Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290

In “Lamia,” John Keats offers one of his richest works in both theme and form. The Romantic championing of the underdog reaches its apogee with the poet’s apparent plea for empathy with the “lamia,” a serpent-woman that previously stood for disguise, deceit, and cunning. Perhaps he intends to convey human vulnerability to the vagaries of fate; it was a god’s intervention that led to Lycius getting fooled. The ever-shifting, ambiguous character of the poem, including the poet’s attitude toward the characters, perfectly correlates with the serpentine theme. Conventional in certain ways, as in the use of rhyming couplets, the poem otherwise showcases Keats’ dazzling use of figurative language for visual descriptions and to evince an eerie tone.

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Keats consistently builds on the bedrock of his Romantic premise that rationality and intellect cannot rule human passion, and in fact will usually destroy it. He asks: “Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” Two similar but contrasting situations are presented: the immortal Hermes finds bliss with his nymph, whose true form was released from enchantment, but the mortal Lycius, in realizing that his beloved’s human appearance was an illusion, loses his lover and his life.

Keats presents Lamia with human emotions; she is motivated by love, not just selfish desire to escape the serpent’s form. Apollonius harshly judges Lycius’ absorption in sensory pleasure as wasteful self-indulgence. Rather than rescue a foolish young man, however, Apollonius not only completely destroys Lamia—she vanishes in a poof—but also crushes Lucius’ happiness and thus ends his life. In this regard, while Lamia is ostensibly the subject, the poem stands as Keats’s defense of the creative person’s losing battles against rigid, prosaic, society.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

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 forest of Crete the beautiful nymph by whom he has been smitten. Even after a thorough search, he fails to find her, because a lamia has made her invisible to shield her from the lustful satyrs. Instead, he encounters “a palpitating snakeof dazzling hue.” The snake (the lamia) agrees to reveal the maiden’s presence if Hermes will restore her to her previous woman’s form. Oaths are made. At once Hermes sees the “nymph near-smiling on the green.” The beautiful creature begins to fade but is restored by Hermes, and the two fly into the green woods, never to grow “pale as mortal lovers do.”

The lamia undergoes a violent metamorphosis into Lamia, a virgin of supernal beauty in love with young Lycius, a student in Corinth whom she has seen on one of the many psychic trips she made “when in the serpent prison-house.” As quick as thought, she is in Corinth and meets Lycius, who is musing in “the calm twilight of Platonic shades.” He falls in love with her at first sight and swoons “pale with pain” when she tells him that “finer spirits cannot breathe below/ In human climes, and live,” ironically presaging her own demise and stating one of the poem’s possible themes. Relenting, she “threw the goddess off, and won his heart/ More pleasantly by playing woman’s part.” On the way to her mysterious palace, unknown to any but “a few Persian mutes,” they encounter the aged Apollonius, the sage teacher and “trusty guide” of Lycius. Lamia instinctively trembles, and Lycius for the first time in his life looks upon his “good instructor” as the “ghost of folly haunting [his] sweet dreams.”

After living for an indefinite period of time shut off from the world with Lamia in her “purple-lined palace of sweet sin,” Lycius is moved by pride to show her to his friends. Rejecting her pleas to continue as they are, he invites many guests to their marriage feast. Apollonius appears, uninvited, and with good intentions of saving his pupil from becoming a “serpent’s prey,” exposes Lamia. She turns deathly pale and vanishes. Lycius in turn dies, and the poem concludes as the guests wind “the heavy body” in “its marriage robe.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

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.

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Themes

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Characters