John Keats Poetry: Song of the Indian Maid, from Endymion

This famous selection from Endymion is among the most-quoted of Keats’s poetry. The fifth stanza, in particular, has adorned countless greeting cards and notebooks. In his 1917 biography of Keats, Sidney Colvin provides an in-depth analysis of Endymion; countless other critics have written books about the poem. I cannot hope to rival them with a single webpage. Suffice to say, Endymion was Keats’s first attempt at a lengthy poem, begun in late April 1817 and the first draft completed by late November. Keats revised the work in early 1818 and it was published in late April 1818.

He discussed the impetus for Endymion in a letter to his brother George which he later copied for his friend Benjamin Bailey; you can read the letter in its entirety at this site. Keats wrote:

‘You may see the whole of the case by the following extract from a Letter I wrote to George in the spring “As to what you say about my being a poet, I can retu[r]n no answer but by saying that the high Idea I have of poetical fame makes me think I see it towering to high above me. At any rate I have no right to talk until Endymion is finished – it will be a test, a trial of my Powers of Imagination and chiefly of my invention which is a rare thing indeed – by which I must make 4000 Lines of one bare circumstance and fill them with Poetry; and when I consider that this is a great task, and that when done it will take me but a dozen paces towards the Temple of Fame – it makes me say – God forbid that I should be without such a task I have heard Hunt say and may be asked – why endeavour after a long Poem? To which I should answer – Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading: which may be food for a Week’s stroll in the Summer? Do not they like this better than what they can read through before Mrs Williams comes down stairs? a Morning work at most. Besides a long Poem is a test of Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder. Did our great Poets ever write short Pieces? I mean in the shape of Tales – This same invention seems i[n]deed of late Years to have been forgotten as a Poetical excellence(.) But enough of this, I put on no Laurels till I shall have finished Endymion….'”

Endymion was ‘inscribed to the memory of Thomas Chatterton’. Its first line — ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:’ — is even more famous than the ‘Song of the Indian Maid’ and is the most recognized Keatsian catchphrase. Keats further described its creation in the preface, as follows: ‘The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted: thence proceeds mawkishness, and all the thousand bitters which those men I speak of must necessarily taste in going over the following pages. I hope I have not in too late a day touched the beautiful mythology of Greece and dulled its brightness: for I wish to try once more, before I bid it farewell.’

His concern for ‘the honour of English literature’ was unnecessary, but the work was not popular with critics. The Quarterly Review was especially vicious. For his part, Keats was not satisfied with the poem, writing to Haydon in September 1817 that ‘My Ideas with respect to it…. are very low – and I would write the subject thoroughly again, but I am tired of it’, but he acknowledged its value as a poetic apprenticeship. He wrote to his publisher Hessey in October 1818: ‘In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice. — I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.’

O Sorrow!
Why dost borrow
The natural hue of health, from vermeil lips?–
To give maiden blushes
To the white rose bushes?
Or is it thy dewy hand the daisy tips?

O Sorrow!
Why dost borrow
The lustrous passion from a falcon-eye?–
To give the glow-worm light?
Or, on a moonless night,
To tinge, on siren shores, the salt sea-spry?

O Sorrow!
Why dost borrow
The mellow ditties from a mourning tongue?–
To give at evening pale
Unto the nightingale,
That thou mayst listen the cold dews among?

O Sorrow!
Why dost borrow
Heart’s lightness from the merriment of May?–
A lover would not tread
A cowslip on the head,
Though he should dance from eve till peep of day–
Nor any drooping flower
Held sacred for thy bower,
Wherever he may sport himself and play.

To Sorrow
I bade good morrow,
And thought to leave her far away behind;
But cheerly, cheerly,
She loves me dearly;
She is so constant to me, and so kind:
I would deceive her
And so leave her,
But ah! she is so constant and so kind.

Beneath my palm-trees, by the river side,
I sat a-weeping: in the whole world wide
There was no one to ask me why I wept,–
And so I kept
Brimming the water-lily cups with tears
Cold as my fears.

Beneath my palm-trees, by the river side,
I sat a-weeping: what enamour’d bride,
Cheated by shadowy wooer from the clouds,
But hides and shrouds
Beneath dark palm-trees by a river side?

And as I sat, over the light blue hills
There came a noise of revellers: the rills
Into the wide stream came of purple hue–
‘Twas Bacchus and his crew!
The earnest trumpet spake, and silver thrills
From kissing cymbals made a merry din–
‘Twas Bacchus and his kin!
Like to a moving vintage down they came,
Crown’d with green leaves, and faces all on flame;
All madly dancing through the pleasant valley,
To scare thee, Melancholy!
O then, O then, thou wast a simple name!
And I forgot thee, as the berried holly
By shepherds is forgotten, when in June
Tall chestnuts keep away the sun and moon:–
I rush’d into the folly!

Within his car, aloft, young Bacchus stood,
Trifling his ivy-dart, in dancing mood,
With sidelong laughing;
And little rills of crimson wine imbrued
His plump white arms and shoulders, enough white
For Venus’ pearly bite;
And near him rode Silenus on his ass,
Pelted with flowers as he on did pass
Tipsily quaffing.

‘Whence came ye, merry Damsels! whence came ye,
So many, and so many, and such glee?
Why have ye left your bowers desolate,
Your lutes, and gentler fate?’–
‘We follow Bacchus! Bacchus on the wing,
Bacchus, young Bacchus! good or ill betide,
We dance before him thorough kingdoms wide:–
Come hither, lady fair, and joined be
To our wild minstrelsy!’

‘Whence came ye, jolly Satyrs! whence came ye,
So many, and so many, and such glee?
Why have ye left your forest haunts, why left
Your nuts in oak-tree cleft?’–
‘For wine, for wine we left our kernel tree;
For wine we left our heath, and yellow brooms,
And cold mushrooms;
For wine we follow Bacchus through the earth;
Great god of breathless cups and chirping mirth!
Come hither, lady fair, and joined be
To our mad minstrelsy!’

Over wide streams and mountains great we went,
And, save when Bacchus kept his ivy tent,
Onward the tiger and the leopard pants,
With Asian elephants:
Onward these myriads–with song and dance,
With zebras striped, and sleek Arabians’ prance,
Web-footed alligators, crocodiles,
Bearing upon their scaly backs, in files,
Plump infant laughers mimicking the coil
Of seamen, and stout galley-rowers’ toil:
With toying oars and silken sails they glide,
Nor care for wind and tide.

Mounted on panthers’ furs and lions’ manes,
From rear to van they scour about the plains;
A three days’ journey in a moment done;
And always, at the rising of the sun,
About the wilds they hunt with spear and horn,
On spleenful unicorn.

I saw Osirian Egypt kneel adown
Before the vine-wreath crown!
I saw parch’d Abyssinia rouse and sing
To the silver cymbals’ ring!
I saw the whelming vintage hotly pierce
Old Tartary the fierce!
The kings of Ind their jewel-sceptres vail,
And from their treasures scatter pearled hail;
Great Brahma from his mystic heaven groans,
And all his priesthood moans,
Before young Bacchus’ eye-wink turning pale.
Into these regions came I, following him,
Sick-hearted, weary–so I took a whim
To stray away into these forests drear,
Alone, without a peer:
And I have told thee all thou mayest hear.

Young Stranger!
I’ve been a ranger
In search of pleasure throughout every clime;
Alas! ’tis not for me!
Bewitch’d I sure must be,
To lose in grieving all my maiden prime.

Come then, Sorrow,
Sweetest Sorrow!
Like an own babe I nurse thee on my breast:
I thought to leave thee,
And deceive thee,
But now of all the world I love thee best.

There is not one,
No, no, not one
But thee to comfort a poor lonely maid;
Thou art her mother,
And her brother,
Her playmate, and her wooer in the shade.

Link/cite this page

If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.

Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Keats Poetry: Song of the Indian Maid, from Endymion", February 24, 2015