is best known for the love he bares Selene, the moon. This had led to many, including Pliny the Elder, to cast Endymion as an astronomer or at least as one who is quite familiar with celestial movements.
In the mythological account of the life of Endymion, he asks for, and is given eternal life. This blessing, and curse, is only possible if he remains in perpetual sleep. In this state his lover, Selene, the Titan goddess of the moon, is able to visit him forever. Together they bare 50 daughters.
The poem begins with the speaker describing at length the power he believes that beauty holds over human life. He sees it as being a guiding force that, when accepted and appreciated, enters into one’s heart and helps to clear one’s path through life. Once one fully knows beauty, it will never leave. It transforms the onlooker into a beautiful object.
The second half of the poem tells of the speaker’s plan to tell the long story of Endymion, a character from Greek mythology. He announces his intentions, primes the audience for a long story, and sends out a “herald” to tell the world what is about to happen.
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Analysis of Endymion: Book One
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,
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker is introducing the aspects of life and beauty that he is going to be discussing in-depth in the following stanzas and books. One must keep in mind the story of Endymion, and the immortal sleep into which he embarks. The first line of this piece is quite well-known and begins, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.” This is clearly related to Endymion’s beautiful immortality, but it has been taken down to a more human level. The speaker believes that if something is beautiful, it gives off a “joy” that will exist throughout time. There is no end to the “increase” of “loveliness” that will arise alongside the beauty.
The sheer fact of the thing’s beauty will keep it from slipping into “nothingness.” Beauty provides it with immortality but it does not alienate it from the human world. It will still be there for those who need it, “keep[ing] / A bower quiet” and ready. This place of rest will provide one with sweet dreams as well as health. It is rejuvenating.
The final lines of this section speak on how the beauty will take one into the “morrow” and when one awakens they will have made, through their sleep alongside beauty, a “band to bind us to the earth.” The more time one spends with beautiful things, the closer one becomes to the earth. There is nothing that can stop this from happening, no “despondence” or absence of “noble natures.” All of humankind has access to beauty.
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:
Amongst the darkest days of life beauty will be there to lift away “unhealthy” thoughts. It will be like a guide through one’s life that provides a way out of “dark spirits” and shows on a brighter path as if guided by the sun.
Along the path, that beauty makes there are, “Trees old and young” that create “shady” spots for “sheep…and…daffodils” to live. The world is made lovely, liveable, and worthwhile because of the beauty that inhabits it. The plants that thrive on beauty are able to create “for themselves” a “cooling covert” that protects them from the “hot season.”
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.
The powerful world that the speaker just described is now juxtaposed with the world that “We have imagined for the mighty dead.” The world of the living is just as impressive as that of the dead. They are similar in their elaborate complications and grand landscapes.
The speaker continues to describe the way that beauty is able to move through life. One such way is through the “tales that we have heard or read.” These stories are passed from person to person and their “lov[liness]” is maintained.
Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;
They always must be with us, or we die.
In the shortest stanza of Book One, the speaker emphasizes the long-lasting impact that beauty and loveliness have on one’s life through “immortal drink.” When one has had the drink of beauty the feelings do not soon wear off. The world that one once saw as beautiful around them, enters into one’s body. They become the beauty they once observed.
One becomes “bound” by “cheering life” and “glories infinite.” They stay with one no matter what life brings. They will always be there until the day that one dies.
Therefore, ’tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion.
The very music of the name has gone
Into my being, and each pleasant scene
Is growing fresh before me as the green
Of our own valleys: so I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din;
Now while the early budders are just new,
And run in mazes of the youngest hue
About old forests; while the willow trails
Its delicate amber; and the dairy pails
Bring home increase of milk. And, as the year
It is in the third stanza that the speaker first mentions Endymion and the story that he is planning on telling. Now that he has laid out his beliefs about the beauty he is ready to enter into the main theme of his narrative. He announces to his readers that he will “trace the story of Endymion.” He has been inspired to do so because Endymion’s name seems to have gone “Into [his] being.” Endymion’s story has become his own and provides him with “pleasant scenes.”
The speaker has found a peaceful state of mind, a task that was not easy, he is now ready to tell his story. Not only is his mind at peace, but the world around him also seems to have found a place to pause for a moment. Nothing is out of place or in danger.
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I’ll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours,
With streams that deepen freshly into bowers.
Many and many a verse I hope to write,
Before the daisies, vermeil rimm’d and white,
Hide in deep herbage; and ere yet the bees
Hum about globes of clover and sweet peas,
I must be near the middle of my story.
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary,
See it half finish’d: but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end.
This landscape in which he is going to tell his tale will be like a lake on which he is navigating with his “little boat.” He declares his intention to sail for a while and tell “Many and many a verse” to his listeners. He knows that his tale is going to take a long time (preparing the reader for the length of the poem) so he sets a goal. He must be at the middle of the story by the time that “globes of clover and sweet peas” hum with bees. The speaker’s goal is to be done with his story by the time that autumn comes. He fears dragging it out so long that it is the “wintry season” before he is done.
And now, at once adventuresome, I send
My herald thought into a wilderness:
There let its trumpet blow, and quickly dress
My uncertain path with green, that I may speed
Easily onward, thorough flowers and weed.
In the final five lines of this section of “Endymion” the speaker tells of his metaphorical “herald” who he will send out to announce his intentions. The herald will be responsible for telling everyone of the “adventure” that is about to be undertaken. After this has been done, the speaker is ready to begin “Easily onward, through flowers and weeds.” He knows the path will not be without challenges and he is ready to face them.