Hyperion By John Keats: References to Aesthetics

Categories: Plot

John Keats began writing “Hyperion” in 1818 in a time period known as the second phase of Romanticism. According to Andrew M. Stauffer, the Romantic age was one of anger and its consequences: revolution and reaction, terror and war. The Romantic age was quite possibly directly related to the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790’s. During the revolution, French citizens razed and redesigned their country’s political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutions such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system.

Romanticism swept aside the conventions of Classicism and turned for inspiration to the emotions and nature (varner). Keats’ “Hyperion” is incomplete, but it deals with many concepts, some of which are aesthetics, the reaction to change, the elements of suffering, and the effects of light and darkness. Those concepts were significant during that time period and remain relevant to this day.

The Collins dictionary says aesthetic is used to talk about beauty or art, and people’s appreciation of beautiful things.

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It is most often used to refer to visual elements, but can also be defined as a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. Amy Belfi, a postdoctoral fellow in New York University's Department of Psychology says, 'While it may seem obvious that individual taste matters in judgments of poetry, ...it seems that certain factors consistently influence how much a poem will be enjoyed.' After conducting a study, results showed that vividness of mental imagery was the best predictor of aesthetic appeal – poems that evoked greater imagery were more pleasing.

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“Hyperion” is filled with references to aesthetics. From the beginning of the poem, when we’re first introduced to Saturn, we have a clear picture of what he looks like and how he must be feeling now that he has been defeated. “Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone, Still as the silence” illustrates that Saturn is quite old and, while the stone reference may just refer to his quietness, it could also represent his stature, as stones are heavy, solid, and unyielding. In line 24, when Keats writes the simple phrase “Touch’d his wide shoulders”, one can appreciate the expansiveness of Saturn’s presence, but you can sense his helplessness and despair in line 50, “O how frail”. It’s as if at that very moment, he’s been reduced to nothing. Hyperion is described as “Blazing...on his orbed fire” which sounds harsh and severe. When he enters, Keats writes, “And like a rose in vermeil tint and shape, In fragrance soft, and coolness to the eye, That inlet to severe magnificence Stood full blown, for the God to enter in” there is a tenderness that he crosses through. The description of his palace is a brightness in a dark period of the poem, “His palace bright Bastion’d with pyramids of glowing gold, And touch’d with shade of bronzed obelisks, Glar’d a blood-red through all its thousand courts.”

During the Romantic period, beauty was associated with power. Saturn has been defeated and is no longer in command and, as his wife, Ops must be feeling his pain. Keats describes her in way that sounds dreadful and uncomplimentary, “And Ops, uplifting her black folded veil, Show’d her pale cheeks, and all her forehead wan, Her eye-brows thin and jet, and hollow eyes”. Keats depicts her in this way to express ugliness. Oceanus mentions beauty and newness multiple times in his speech -- “Found ourselves ruling new and beauteous realms”, “a power more strong in beauty”, “Above us in their beauty”. The new order is here and, not only do they have the power now, they are stronger and more beautiful than their predecessors.

In “Hyperion”, a big change has occurred. Unsurprisingly, this change is not well received by the Titans. They are miserable and in mourning since they have been defeated and exiled. “His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead, Unsceptred; and his realmless eyes were closed;” “It seemed no force could wake him from his place;” reads as if Saturn has just given up and has no fight left in him. While he is grieving, Thea comes in and says, “Why should I ope thy melancholy eyes? Saturn, sleep on! while at thy feet I weep.” They feel so overwhelmed that they are still and lifeless for quite some time. Once Saturn has woken up, he meets with the Titans to discuss fighting back, as he is angry and wants revenge. The Titans are looking for direction; naturally, they feel lost and are in need of guidance, “The Titans fierce, self-hid, or prison-bound, Groan’d for the old allegiance once more, And listen’d in sharp pain for Saturn’s voice.”

In line 124, Saturn says, “it must be ripe of progress – Saturn must be King.” This is an interesting line because Saturn was the previous king and had been dethroned. Keats implies that Saturn is in denial and cannot accept this new change. Change and progress are often substituted for one another but have very different connotations. Progress means to move forward, generally in a positive way, while change just means to become different. Oceanus is the only one who can acknowledge the progress. He gives them hope by saying “Yet listen, ye who will, whilst I bring proof How ye, perforce, must be content to stoop: And in the proof much comfort will I give, If ye will take that comfort in its truth. We fall by course of Nature’s law”. He reminds Saturn “And first, as thou wast not the first of powers, So art thou not the last; it cannot be: Thou art not the beginning nor the end.” Saturn was not the first king and he will not be the last. In order to progress, things must change.

There are many elements of suffering in “Hyperion”. The poem begins with “Deep in the shady sadness of a vale”, immediately setting the tone for the story. One can imagine this place as being very dark and desolate, lonely even. In line 42, it is said about Thea, “One hand she press’d upon that aching spot...Though an immortal, she felt cruel pain:”. With this statement, Keats depicts her suffering not just as something she is going through, but as something that she is physically feeling. We often think of immortals only as Gods and heroes - almost untouchable - however, this illustrates them in a way that makes them relatable to all of us. Starting with line 87, “The frozen God still couchant on the earth, And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet:...And all the gloom and sorrow of the place,” we can picture Saturn, this statuesque, grand figure, laying on the ground, feeling hopeless while Thea cries nearby. Their suffering almost immeasurable.

Before writing “Hyperion”, John Keats studied medicine from 1811-1816. This training and knowledge was occasionally used in his poetry. “As with a palsied tongue, and while his beard Shook horrid with such aspen-malady:” is a clear reference to Parkinson’s disease. In 1817, James Parkinson published “An Essay on the Shaking Palsy”, which established Parkinson’s as a recognized medical condition. Parkinson describes Shaking Palsy as “tremor at rest, lessened muscular power, abnormal truncal posture, and festinant, propulsive gait”. This disease is neurological and causes the body to shake, or tremor, involuntarily. The palsied tongue of Saturn is directly related to how his beard shook in a horrible way without his control. Keats did an incredible job connecting Saturn’s suffering to something the world was just beginning to understand and what we know more about today.

Keats may be using the miseries in his own short life to help portray this suffering component. When Keats was just eight years old, his father was unexpectedly killed in a tragic accident. Shortly after his father’s death, his mother abandoned him and his siblings. Upon her return a few years later, she died of tuberculosis. In 1818, when Keats began writing “Hyperion”, he was caring for his younger brother, who eventually succumbed to tuberculosis, as well. Many argue that this is the reason he left “Hyperion” unfinished. Whether that is the case or not, one cannot deny that the pain and grief he endured came through in his writing.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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Hyperion By John Keats: References to Aesthetics. (2024, Feb 22). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/hyperion-by-john-keats-references-to-aesthetics-essay

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