John Keats Blog Tour: Exploring the Dilemma in Keats’ Lamia

Thanks for stopping by my blog on the Keats Blog Tour! Make sure to check out the rest of the blog stops to explore some of Keats’ other works. Here at my blog, we’re going to discuss Lamia.

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Lamia is a strange beast. (Here’s a link to the text, if you’d like to read it yourself! Or a Kindle version.) Published in 1820, it is part of Keats’ most fruitful and famous writing period. But though it deals with many of his favorite themes (love, loss, beauty), the poem is less accessible than some of his shorter odes of this same time. It is filled with difficult allusions to myths many of us no longer know. It has some dark imagery different to other poems from this period. And it ends abruptly, leaving us to ponder what exactly Keats wanted us to take away from the poem.

But for all of that, I think this poem is worth reading and, indeed, re-reading. I first encountered Lamia after I saw the movie Bright Star and went on a Keats (and Ben Whishaw) binge. I wasn’t quite up to the length of Endymion – though I have since read it and highly recommend it! – so I chose the shorter poem Lamia.

Before I read my free Kindle copy without notes, though, I wanted to get some background on the poem. Wikipedia gave me little more than a publication date and a short summary, but I followed a few links and learned some interesting information about the myth of Lamia.

A 1607 print of Lamia, a mythical creature.

She’s been around for a long time and, like so many stories, has many different versions. You can read about them in more depth here. But the information I found most interesting had to do with the nature of the Lamia and how she was viewed in Keats’ day. Lamia was a mythical monster, a woman with a serpent’s tail. In various sources, she is punished by either having her children taken away or having her children killed. In one source of the myth, Lamia actually eats her own children. Thus, she comes down through history as a sort of boogeyman that gets blamed for the sudden death of children. In Keats’ time, Lamia was used to scare children, a nightmare-inducing bedtime story to keep the little ones obedient. She was also associated with the ideas of being unclean and stupid.

So Lamia in the popular myths of the time is not a very sympathetic or likeable character. Which makes it all the more interesting that Keats’ uses her as he does in this long poem.

[Warning: I’m going to be discussing some specifics of the poem, so SPOILER ALERT.]

The poem itself is divided into two parts. The first part begins with some familiar words:

Upon a time, before the faery broods
Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods

Already we know we are in a sort of fairy tale world, one that seems far away from the time we live in now. We are introduced to the first of the two love stories in this poem. Hermes, winged god, comes down from Olympus to find a fair nymph. In wandering through the woods where she is supposed to be, Hermes comes upon Lamia. But she is not the monster of the myths. No, in fact, she gets one of the descriptions I am most enamored of in this whole poem. I’ll quote here at length. Pay attention to the sensuousness of the description:

Until he found a palpitating snake,
Bright, and cirque-couchant in a dusky brake.
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the glooomier tapestries–
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?

This beautiful serpent-creature does not scare Hermes. He is enchanted at once by her strange beauty and the words that she speaks. It turns out that Lamia (who is unnamed still in the poem) is a powerful sorceress who has enchanted the nymph so that no one can see her. Lamia bargains with Hermes: if he will grant Lamia a human form, she will unveil the nymph. The bargain is struck and Hermes gets his happy ending with the nymph. Love story one is finished.

A 1909 painting of Lamia

But then begins Lamia’s love story. She changes painfully into a woman and spirits herself off to Corinth to find a beautiful man named Lycius whom she’s spied before and fallen in love with. Part I of the poem ends with Lycius falling in love with Lamia. She tells him a lovely story of who she is. It’s all a lie, but Keats seems to say that it doesn’t really matter. Who is she really harming by not revealing her true background to a man she loves? He knows enough of her and loves her for it.

The poem could have ended here, with both couples living happily ever after. It’s a rosy view of love, one that we like to see in our romantic comedies. Beautiful people find their soulmates and the story ends. The curtain goes down on them smiling at each other and being head-over-heels in love.

But Keats adds a Part II. Should be called Lamia: The Reckoning, because he cannot leave the couple happy. Oh, they start off happy. They move into a big, enchanted palace in Corinth where Lamia and Lycius lock themselves away in the bliss of first love. But eventually, Lycius wants to share their happiness with all of his friends and insists on a public “wedding.” Lamia reluctantly agrees.

Lycius heads out into the city to gather his friends. While he is gone, Lamia transforms their palace into a garden of earthly delights. We are reminded of the fairy tale aspect of this story as “winged servitors” decorate the main hall with trees and fruits and soft lighting. When the guests arrive, they cannot believe what they see. I can almost see Lycius blinking comically at the scene before him, unfamiliar though he has walked the halls for many weeks.

Here it always occurs to me that this is nowhere near the “scary” Lamia from the myths and legends. This is a powerful woman in love who uses her power to make only good things. There’s no hint of horror or ugliness. Keats loves to write about beauty and how we respond to beautiful things. And here is a creature who might have been ugly changed into a most beautiful thing and using her power for love and happiness. It seems all good.

Until Lycius’ old teacher Apollonius arrives. Lamia shrinks from his gaze, as she fears that he sees through her disguise. As the party goes on, her feeling only gets worse. Apollonius examines her with cold eyes. And here we learn the crux of this second part:

… Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
[…]
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine–
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into shade.

The poem ends quickly after this. Lamia literally fades away after Apollonius calls her out for her true form as a serpent. Lycius watches her go and gradually fades from life himself. The guests stare in horror at the scene. Not at the revelation of Lamia’s true form, but at the fading and death they see before them.

The poem ends with a horrible tableau:

…with a frightful scream she vanished:
And Lycius’ arms were empty of delight,
As were his limbs of life, from that same night.
On the high couch he lay!– his friends came round
Supported him– no pulse, or breath they found,
And, in its marriage robe, the heavy body wound.

So what’s happening here? Well, first, it’s important to know that “philosophy” at this time meant all of the sciences, anything that could go through the scientific process. Apollonius is a then a philosopher-scientist who tries to subject everything, including people, to the scientific process of examination. So when he sees Lamia’s true form, he cannot help but reveal it.

And here is the argument Keats puts before us: would we rather have beauty or science? Because when science enters the scene, the beauty that has been created by Lamia is exposed and fades away. It loses its mystery. That ineffable thing about beauty, that thing we cannot quite ever put a name on, can’t exist when we try to examine it closely like Apollonius does.

But there are even more consequences here. Science destroys the happily ever after. What could have been a beautiful and productive relationship between two souls who loved each other (regardless of form) dies almost as soon as it starts. And the tragedy of it all is that Apollonius achieves nothing by his revelation. What does he hope will happen? What does happen is the destruction of two people.

Unfortunately, there is no resolution from Keats. He leaves us to draw our own conclusions about the moral of the story.

So what do you think? Have you read Lamia? What might Keats be saying here?

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8 thoughts on “John Keats Blog Tour: Exploring the Dilemma in Keats’ Lamia

  1. Emma

    I haven’t read “Lamia,” but it sounds a bit like the horror movie version of one of my favorite Keats poems, “The Eve of St. Agnes,” in which the male partner prepares of the feast of delights, purveys the deception, etc. But in “St. Agnes,” the lovers are together and happy at the end. There’s no real science in “St. Agnes,” but there is philosophic truth, which might be the same thing.

    Reply
  2. Kimberly Truesdale Post author

    That’s a great connection to make! There is the same dream-like quality to both poems (and some illicit sexuality within those dreams). I wonder what it says that the male prepares the dream that leads to happily ever after while the female prepares the dream that leads to death. Maybe because the female has also changed forms? The tension between dream/reality (which I think mirrors Keats’ beauty/philosophy dilemma) seems to show up in a lot of his work.

    Reply
  3. JaneGS

    I’m so glad you provided the background on this poem. I read it forever ago and I’m not sure I ever really “got” it. I absolutely love the description of the serpent–very sensuous.

    I can’t help thinking about this myth and Keats’ treatment of it in relation to his own relationship to Fanny Brawne. She captivated him but he didn’t have the means to marry her–his fantasy of living in bliss with her was just that, a fantasy. I can’t help but think that on some level he knew that his love for Fanny ensnared him.

    Reply
  4. Caroline

    I think here Keats really made a truly complex and ambiguous character – deceptive and yet not evil, because she is loving, and from a domineering character she becomes putty in Lycius’ hands. I think it’s partly Keats’ philosophy on love – because love is about wanting to impress the other person you end up deceiving them. And this love is so ideal and untrue that when the public comes, the true nature of the lover is revealed, destroying their relationship. He also immortalised the lover’s desire to have the beloved all to herself, but the man wants to show her off as a trophy, and bring intruders and the “real world” in. Love it seems cannot exist in the real world, because this mythical creature dies at the philosopher’s words.

    Reply
    1. Kimberly Truesdale Post author

      I like this point, but I wonder if this love is really supposed to be “untrue”? And it’s not really the general public (the other guests at the wedding feast) that see through the disguise, it’s the philosopher. And Keats seems to show him having a certain glee at exposing Lamia. Maybe it’s just my slant on things, but it seems like philosophy/science here unnecessarily destroys the beauty of love. It wasn’t really harming anyone, was it?

      Reply
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