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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,252 words.)