Saturn in Keats’ ‘Hyperion’

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

Having read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, I was inspired to read Keats’ Hyperion. Keats’ Hyperion is a fragmentary narrative poem about the Titans after their defeat by the gods of Olympus. I didn’t quite absorb it all. It washed over me in a wave of words and rhythm, entrancing me and tugging me, but I was lulled by it in the wrong way.

So I’ll have to reread it.

Anyway, the thing that struck me at the very beginning is that Keats’ vision of Saturn takes into account one striking fact that careful readers of Latin verse observe — Saturn is not Kronos.

We all know the old story of Roman adaptatio of Greek deities with their own, something that had such a powerful impact upon them (and, it seems, their Etruscan neighbours) that little of pre-Greek Italic myth has any existence. And so, it is very frequently (but not always!) possible to say, ‘Jupiter/Jove is Zeus. Juno is Hera. Minerva is Athena. Mars is Ares.’

Saturn is Kronos.


I mean, he is the leading ‘Titan’ and father of the Olympians, such as Jupiter.

However, when we read Vergil, it is evident that Saturn is not a mean, nasty jerk-face who enjoys gobbling up his children the moment they’re born (this is about all most of us are aware of re Kronos via Hesiod). He is, rather, the king of the Golden Age. He creates the first and greatest race of human beings. For Latins, the return of the Age of Saturn is a good thing.

Keats’ Hyperion begins with Thea approaching the supine form of defeated Saturn. And the Saturn she approaches is not the Titanic villain Kronos. He is clearly the golden god of good things, the god of plenty, the king of a golden age.

Of course, Keats knows his Greek myths as well.  The creation of all things from Chaos, for example, is part of the poem. But he has made for us a sympathetic Saturn, rather than the rather the unsympathetic Kronos of Hesiod (and Goya).

This is a wee reminder that when Romantics name ‘Greek’ gods by their Roman names, they are not (merely?) being patronising. There may in fact be a point to so doing. And I would further argue that for someone like Keats, naming the gods by their Roman names makes the most sense, given that he spent his final years in Rome, leaving Hyperion unfinished at the time of his death in 1820.

Just a quick thought, but I felt like articulating it.

3 thoughts on “Saturn in Keats’ ‘Hyperion’

  1. Janette

    Thanks for this post. I recently completed a class on the Romantics (English poets) and as I do not have a background in the classics, this post and others on your blog have been very insightful. The class discussion frequently referenced the influence of Vergil, Dante, and Milton, and now I’m on a quest to become familiar with their works.

    As you mentioned Vergil here, it led me to do some detective work. Specifically, I found these lines in Eclogue IV:

    Justice returns, returns old Saturn’s reign,

    With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.

    Only do thou, at the boy’s birth in whom

    The iron shall cease, the golden race arise

    In these lines, Vergil associates Saturn’s reign with a lost golden age. As your post points out, this Saturn is not Kronos, the monster depicted by Goya. I’m thinking that it’s likely that Keats was familiar with the Eclogues, and possibly this is another reason he uses Saturn in his Hyperion. Moreover, from what I’ve read, the term “eclogue” can mean a short poem or fragment.


    1. MJH Post author

      Thanks for the Vergil citation! Indeed, I imagine that Keats was very familiar with Vergil’s Eclogues. I’m glad these posts have been insightful; enjoy your quest into Vergil, Dante, and Milton — my quest is headed the other direction! 😉


  2. Pingback: The Ages of Men (and Elves) | The Wordhoard

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