Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The possible meanings of Lamia have elicited extensive critical commentary. While it is evident that Keats did not envisage the character of Lamia as the demoniac creature of tradition, it is far from clear whether she is a femme fatale or the fragile victim of Apollonius’s rationality. The character of Apollonius is equally ambiguous: Is he the cold-hearted destroyer of beauty and joy or the good teacher of high ideals? Even Lycius is problematic. To what extent is the tragic ending attributable to his desire to provoke the envy of others? Further, does he hubristically reject human limitations to aspire to that pure pleasure known only by the immortals? These questions defy definitive answers.

The central conflict in Lamia may be taken to be either between responsibility and wanton hedonism on the one hand or between ethereal beauty and murderous rationality on the other. The problem is that, in either case, the text can support both views. Lamia’s benevolence is illustrated by her protection of the beautiful nymph from the lustful creatures of the forest—but why was she imprisoned in a serpent’s body in the first place? Apollonius’s positive character is established by his desire to save Lycius from wasteful self indulgence—but why does he laugh maliciously when he discovers Lamia’s identity?

It is probable that Keats himself was of a divided mind regarding his characters and their actions. Recurrent themes...

(The entire section is 456 words.)