A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: its loveliness increases

shining water

Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases
; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

by John Keats (October 31, 1795 – February 23, 1821)
excerpt from Endymion (1818)
image – Matt Callow

An Epic Poetic Romance

Endymion is an epic poem: this is just the first stanza. A brief romp through Amazon turned up several printings of Endymion, averaging about 100 pages long. That’s a lot of epic!

Endymion was written in pairs of rhyming couplets, in iambic pentameter. A rhyming couplet is a pair of rhyming lines. Here are the first two couplets:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep…

See the pair “ever” and “never,” then “keep” and “sleep?”

Iambic pentameter describes the number of syllables. An “iamb” is a group of two syllables, the second syllable slightly more emphasized than the first. This pair is known as an iambic foot. Say “I am, I am, I am” a few times, and you’ve got it – or check out Byron:

She walks in Beauty, like the night
   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

Endymion has ten beats in each line, but the emphasis is irregular. Sometimes poets reverse or “invert” the emphasis – “I am, I am, I am. Try looking for inverted iambs in these lines from Endymion.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing

Did you catch the eleventh syllable on that last line? Sometimes poets will vary the number of syllables for emphasis. They may also omit syllables to make a line easier to say, or to help it flow – “Over” can become “o’er.” To the ear, a skillful “o’er” can be a rhythmic enhancement. To my eye, that sort of thing is funky spelling, an old-fashioned affectation. When someone like Shakespeare does this, it’s the work of a master.

When a young pup like Keats came along with an ambitious epic stacked with challenging poetic devices, many of the masters of his day circled and laughed.

Leaping Into the Ocean

Endymion bombed when first published. Some poets made fun of both Endymion and Keats. Byron was especially virulent. One of the kinder critics said Keats was, after all, still very young.

Keats took it well:

It is as good as I had power to make it – by myself – Had I been nervous about its being a perfect piece, and with that view asked advice, and trembled over every page, it would not have been written; for it is not in my nature to fumble – I will write independently.

[…]

In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Surroundings, the quicksands, and the rocks…
by John Keats
letter to J. A. Hessey
October 9, 1818

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One Response to “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: its loveliness increases”

  1. Abimbola Akanwo Says:

    *Smiles* thank goodness John Keats ( (October 31, 1795 – February 23, 1821) didn’t “fumble” and did “write “independently”…

    A very short life…forever grateful that Keats was one of the poets we studied in English at school…as part of the course, we were taken on a school trip to his former home in Hampstead…good memories…

    Thank you…

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