Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 213

Lamia is a narrative poem written by John Keats. It was published in 1820. The poem's overarching theme is Greek mythology. Many of the Romantic-era poets, such as John Keats, used Greek mythology as a trope for their poetic works.

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The titular character, Lamia, is the central figure of the poem. Hermes, who was looking for a beautiful nymph, finds Lamia in the form of a serpent. This anthropomorphic theme is common in Greek mythology stories, and the duality of the deity-beast, or mortal-beast, symbolizes the dual nature of humans; even gods and goddesses, who represent the virtues of humans, have bestial qualities.

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When Lamia reveals the invisible nymph that Hermes was trying to find, he returns the favor to Lamia by transforming her back to her human form. The other theme of the poem is the tragic ending to a love affair. When Lamia returns to her lover, Lycius, all seems well again. However, when Apollonius reveals Lamia's true nature, she disappears, and Lycius dies grieving her loss.

The theme of tragedy is one of the commonalities between the Romantic poets and Greek mythology. John Keats himself experienced romantic relationships that did not work out, and using the tragedies of mythology, he was able to dramatize the emotions he felt in real life.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 456

The possible meanings of Lamia have elicited extensive critical commentary. While it is evident that Keats did not envisage the character of Lamia as the demoniac creature of tradition, it is far from clear whether she is a femme fatale or the fragile victim of Apollonius’s rationality. The character of Apollonius is equally ambiguous: Is he the cold-hearted destroyer of beauty and joy or the good teacher of high ideals? Even Lycius is problematic. To what extent is the tragic ending attributable to his desire to provoke the envy of others? Further, does he hubristically reject human limitations to aspire to that pure pleasure known only by the immortals? These questions defy definitive answers.

The central conflict in Lamia may be taken to be either between responsibility and wanton hedonism on the one hand or between ethereal beauty and murderous rationality on the other. The problem is that, in either case, the text can support both views. Lamia’s benevolence is illustrated by her protection of the beautiful nymph from the lustful creatures of the forest—but why was she imprisoned in a serpent’s body in the first place? Apollonius’s positive character is established by his desire to save Lycius from wasteful self indulgence—but why does he laugh maliciously when he discovers Lamia’s identity?

It is probable that Keats himself was of a divided mind regarding his characters and their actions. Recurrent themes in his poetry are the power of art to capture the essence of human passions permanently, the power of the gods to enjoy for eternity the highest of human joys that last for but a moment on this earth, and the danger to humans of mingling with the gods. These themes are especially prominent in the poems of 1819, written only two years before his death.

The most problematic passage in Lamia is the one in part 2 that begins, “What wreath for Lamia? What for Lycius?” Keats appears to enter into the poem in a personal way, coming down on the side of Lamia against Apollonius, asking, “Do not all charms fly/ At the mere touch of cold philosophy” and asserting that “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings.” These sentiments embody the anti-intellectual bias of Romanticism, a bias seen earlier in William Wordsworth’s lines “Our meddling intellect/ Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:—/ We murder to dissect.” Keats’s denunciation of rational inquiry, which he sees as destroying the mystery of beauty, is a personal intrusion upon a narrative which to that point had been as objectively delivered as one could reasonably expect. The passage does not answer the many questions which the poem raises, but it does suggest that Keats in his heart sided with Lamia.

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