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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Lamia was written in 1819, Keats’s wondrous year that began with “The Eve of St. Agnes” and concluded with The Fall of Hyperion (1856). In this period of creativity unparalleled in English poetry, Keats, ever the experimenter, mastered many literary forms and effects. In Lamia he returned to the pentameter couplet, which he had used two years earlier for the lengthy Endymion (1818). In the interim, he had studied John Dryden’s couplets. Dryden’s influence is seen in the heightened control of language over thought that is displayed in Lamia. Here there is little of that impression one has when reading Endymion that the progression of thought is often determined by the need for a rhyme, although Keats occasionally sacrifices English word order for the expedience of a rhyme, as in “Fast by the springs where she to bathe was wont” or “Soft went the music the soft air along.” In this poem Keats minimizes the monotony of the couplet form by enjambment, internal stops, and frequent Alexandrines. The poem concludes with a triplet, which gives a strong sense of finality.

Lamia is rich in rhetorical devices: alliteration (“purple-lined palace of sweet sin”), allusion (“she lifted her Circean head”), metaphor (“a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell”), simile (“His mind wrapp’d like his mantle”); personification (“Love, jealous grown of so complete a pair/ Hover’d and buzz’d his wings”), and periphrasis (“star of Lethe” for Hermes, “a bright Phoebean dart” for sun ray). The most important device is imagery. As in “To Autumn,” Keats appeals to every sense (including a sense of motion) to involve the reader in the experience of the poem. Especially vivid are the descriptions of Hermes in quest of the nymph, the “gordian shape of dazzling hue,” and Lamia’s pleasure palace. These descriptions are as colorful and rich in detail as those of “The Eve of St. Agnes.” “Green” and “pale” are motifs signifying vitality and death. In the last fifty lines, auditory images become particularly important as the sounds of pleasure in Lamia’s palace are replaced by a “deadly silence” that is pierced by the shrieks of Apollonius.