Symbolism in “Hyperion” by John Keats

Symbolism in "Hyperion" by John Keats

Symbolism has great importance in literature. A word may not be as simple as it seems. It may have more than one meaning or may be the writer has not written the word in the context, in which it is being read. It can refer something important. Linguistically, we all know that words are just symbols to understand a language. Thus, words are not enough to understand real message, given by the writer.

Symbolism is very less in the poetry of John Keats but “Hyperion” has some symbols, which are required to be understood by every student of literature. John Keats is a pure poet and does poetry for the sake of poetry only, but indirectly he has touched social issues. Inner meanings of this poem, though vital to the appreciation, do not ask for first preference in our interest. He has talked about French revolution and the importance of new order/system. This very fact can be witnessed from his famous fragment “Hyperion”. He has used some social symbols; some of them are political; some are autobiographical, whereas others are related to human sufferings. He has symbolized beauty. His autobiography is available in form of characters. Thus, like other writers and poets of his era, he could not stay away from using this very literary technique i.e. symbolism. Let’s elaborate some important symbols which are available in his famous poem “Hyperion”.

First and foremost symbol, which is used in the poem, is the replacement of old order with the new one. It seems that John Keats has used this symbol very carefully. He prefers new order on the old one. He has presented Titans as the old gods, who are lethargic. Their thinking is old; they are stubborn; they resist the general law of nature viz. change, therefore, the poet does not prefer them. Their thinking is stuck between vengeance and rise. They have no desire of improvement. In short, John Keats has illustrated them as statues, who do not want anything but worship. They are outdated, thus, no more required. On the other hand, Olympians are energetic; they have new ideas; they prefer change and reformation; they love art; they want new creations. They are better than the old gods. John Keats wants them in power.

Now, consider about the French revolution. Due to the old system, condition of the people was worst; they were living from hand to mouth. They wanted to replace the old system with the new one. It was the only option for them to get a peaceful life. Old system did not favour the poor, therefore, people wanted to get rid of it. Hence, in order to get independence from this miserable life and system, they came out from their houses. John Keats has used this symbol so as to clear the situation of French revolution. The old gods represent the old system, whereas the new gods are representative of new system. Thus, it is the major symbol of this poem which is related to social and political issues.

It is also known to us that John Keats has suffered a lot. He served his brother, who was ill but unfortunately, he could not survive. His love was also ended in failure, therefore, John Keats started spending most of his time in imagination. This symbol is related to the world of reality and the world of imagination. The poet, in his whole career tried to balance these two worlds. “Hyperion” also shares this common theme. In this poem, the poet balances the world of fancy and the world of reality. He tried to take both these worlds with him but unluckily could not do so. Even in “Ode to Nightingale”, the poet finds pleasure in his imagination. He spends his time with nightingale but subsequently, he returns; he comes back to the world of reality, where there are frets and fears. There is a huge difference between the world of art and the world of reality. In “Hyperion”, the poet shows this major difference through the character of Apollo, who gets immortality through sufferings. It is true that the two worlds have been compared by the poet in “Hyperion” but he could not set a compromise between two different human experiences. The world of art is the world of perfection, whereas the world of reality is full of worries and pains. In fact, John Keats tries to balance a person in both these worlds but unluckily he could not do so. In other words, John Keats wants life of gods on earth, which is impossible. He wants eternity for humans but all we know that he cannot do so. Somewhere, John Keats has realized that the world of eternity is also not better. There is more enjoyment in the world of reality but less in immortal world; the Grecian urn, although is immortal, yet it is “cold pastoral”. Thus, the character of Apollo is not just a character but has been created to clear the difference between the utopian world and reality. It is the comparison between the two human experiences that we find wanting in “Hyperion”.

As mentioned above, a character named Apollo is created in the poem, whose actions reveal that he is not anyone else but John Keats himself. Apollo symbolizes the life of John Keats. Woes, pains and sufferings of Apollo symbolize his sufferings. It is not Apollo but Keats the poet who is crying for help to come out of the perplexity of life and death. The poem symbolically refers the life of John Keats. Autobiographic symbols are the most important symbols of this poem. As Middleton Murray said:-

“Apollo is no other than Keats himself and that in Apollo’s struggle for dying into an immortal life, Keats is in fact narrating the story of his own poetic carrier, the torturing and pulsating experiences that he had to undergo in order to attain the heights of poetic maturing and to come true to concept of an ideal poet.  ”

Many symbols have been used by the poet in “Hyperion”. From symbolic study of the poem, it seems that the poet had gained poetic maturity. He could write on social issues if he wanted. Here a question arises that if he had gained poetic maturity then why did not he complete his epic poem? Nonetheless, it is another topic. But it is true that the poet has used very deep and complex symbols in “Hyperion”.