Description

This is the first edition of John Keats’s long, mythological poem Endymion: A Poetic Romance. It begins with an inscription to the memory of Thomas Chatterton, a preface, and a misquoted motto from Shakespeare’s sonnets.

What is it about, and what are its sources? 

In a letter to his brother George, Keats described the poem as ‘a text, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention ... by which I must make 4000 lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with poetry’; as he notes in the preface, he considered it an apprentice work. This ‘circumstance’ was the story of Endymion, a Greek Shepherd. Keats drew on classical dictionaries by Tooke and Lemprière for information; the latter explains that

The fable ... arises from [Endymion’s] knowledge of astronomy, and as he passed the night on some high mountain, to observe the moon, it has been reported that he was courted by the moon. 

Other literary accounts of the myth include those by John Lyly (1588) and Michael Drayton (1595). 

When was it written? 

Keats began the poem in 1817, and revised its four books in 1818 on the basis of a monthly cycle, forwarding each corrected book to his publisher at the full moon. 

How was it received? 

Particularly because of its presumptions to the educated territory of classical myth, it was savagely attacked in the press, notably by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. Later critics such as Andrew Motion have argued that its youthful ‘waywardness’ is ‘its greatest triumph’, and its opening lines would become some of the most famous in the English language.

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