The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lamia is a narrative of 708 lines of rhymed couplets, divided into two parts of approximately equal length. The major source is a brief passage in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) describing the marriage of Menippus Lycius, a twenty-five-year-old “philosopher” of “staid and discreet” decorum, to “a phantasm in the habit of a fair gentlewoman.” She is exposed at her wedding by Apollonius as “a serpent, a lamia,” upon which she, her house, and all who were in it instantaneously disappear. John Keats embellishes Burton’s bare narration with the story of Hermes’ love for a mysterious forest maiden, irresolvable thematic complexities, and passages of ornate description.

Lamia opens with words that echo the “Once upon a time” of the fairy tale, an appropriate beginning for a narrative that features nymphs, satyrs, and gods and has as its central figure a lamia, a supernatural creature represented as a serpent with the head and breasts of a woman and reputed to feast on the blood of children. Keats transformed this traditional demoniac figure into a character of considerable sympathy. Equally original is his depiction of the traditional classical woodland deities being driven away by King Oberon and his fairy throng at some indefinite time after the action of this poem takes place.

The narrative begins with the ardent Hermes surreptitiously leaving his throne on Mount Olympus to find in the...

(The entire section is 604 words.)