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Cyborg John Keats: Dan Simmons’s Hyperion/Endymion Cantos

(contains spoilers)

This is a guest blog post from Molly Watson, a postgraduate researcher at Nottingham working on motherhood and loss in the writings of Sara Coleridge and Mary Shelley. She says this post is not really related to her research at all (Aenea might disagree) but she has a side interest in Romantic literary legacies. You can find out more about her research here:

In February 2021, as the bicentenary of John Keats’s death approached, a group of researchers at the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) recreated a CGI persona of the poet. Keats had died of pulmonary tuberculosis aged just 25 in 1821; the project would, so the IDA claimed, resurrect him. The IDA used several points of reference, including Keats’s life and death masks; contemporary portraits of him as well as of his fellow poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron; items of clothing from the 1810s and 1820s; and finally, a reconstruction of Keats’s voice which was generated using voice samples provided by the American actor Marc Kudisch. The end result was somewhat absurd: sounding rather like a pirate, an oddly tall Keats (who stood at just five feet high in real life) recited lines from his poem “Bright Star” (1819). Nevertheless, the IDA project raises an intriguing question: what if Keats came back to life?[1]

The life mask of John Keats (1795-1821) by Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1816. © NPG.

The Institute for Digital Archaeology’s CGI Keats. © IDA.

The legacy of Keats and his work is at the heart of Dan Simmons’s sci-fi tetralogy, the Hyperion/Endymion Cantos (1988-96). The Cantos can be grouped together with other Neo-Romantic steam/cyberpunk and sci-fi/fantasy novels, such as Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound (1973), Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard (1989), Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine (1990), Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (1992), Tom Holland’s Lord of the Dead: The Secret History of Byron (1995), and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995-2000).[2] As the Cantos spans four books set across several planetary systems and epochs, its plot is elaborately complex, yet it is essentially a retelling of Keats’s Hyperion: A Fragment (1819) and The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream (1819), which chronicles the fall of the Titans at the hands of the Olympians. Simmons transposes this battle to the twenty-ninth century, where humanity faces imminent destruction by the TechnoCore, a system of AI which the humans helped to create. The TechnoCore seeks to build an Ultimate Intelligence (UI), or God, and as the series progresses it becomes clear that Keats has a significant role to play in this power struggle. In the Cantos Keats appears not only as an allusion but as a character: Keats (known in the series as Johnny) impregnates Brawne Lamia (named after Keats’s fiancée, Fanny Brawne, and his poem Lamia (1820)), a private space detective, and their daughter, Aenea, becomes the Second Messiah. Johnny discovers that he is the “One Who Comes Before. I prepare the way for the One Who Teaches”.[3] The Shrike, a time-travelling metallic Grendel that impales its victims on the “Tree of Pain” is sent back in time from the future in search of the Second Messiah. A post on Reddit describes the Cantos as such:[4]

Simmons certainly loves Keats (as do I). There are a host of allusions to Keats and his poetry, with characters such as Moneta, Leigh Hunt, Joseph Severn, and Raul Endymion making an appearance in the series. In an essay on Keats’s conception of “negative capability”, Simmons writes that the Cantos are concerned with “the evolution of life toward some critical turning point, the importance of empathy, the idea of love as a basic force of the universe comparable to gravity or weak nuclear force”, and that these themes intersect with Keats’s poetry.[5] For Simmons, Keats embodies this sense of compassion, and the Cantos suggest that the legacy of Keats is vital to the fabric of the universe. For the purposes of this blog post I want to explore the absurdity of a Keats who is a proxy God, able to travel through time and space only to die and be reborn again.  

Readers first meet Johnny in the first book of Hyperion. Written in the style of The Canterbury TalesHyperionfollows a group of pilgrims as they journey to Planet Hyperion to meet the Shrike. Brawne Lamia’s narrative, “The Detective’s Tale”, recounts her meeting and eventual sexual relationship with Johnny. She discovers that Johnny is a “cybrid”, an AI consciousness that is bonded with the vessel of a human body: he was created by the personality retrieval project, which seeks to reconstruct the personas of historical (literary) figures. A cybrid of the notorious Imagist poet Ezra Pound had been created, but though a “genius”, he was “nuts” and became corrupted.[6] While Johnny is not Keats per se, his consciousness is infused with the “hollow” memories of Keats:

He spoke of awakening after his death in the bed where he died, still attended by the loyal Severn and Dr Clark, of remembering that he was the poet John Keats the way one remembers an identity from a fast-fading dream while all the while knowing that he was something else.

            He told of the illusion continued, the trip back to England, the reunion with the Fanny-who-was-not-Fanny and the near mental breakdown this had engendered.[7]

While the circumstances of Keats’s death are obviously tragic, what is intriguing about the Cantos is that, even in a universe where people can teleport to different planets and travel through time and space, Keats is still fated to die young. His consciousness may be translated into a cybrid, and he may impregnate Brawne Lamia, but there is no possibility of him living a full life.

Ambrotype of Fanny Brawne (1800-1865) taken in the 1850s. © Keats House.

In the first book of the Cantos, Johnny and Brawne Lamia travel through the “datumplane” to learn more about Johnny’s connection to Planet Hyperion, but he is murdered by agents of the TechnoCore. Johnny’s consciousness, however, is downloaded into a “Schrön loop” attached to Brawne Lamia’s ear. After Johnny’s death she unearths Keats’s Gothic poem, “This living hand, now warm and capable” (1819):

        This living hand, now warm and capable

        Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

        And in the icy silence of the tomb,

        So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

        That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

        So in my veins red life might stream again,

        And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—

        I hold it towards you. (lns. 1-8, 237)[8]

In both Keats’s original poem and Simmons’s narrative, the communicative barriers between physical reality and the afterlife are dissolved. This is where things start getting a little weird in the Cantos. Brawne Lamia is pregnant not once, but twice, “[o]nce with Johnny’s child and once with the Schrön loop memory of what he was”. Johnny’s Schrön loop consciousness allows him to penetrate the pilgrims’ dreams and, weirdly, communicate with the foetus of his child, Aenea. While in Brawne Lamia’s womb Aenea is told of her future role as the Second Messiah by Johnny: she sees “what was to be—who I would be—even how I would die—before my fingers were fully formed”.[9] Johnny holds his hand towards Aenea, who gains access to Keats’s poetic wisdom (even as a foetus). Simmons therefore slightly alters the meaning of “This living hand”: whereas Keats imagines the death of the reader to bring him back to life, Simmons frames Johnny as a God-like entity that can communicate with his unborn child, and so help save the universe from the TechnoCore (or die trying).

While Johnny communicates with the foetal Aenea, a second Keats cybrid is created. Johnny’s twin calls himself Joseph Severn, the man who nursed Keats during his final illness in Italy and who is now known (somewhat unfairly) as “Keats’s friend”.[10] Severn is recruited by the Hegemony of Man to access the dreams of the pilgrims in the hope of learning more about Planet Hyperion and the Shrike. One day Severn and Leigh Hunt (a government aide who amusingly has no idea who the real Leigh Hunt is) are mysteriously transported to “Old Earth”, which now resides in a Magellanic Cloud. Eerily, they arrive in Rome in 1821. There are no other signs of life apart from a few animals. Severn comes to the disturbing realisation that he has been sent to Rome because “They want me to die and they want you to watch”.[11]

A lone horse arrives at the Campagna to take Severn and Hunt to the Piazza di Spagna, where Keats died. Even though TB has been eradicated in Simmons’s future universe, Severn/Keats has to fulfil his destiny as the tubercular poet. Here the absurd becomes grotesque: as if in mock imitation of Keats’s death, Severn begins to vomit blood and become delirious. As Severn succumbs to the ravages of TB, he gasps, “[d]on’t breathe on me—it comes like ice!”, a direct reference to the real Joseph Severn’s account of Keats’s dying moments:

The poor fellow bade me lift him up in bed—he breathed with great difficulty—and seemd to lose the power of coughing up the phlegm—an<d> immense sweat came over him so that my breath felt cold to him—“dont breathe on me—it comes like Ice”…his eyes look’d upon me with extreme sensibility but without pain—at 11 he died in my arms…[12]

It is interesting that Leigh Hunt accompanies Severn/Keats on his final journey to Rome, for in real life Hunt did not attend Keats, though he would travel to Italy to reunite with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley shortly before the latter’s death in 1822. Simmons is clearly an author who enjoys manipulating temporal boundaries and experimenting with the circumstances of Keats’s death. 

When Severn/Keats dies, his consciousness is reborn again, this time as Keats in his travelling gear when he toured Scotland with Charles Armitage Brown in 1818. He is not a cybrid, however, but a spectral entity that appears to Brawne Lamia with the revelation that she is carrying the Second Messiah. As he dissolves away, he whispers lines from Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819): “Thou still unravished bride of quietness/Thou foster-child of silence and slow time”.[13] On Keats’s urn, time stands still: as Jonathan Sachs observes, “the absence of movement is linked to undisturbed continuity through time”.[14] For a novel interested in the dissolution of historic and mythic time, nothing could be more apt.[15]

[1] The Institute for Digital Archaeology, Keats/Shelley Bicentennial A video of the CGI Keats is available via the link provided (1:04:26-1:05:58). 

[2] For a discussion on the Romantics and genre fiction, see Atara Stein, “Fictionalized Romantics: Byron, Shelley, and Keats as Characters in Contemporary Genre Fiction”, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 13 (2003), 379-88

[3] Dan Simmons, The Hyperion Omnibus (London: Gollancz, 2004), pp. 776-7

[4] u/TheBluePretender, r/Hyperion, Reddit, 17 Feb 2021

[5] Dan Simmons, “Shapeshifters and Skinwalkers: the Writer’s Curse of Negative Capability”, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 8 (1997), 398-418 (p. 400)

[6] Hyperion, p. 245

[7] Ibid., p. 269

[8] John Keats, John Keats: Selected Poems, ed. by John Barnard (London: Penguin, 2007), p. 237

[9] Ibid., p. 298; The Rise of Endymion in The Endymion Omnibus (London: Gollancz, 2005), p. 751

[10] For a good analysis of the character of Joseph Severn, see Alessandro Gallenzi, Written in Water: Keats’s Final Journey (London: Alma Books, 2022)

[11] The Fall of Hyperion, p. 653

[12] Joseph Severn, ‘To John Taylor’, 6 March 1821, qtd. in The Broadview Anthology of Literature of the Revolutionary Period 1770-1832, ed. by D.L. MacDonald and Anne McWhir (Peterborough, ONT: Broadview, 2010), p. 1323

[13] The Fall of Hyperion, p. 777

[14] Jonathan Sachs, The Poetics of Decline in British Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018), p. 157

[15] For Simmons and temporality, see Maria Lindgren Leavenworth, “The Times of Men, Mysteries and Monsters: The Terror and Franklin’s Last Expedition”, in Arctic Discourses, ed. by Anka Ryall, Johan Schimanski and Henning Howlid Wærp (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), pp. 199-217 (p. 211); and Derek J. Thiess, “Dan Simmons’s The Terror, Inuit “Legend,” and the Embodied Horrors of History”, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 29 (2018), 222-241 (pp. 224-29) 


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