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A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Keats, Titans and the sinking of the Titanic

In 1818, the celebrated English Romantic poet John Keats started writing a long poem, Hyperion. It tells of the despair of the Titans after their fall to the Olympians. Keats left it unfinished because it had "too many Miltonic inversions." He was also nursing his younger brother Tom, who died on December 1, 1818 of tuberculosis.

In his book A Little History of Literature, John Sutherland explains how every myth contains a grain of truth which always remains relevant to us, no matter how different the present time seems. In a passage about the myth of Titans, Keats's poem and the ship Titanic that sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in 1912he offers an example of a way in which myth is woven in our culture:

"In the period between James Cameron's Oscar-winning film Titanic, in 1997, and the centenary anniversary of the great liner's launch, on 12 April, 2012, there was huge fascination with everything about the wreck in  Britain and the USA. This fascination seemed, on the face of it, a little odd. Some 1500 people had died when the ship went down. It was a horrible event. But the death toll pales in comparison with the millions of deaths and casualties caused by the First World War just a few years later. Why had people never forgotten the shipwreck? The answer may well be in the name of the vessel: Titanic.

In ancient myth, the Titans were a tribe of giant gods. Their parents were the earth and sky and they were the first race on earth to have human form. After a long time enjoying their status as the most powerful species on earth, the Titans found themselves locked in a ten-year war with a new race of gods who had reached an even higher stage of evolution than they had. Although the Titans were giants possessed of gigantic strength, that was pretty well all they had: brute force. This new race, the Olympians, had much more: intelligence, beauty and skill. They were, essentially, more like humans (like us, we might think) than forces of nature.

Despite their massive strength, the Titans, as the myth goes, went under. Their defeat is the subject of one of the greatest narrative poems in the English language, John Keats's Hyperion, which he wrote around 1818. In the poem, the Titan Oceanus contemplates his conquering successor, Neptune, who has replaced him as God of the Sea, and realises that:

'tis the eternal law

That first in beauty should be first in might

For the un-beautiful Titans, their day is over. But, Oceanus prophesies:

Yeah, but that law, another race may thrive

Our conquerors to mourn as we do now.

The White Star Line vessel that went to the bottom of the ocean in April 1912 was named the Titanic - accompanied by the ritual bottle of champagne cracked across its bow, itself a mythic act called 'libation' - because it was one of the largest, fastest, most powerful vessels ever destined to cross the Atlantic. It was thought to be unsinkable. But those who named it must have felt a certain uneasiness. Was it not tempting fate to name a ship Titanic, recalling what had happened to the Titans?

One reason we are so fascinated by the disaster is because we suspect, irrationally, that the sinking of the Titanic contains a message for us. (Millions of dollars have been spent exploring the vessel underwater and there has always been interest in 'raising' it). The event is telling us something, warning us about something that we really should try to understand. Do not be overconfident, seems to be the message within what has become a myth for our age. The Greeks have given us a name for that overconfidence: hubris. It's echoed in the phrase: 'Pride comes before a fall', and is a common theme throughout literature."

Although a myth we now consider hardly relevant, the fall of Titans carry an important message about pride and presumption. Two hundred years ago, in an age inspired by Greek mythology, John Keats evoked the myth to lament the loss of divine potential. At the beginning of the post-Christian era, the setting and the characters in his poem are different than in Milton's Paradise Lost, its Christian prototype, written 150 years earlier. Nevertheless, our appeal to and our muffled delight at the fall of an arrogant presence will always remain the same.

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