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John Keats

Endymion: A Poetic Romance

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1818

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Summary and Study Guide


John Keats’s first collection, Poems, came out in 1817, and he began writing Endymion (1818) shortly after the collection’s publication. Endymion is subtitled “a Poetic Romance,” which speaks to its genre: a long narrative poem reminiscent of Arthurian and other medieval romances written in verse. Keats’s poem is broken into four books, containing over 4000 lines in total. Keats dedicated Endymion to Thomas Chatterton, a poet who inspired him. William Wordsworth also inspired Keats, as did the general ideals of the British Romantic literary movement. After his death, Keats became a central figure in the British Romantic Era.

Keats based his poetic romance on the Greek myth of Endymion, a shepherd who was loved by the moon goddess. This guide covers Book 1 of Endymion. Thematically, it explores The Nature of Dreams, as well as The Importance of Beauty and Love. Endymion is also a poem with extensive symbolism, including many meanings for the moon and water.

Poet Biography

Born either October 29 or 31, 1795, John Keats was born into a family of innkeepers and hostelers (stable keepers). Keats’s family, while not poor, was not able to afford an expensive urban education for Keats and his siblings, resulting in Keats attending a local boarding school rather than one of the more prestigious institutions. While at boarding school, at eight years old, Keats’s father died in a riding accident, and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 14. The deaths of his parents saw the young man proceed directly to an apprenticeship as a surgeon, occasionally writing poetry during this period of relative independence.

Drawing on the writers he had read while a student, Keats began experimenting with modern poetic forms using classical themes, much like his literary hero Edmund Spenser. Keats’s poems had some economic success, but also faced stern critical opposition, partially a result of his lack of higher education in poetics and partially due to his desire to create untraditional poetic art. This opposition came to a head with the publishing of Endymion, which was so loathed by critics that it became the anchor for a movement opposing many young poets, Keats included.

In 1819, at the age of 24, Keats would meet Fanny Brawne, to whom he dedicated most of the latter works of his life, and to whom he sent hundreds of letters. In 1820, Keats contracted tuberculosis. He traveled to Italy with painter Joseph Severn, hoping the warmer climate would help him battle the disease. (Severn’s portrait of Keats can be viewed on Christie’s website here.) However, Keats died early in 1821. The other poets of his generation, including Percy Shelley, memorialized the young poet, and his name has become synonymous with tragic, consumptive poets to this day.

Poem Text

Keats, John. Endymion (Book 1). 1818. Academy of American Poets.


After a dedication and Preface, Book 1 of Endymion is 993 lines broken into stanzas of varying lengths. The first three stanzas are often excerpted in collections or anthologies of poetry, the first line being the most famous.

Stanza 1 begins with a description of the enduring quality of beauty. A beautiful thing is compared to a comfortable place to sleep and feel rejuvenated. This allows the speaker (who can be read as Keats himself) and the reader to feel connected to nature and continue to search for beauty even in dark days. The speaker then lists beautiful things, such as the features of nature, including celestial bodies, flora, fauna, and the changing of the seasons, as well as beautiful pieces of art, such as stories. These are heavenly blessings for the seekers of beauty.

The second stanza explains that these blessings are not temporary. The beauty of nature, such as the trees, flowers, and moon, as well as glorious deeds, are bound to readers forever. These things give happiness and life, despite the changes in weather.

In the third stanza, the speaker introduces the myth that the poem retells—the story of Endymion. The name inspires the speaker, who sees the scenes of Endymion’s story growing before him. The speaker identifies where he is writing this poem: far from the city, in the idyllic countryside. He plans to write the poem over several seasons, starting in the spring, reaching the middle in summer, and ending in the autumn. Then, the speaker announces he is beginning the journey of telling Endymion’s myth.

The fourth stanza is a description of the mountainside of Latmos, which is covered with a forest. Sheep can get lost in the recesses of the extensive forest, and shepherds do not dare to go after them in the darkest places. If the lambs wander too far, they never see their herd again. Beyond the forest are the plains where Pan’s sheep roam, a lawn, and the sky.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker describes a marble altar in the middle of the lawn. It is covered in dewy flowers. Then, the speaker describes the sun rising. Apollo illuminates the sky and the mountain. Nature’s daily changing sun is compared to Christian mass.

In the sixth stanza, children enter the lawn and surround the altar. They hear music for a moment, which fades into silence then returns to move leaves, echoing in valleys to the sea.

The seventh stanza tracks people in white clothes traveling through the forest to the altar. The speaker calls on his muse to help him describe this group of people, feeling like he can’t measure up to the great poets who came before him.

In the eighth stanza, the speaker describes people going to the altar. Young women dance in the front of the group. They are followed by shepherds, who remind the speaker of shepherds from literature, and play flutes. Next in the train of people is a priest holding a vase of wine and a basket of herbs. He is followed by more singing shepherds and other people. Endymion is holding the reins of three brown horses that pull him in a cart. The speaker describes his outfit, bugle, and spear. Endymion smiles for the crowd but has a subtle look of pining.

In the ninth stanza, a hush falls over the crowd, and they look at the altar reverently, including Endymion. The priest raises his hands and speaks to the assembled people. He describes the shepherds’ journey to the shrine on the mountain of Latmos and the natural elements of their homes. Then, he addresses the mothers and children, asking everyone to listen. The priest says their offerings to Pan could be more luxurious because the weather has been excellent and Endymion has been generous.

In Stanza 10, the priest burns offerings on the altar and pours wine into the sod for Pan. A chorus begins to sing, and their song lyrics are included in the following stanzas.

Stanza 11 is the beginning of the chorus’s song. It first describes the palace of god. Then, the song describes their god’s love of mythological creatures that live in trees (hamadryads). Next, the song describes their god listening to the music of reeds in lonely locations with poisonous plants, and how he was sad about losing the nymph Syrinx (another mythological creature). The chorus then invokes Pan by name.

The chorus’s hymn continues in Stanza 12. They describe natural elements, like turtles, trees, and bees worshiping Pan by offering up the fruits of their labor. People also offer up agricultural products, like beans and corn. Other flora and fauna join in, as well as seasons and wind.

In Stanza 13, the hymn continues. Acts of service and devotion by creatures such as fawns and satyrs are listed. Lost shepherds are returned to their paths or sent to the beach to collect shells for Pan to give to Naiads. There are also playful fights.

Stanza 14 is more of the chorus’s hymn. They describe Pan as aiding farmers with problematic rams and boars, as well as with weather and agriculture. Pan also oversees eerie sounds and opens mystical doors. The hymn asks Pan to see the worshipers.

Stanza 15 is the last stanza of the hymn. It invites Pan to the mind, and to spread an ethereal feeling in the earth. Also, Pan symbolizes immensity. He is an intersection of and located between the earth and the ocean, as well as an unknowable being. The hymn ends with the chorus declaring how they will raise their hands to their heads, bow, and shout to receive Pan.

In Stanza 16, the speaker turns to describing the crowd’s actions after the hymn. They shout, play music, and dance. The young dancers are the ancestors of the heroes of the Battle of Thermopylae. Their lively dance goes on until they are exhausted, and then some of them lay down together in the grass to begin creating the lineages of the Spartans. Others play a ring-tossing game, or watch the game, and think about the death of Hyacinthus and the fate of his killer Zephyr. Other people engage in archery, and others watch them do so, while thinking about Niobe’s tragic story.

An archer calls out, trying to lift the gloomy mood. He brings thoughts of the Argonauts, Neptune, and Apollo’s bow. Endymion sits with the priest and old shepherds who discuss various matters, like calling Vesper about weather, fate, poetry by moonlight, divinity, and Elysium. Some share their ideas about bliss in the afterlife. One talks about reuniting with a lost love, another wants to meet his child, and others want to talk with fellow huntsmen about their times on earth together. However, Endymion does not share his thoughts with the group. His eyes are closed and he is in a trance. He does not respond when other people become silent, whisper, cry, call out, or touch him. Endymion is frozen in place.

In Stanza 17, Endymion’s sister, Peona, helps him. Her touch, breath, and words bring him round, and she leads him along a path. They travel through the forest along two streams to where they reach a river. There, they board a little boat called a shallop. Peona guides it to an island that she used to visit in her childhood, and they dock in a cove.

In Stanza 18, Peona helps Endymion lay under the shade of a bower. She arranges leaves around him. Endymion sleeps and, without waking, takes Peona’s hand and puts it on his lips. The speaker describes how she stands over him in stillness and silence.

In Stanza 19, the speaker describes the power of sleep and dreams. It is filled with contradictions (paradoxes), natural elements (like the moon), and human-made elements (like palaces). This heals Endymion and he wakes up with a clearer mind. He tells Peona that he feels her love and sees her tears. These have convinced him to put aside his sadness. Endymion vows to speak from the top of the mountain, blow his horn, direct hunting dogs, make a bow, enjoy nature, and take care of the sheep. Then, he asks her to play some music on her lute.

In Stanza 20, Peona plays a song (called a lay) on her lute. The speaker describes the music, comparing it to Dryope’s song from Greek myth, and calls it Delphic, referring to the Greek oracle of Apollo. Peona suddenly tosses the lute aside and tells Endymion that he should share what mystery he learned. She asks if he has offended any gods, like Dian (also called Diana). Then, she realizes it is something more than a transgression.

In Stanza 21, Endymion replies. He wonders why she is pale and concerned, then acknowledges that his changed attitude is the cause of her concern. Endymion says his ambition exceeds the ambitions of others and this causes him grief. At sunrise, he threw his spear to mark the beginning of his hunt. Then, he describes his willingness to hunt down a vulture and a lion, as well as lose and be brought low. Now, he is willing to share his secret.

In Stanza 22, Endymion continues answering Peona. He describes a spot further down the river that is curved like a crescent moon where he watched the sun set (Apollo pulling his chariot across the horizon). There, he sees flowers blossom magically, and sits by them, wondering what caused the flowering event. He considers divine intervention, such as Morpheus’s owlets or Mercury’s rod. Then, a breeze through the poppies inspires visions of colors, light, and wings. The visions become stranger and he falls asleep.

Then, Endymion describes his dream. He looks at the Milky Way and flies through the heavens, afraid to look down, and spreads imaginary wings. The stars move away from him, and he looks at the horizon and the moon appears as clouds move. He describes the moon as beautiful and associates her with Neptune. As she moves through the sky, he follows, watching her. The moon moves into a dark tent, and when Endymion tries to look at her again, there is a descending brightness that causes him to look away.

He asks which gods made this beauty (the moon embodied as a woman) and describes her exceedingly bright blonde hair. It is braided up in a style that reveals her ears and face, which Endymion describes in detail, including her eyes, brow, cheeks, and lips. He wonders at the impossibility of her beauty, all the way down to her feet, comparing her to Venus. Then, he describes her scarf as blue with eyes, comparing it to daisies in bluebells. There’s an interjection about this being a dream within his dream, presumably from Peona, but without a dialogue tag.

Endymion continues by describing how the moon goddess approaches him. When she touches his hand, he feels faint, and compares the feeling of being in space to deep diving underwater. He travels high through space with her, then they descend to lower celestial currents that wear away at mountainsides. He becomes faint again and kisses her encircling arms. Endymion uses oxymorons, like feeling near to death while also very alive, to describe the experience. When he kisses her cheek, they descend to stand in flower beds on the mountainside, near bees and a mountain nymph (Oread).

In Stanza 23, Endymion wonders why he falls asleep in his dream. Sleep overcomes him and the moment is over. A sound wakes him up, and he is back among the poppies. It is daytime: A bird sings and the wind blows. Endymion thinks the wind carries faint goodbyes. He walks away from the spot and the world seems darker, dirtier, and full of death. For instance, the hues of flowers change. Birds seem to be demons and lead him to darkness and disappointment. However, after some time, and Peona’s intervention, he is leaving the dark feelings behind.

In Stanza 24, Endymion and Peona sit together in silence. She hesitates to speak, feeling like she would not be heard, and cries. While she would like to blame him, she cannot. Eventually, she asks if this is the only reason for his condition. Peona considers his actions strange. He used to deny it was love, but she now knows it was. She compares the death of an ill-fated dove and cold killing roses with the wounding condition of love. Peona tells Endymion to emulate the wind in a trumpet.

Then, she describes sunset—the gold, amber, and amethyst tones in what appear to be lakes, islands, horses, palaces, and towers. She loves the sunset visions, but does not let her inability to enter them ruin her waking life. Peona further discusses the nature of Morpheus and dreams. Their nature is subtle, thin, delicate, and weightless. They should not weigh on, or sicken, the waking world. Honor is more important than dreams, she argues. Endymion looks up at Peona, shamefully at first. Then, his expression changes—his eyes widen and his cheeks get some color in them.

In Stanza 25, Endymion replies. He admits he does desire acclaim among his peers, and no simple dream could steer him off course. However, he now has aspirations that extend beyond the earth. Endymion argues that happiness is found in communing with the divine. Then, he describes putting a rose petal around Peona’s finger, and placing her finger against her lips. Music is carried on the wind, and a touch frees Eolian magic. Songs emanate from graves, ghosts rave where Apollo walked, and trumpets sound on an old battleground. Also, a lullaby plays where Orpheus resided.

Endymion asks if humans feel these supernatural things. There are moments of oneness with the divine, but humans can become further entangled through friendship and love. These relationships are the most intense, and love is more intense than friendship. Love is compared to light, and the seeker first resists it, but eventually melts into it. The blending of love is compared to food: it is delicious but does not satiate. The deliciousness causes men to turn away from the world, to not interact with time and customs, as well as to not clean up the gross acts of humanity. Instead, they sleep in a heaven of love.

Endymion does not want to condemn the existence of those lovers. He thinks their love may benefit the world in some way. Lovers are compared to nightingales, who sing love songs but do not know they are controlled by night. Endymion thinks love has some purpose beyond simply the couple’s pleasure in kissing. He hypothesizes that a lack of love and affection may prevent flowers and fruit from growing, prevent fish from having scales, and prevent the earth from having different ecospheres (like rivers and forests). The list of things that may not happen in the absence of love expands to include seeds not growing on farms and music not coming out of lutes, as well as ravishment not being sweet.

In Stanza 26, Endymion continues to discuss earthly love. He concludes that if love is powerful enough to make people immortal and content while disregarding ambition, then chasing fame seems to pale in comparison. Endymion argues for the truth of love rather than just a dream, comparing dreams to flies. He would not get so wrapped up in just a dream, and he tells Peona he has questioned if it was a dream.

Endymion describes a place beyond the temple of Latona: a hollow. It is surrounded by dense branches of trees and bushes. There is a staircase leading into a well. Endymion explains that he picked flowers in this place for Peona and sat on a mossy stone in the hollow. He also would make ships out of pieces of wood, leaves, and feathers and pretend to be Neptune ruffling their waters by blowing through a reed. More recently, while love-lorn, he gazes at the shapes of the clouds reflected on the water. One day, he sees the figure of Cupid the archer and goes to look at it outside the hollow in the sky. Just as he is leaving, he sees the woman’s face from his dream in the well. His heart tries to leap out of his chest, and pull him into the well.

However, a shower of dew falls from flowers and leaves on him. The positive sensation of this keeps him from drowning, and the face in the well disappears. Endymion compares the fleeting nature of pleasure with the long-lasting nature of pain. Pain clings to him, while pleasure is slow to return. He feels more sorrowful than he did the morning after his dream among the poppies, and remains sad after that day.

Then, Endymion describes seeing the enchantment a third time. In early spring, when Peona put amber studs on his hunting cap, he felt happy for many days. However, one day, while throwing and retrieving his lance, he sends it through some young trees into a brook. The brook leads him to a cave and the water rushing against stones sounds like gurgling goodbyes. Above this is a curtain of weeds that look like they are hiding the home of a wood-nymph.

Endymion, speaking aloud, questions the nature of this grotto (watery cave) scene. He wonders if it belongs to Porserpine (Persephone), who lives in Hell part of the year, and touches the sand in the grotto. He also wonders if it is where Echo loses her wits, sleeps, and is sorrowful. Endymion tries to get her to take his vows—he weaves flower-crowns with his whispers of love and hopes Echo will carry them to his beloved. Then, he stops talking, ashamed of his melancholy. A voice responds to him, saying the cave is a secret place. Here, Echo will carry the sigh of kisses or the noise of his hand running through her hair. Hearing this, Endymion runs into the cave, and the moment is over.

Then, he addresses Peona, saying he will not smile, but he will not carry sorrow until he dies. Endymion will replace sadness with meditation, and take on a pilgrimage. Furthermore, he will stop recalling his grief and stop trying to hear the mountain wind. He will prove to his sister that he can change his life and become calm. There are visions of hope around him, but he will ignore them until they die. He asserts that he looks better, notes that the sun is setting, and thinks they might meet with some people who dwell near his cart.

In Stanza 27, Endymion rises from bed, smiles gently, and takes Peona’s hand. They get into the boat and leave the island.