The Sleep of Endymion: A thing of Beauty is a joy forever

21 Mar
The Sleep of Endymion

The Sleep of Endymion-Girodet

A 2-3 page comparison of the painting and John Keats’ epic poem.  The poem is quite lengthy and can be found here:

The Sleep of Endymion: A thing of Beauty is a joy forever

The myth of Endymion is hardly complicated. A beautiful young shepherd is visited by the moon, Diana, in his sleep. She kisses him and he wakes from his dream. However, this simple tale has inspired artists for centuries. Each time the story is retold, it is done in a new and personal manner that emulates the ideals of the creator. Two such artists are Anne-Louis Girodet and John Keats. The two men are hardly similar, the first being an artist and the second a poet. However, their interpretations of the Endymion myth are similar as seen through Girodet’s The Sleep of Endymion and Keats’ poem Endymion. Although there are minor differences, both Keats and Girodet use the myth of Endymion to perpetuate romanticism and sensuality and express duality.

The clearest connection between the two masterpieces is their push toward romanticism. When Girodet began The Sleep of Endymion he broke from the traditional form that his mentor David would have expected.

Classical Study of Endymion

Unlike David, Girodet’s Endymion is struck by a ray of light that represents Diana. The use of light adds an amorous feel to the painting, as does the image of cupid who is pulling back Italian foliage to allow cupid to kiss Endymion in the light. The Sleep of Endymion exemplified the growing rift between Girodet and David by:

 “Introducing mystery, irrationality, and sensuality into the hard, clear, and civic-minded art of David. Interpreting his subjects in an evocative and dreamlike manner (and adding a strange, erotic charge), The Sleep of Endymion shows Girodet’s passion for two artistic forms that he hoped to fuse: painting and poetry,” (“Romantic Rebel”).

Additionally, the light alludes to works created by Leonardo da Vinci and Correggio. These artists were minimized at the time because of their romantic tendencies. It is the light itself that “heralds the emerging romantic sensibility,” (“Sleep of Endymion”). Keats’ poem works in much the same way. Endymion begins, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” setting the tone for a poem that proclaims beauty and joy over reason and rationality. In this style, Keats broke from the traditional heroic couplets that marked his era. Instead, he uses open couplets, which is conducive to the romantic ideals that mark his poetry. In essence, Keats’ aim is to “move beyond the divide between imaginative ideal and sensuous reality,” (Cox 144). While these romantic similarities are simply part of the emerging romantic notions of the time, both artists went so far as to places these virtues above existing political and artistic pinnacles. In The Sleep of Endymion, “poetry displaces the didactic, the mythical displaces the political, and reason gives way to the irrational,” (“Romantic Rebel”). Keats’ ideologies aligned with Girodet. His poem worked to contradict the “Wordwsworthian ‘despondency [that] besets/Our pillows’ as we find ourselves confined within ‘dull, uninspired, snail-paced lives,’” (Cox 145) For both artists, the emerging sense of romanticism was not only an alternative to the existing norms, but surpasses it in potential. Only romanticisms “set forth the poem’s central themes that love and poetry represent our best home to displace oppressive regimes and the despondency that follows upon the collapse of revolutionary ideals,” (Cox 145).

            In continuation of the romantic themes that mark The Sleep of Endymion and Endymion, both artistic forms become lascivious. The level of sexuality in Keats’ poem has been debated. Critics have argued that Keats simply wanted to express sensual pleasures and joys in nature while others feel that Keats was speaking explicitly about sex as a concrete act. This debate comes as no surprise since Keats describes the poem as “a kind of pleasure thermometer,” an ambiguous term that was never clarified (Cox 145).  Aileen Ward points out that “most critics have moralized this poem into an allegory of a kind of super-sexual love for a super-sensuous beauty” and disagrees with this conclusion. For the time, the critics reviewed Endymion as hyper sexual and explicit. This was the era in which Keats was writing and he knew his audience. Keats could not have expected his audience to interpret an allegory when he carnally describes “lips” as “slippery blisses” (Cox 145). The same can be said for Girodet. Unlike the study of Endymion, Girodet’s picture alludes to sexuality. Endymion lies in an open and venerable position. This has been called “erotic solitude” that is “offered to the unearthly Diana and to the viewer,” (“Romantic Rebel). Furthermore, Girodet turns Endymion’s head slightly more to the side so that he openly faces the sunbeam that is Diana. Endymion invites her light to shine down upon his nude body instead of looking forward without distraction. Thus, Girodet’s painting embodies “an aesthetic ideal, breaking down the boundaries between poetry and painting,” (“Romantic Rebel”). Thus, the connection between Keats’ Endymion and Geirodet’s Endymion become easily connected as one alludes to the other.

In addition to perpetuating romanticism, the two works represent a form of duality. Keats was a young writer when he composed Endymion. For him, the piece worked as a test of talent, but also a way for him to express his passionate ideals. For a testimonial, the poem is full of paradox. It has been described as “a joint outcome of his intense, his abnormal susceptibility to the spell of moonlight and of his pleasure in the ancient myth,” (Clovin). It is apparent that Keats upholds the power of beauty. However, Diana’s beauty is all consuming and Endymion becomes a victim to it. Beauty like this will “Hunt us till they become a cheering light / Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast, / that, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast, / they always must be with us, or we die,” writes Keats in Endymion (line 30-34). This statement opposes the opening line of Endymion, which reads “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” It forces the reader to recognize inconsistencies in the poem and become aware of the different angles and levels of beauty.  While we enjoy things that are beautiful, this virtue can also consume us.  This kind of duality is also seen in Girodet’s painting. While the sunbeam Diana brings warmth into the painting, the limbs of Endymion remain in darkness. Furthermore, it is apparent that Endymion lies alone. Girodet could have given Diana a body or a more tangible form. Instead, she is light. She is beautiful and absent all at once and her kiss appears intangible. In this sense, the viewer is struck with a dichotomy. Endymion manages to “exudes blend of sensuality and coldness,” (“Sleep of Endymion”). Therefore, it is clear that both authors use contrast to portray duplicity in the myth of Endymion.

The similarities between Girodet and Keats’ Endymion cannot be ignored. It was Girodet’s aim to fuse poetry and art so it is obvious that his paintings can be compared to literature. It is this inherit connection that draws audiences to the painting. As one stands in the Louvre viewing The Sleep of Endymion it is hard not to think of Keats’ poem. After researching and writing on this topic, it becomes clear that this connection isn’t coincidence. The two works of art are similar in their inspiration and technique and represent the emerging field of romanticism. They continue their similarities in their duality. Thus, even to an uneducated viewer, the myth of Endymion becomes a universal muse.


Clovin, Syndey. John Keats: His life and Poetry, His friends, Critics and After-Fame. 25 Jun. 2011. <;

“Girodet: Romantic Rebel.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Feb 2006. 25 Jun. 2011. <;

“The Sleep of Endymion.” Musee du Louvre. 25 Jun. 2011 <;

Keats, John. “Endymon.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose. Ed. Jeffrey N. Cox. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000. 143-239

Ward, Aileen. John Keats; the Making of a Poet. Viking Press, 1963. <;

Pictures from:


2 Responses to “The Sleep of Endymion: A thing of Beauty is a joy forever”

  1. Mr WordPress March 29, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    Hi, this is a comment.
    To delete a comment, just log in, and view the posts’ comments, there you will have the option to edit or delete them.

  2. Lucy March 31, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    I love this idea ! Yes, do put the poem up too.

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