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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: September 2012

5 - Moral Philosophy: Sympathetic Identification, Utility and the Natural History of Religion in The Fall of Hyperion


When he abandoned Hyperion in May 1819 Keats cast off a model of history that seemed tentatively able to negotiate between stadial and sympathetic modes of representation. The question remains why he decided two months later to revise the fragment as The Fall Of Hyperion, which he had also ‘given up’ by September 1819 (LJK, II, 167). Some commentators have argued that the answer lies in his growing awareness of history's resistance to any authoritative frame of reference, even the ‘humanised alternative’ to progressive history. The poem's dream framework is indeed suggestive of the difficulties he faced in completing a progress poem in the standard or traditional sense and perfectly ‘captures the dizzying and unreal sensation of experiencing radical historical change’, but its primary shift of emphasis is not from humanism to indeterminacy.

Like Hyperion, The Fall is structured around the trope of development, and while its focus is on the poet's (rather than Apollo's) maturation through suffering, it nonetheless draws on Enlightenment natural histories of philosophy and religion, and hence on debates about the development of human understanding and the nature of conscience, in order to present the progression from uncivilised and selfish ‘dreamer’ to cultivated and humane ‘poet’. In the induction to the poem, Keats characterises the dreamer or ‘false’ poet in terms of the primitive developmental stage of the savage and fanatic, arguing, like Enlightenment historians and philosophers from Voltaire to Hume, that superstition and fanaticism correspond to pre-modern levels of understanding.