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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.

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