Great Art Bad Reviews John Keats's Endymion

About John Keats's poem Endymion, a great work of art which was originally given bad reviews.


Keats's Endymion

The Work: John Keats published his epic poem Endymion in 1818, when he was only 23 years old. The poem is based on the Greek legend of the moon goddess, Cynthia, who loves a mortal, Endymion. Keats's visual, sensuous poem was a dramatic departure from the literary norms of his day. Aware that this opened him to criticism, and that the poem was not perfect, he wrote an unusual preface in which he spoke openly of Endymion's flaws.

The Critics Speak: Endymion was the butt of a critical attack so vicious that it was though to have helped kill Keats, who died three years after the poem was published. The myth was given substance by some verses in Byron's Don Juan (Byron despised Keats's writing): "John Keats, who was killed off by one critique, / Just as he really promised something great . . . 'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle, / Should let itself be snuffed out by an article."

The first shots were fired by the British Critic (after two friendly reviews had appeared in other magazines), which parodied Endymion and called its style "monstrously droll."

John Gibson Lockhart, writing under the pen name Z for Blackwood's Magazine, brought in the heavy artillery. He was 24, a year older than Keats, and dubbed by his associates "the scorpion who delighteth to sting the faces of men." Lockhart boldly made fun of Keats's "Cockney" poetry, of his background in medicine (he had trained to be an apothecary and a surgeon), and of Keats's friendship with fellow writer Leigh Hunt. He wrote of "the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity" because of "a sudden attack" of the poetry-writing bug.

"Whether Mr. John had been sent home with a diuretic or composing draught to some patient far gone in the poetical mania, we have not heard. This much is certain, that he has caught the infection. . . . For some time we were in hopes that he might get off with a violent fit or two, but of late the symptoms are terrible. The frenzy of the Poems was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of Endymion."

Lockhart concluded, "It is a better and easier thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; go back to the shop, Mr. John, back to `plasters, pills and ointment boxes.'"

The next critique was written by John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review: "Reviewers have been sometimes accused of not reading the works which they affected to criticise . . . we . . . honestly confess that we have not read his work. Not that we have been wanting in our duty . . . indeed, we have made efforts almost as superhuman as the story itself appears to be, to get through it . . . we have not been able to struggle beyond the first of the four books of which this Poetic Romance consists." Croker ended his review by asking any reader able to finish the work to write to him.

Actually, Keats bore the barrage well, saying that his own self-criticism had pained him more than his reviews. One friend did report that on his deathbed "poor Keats attributed his approaching end to the poisonous pen of Lockhart." Keats only felt this way at the end, when he knew he was dying and would never have the chance to repair his reputation.

History Speaks: Earlier, Keats had said "I think I shall be among the English poets after my death." His prophecy came true; Keats and Endymion have withstood the test of time and remained beloved gifts to the English language.

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