Lamia: by John Keats - Summary & Analysis

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      Lamia was the last of Keats’s three narrative poems. Keats considered this poem, written in 1819. He found the story in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. To some extent, Keats’s personal frustration in love influences the poem. The poem, written in two parts, shares with Keats’s other works the same thematic pattern, basic attitude to love, life and death, as well as a close connection with the poet’s personal experience.


      In Part I, Hermes arrives in the forest of Crete to search for his beloved nymph Here he meets Lamia the serpent-woman who promises to reveal the presence of his nymph to him if he gave her a woman’s body and placed her near Corinth. The agreement is sworn to. The nymph is revealed to Hermes, who, in his turn, changes the beautiful serpent into a beautiful maiden and places her on the road to Corinth. Lamia sees Lycius, the young, handsome Corinthian youth whom she loves. He too falls in love with Lamia. Lycius tells her that he would die if the vision of their love were to vanish. They go to Corinth and stay in a palatial building, created by the magical power of Lamia.

      In Part II, the marriage feast which Lycius is determined to give despite Lamia’s unwillingness, takes place. Here comes Apollonius, the philosopher, uninvited. He stares at Lamia and makes her uneasy. He knows her reality and when he reveals it, Lamia dissolves into a snake and then vanishes. Lycius dies at the shock and pain of the discovery.

Interpretation and Critical Analysis

      “Lamia” shows narrative power, and Keats’s ability to write a closely-knit story in verse. Keats has fashioned a fascinating poem that is vivid, vigorous, picturesque, thrilling and romantic. The theme of the poem has obvious similarities to that of Coleridge’s Christabel. But Keats’s treatment has a sense of stark reality amidst the enchantment. He gives, at the very outset, a picture of the serpent-lady and her painful transformation. We have passed here from the poetry in which the Marvellous is felt as a mystic clue of the unseen world to that which handles it with the simplicity of the Greeks. Keats does not try to foster a sense of mystery.

      Keats’s art of Characterization is apparent in this poem, has handled the characterization of Lamia, Lycius and Appollonius with adequate skill. In Lamia he has captured a sly, rafty, changeable and possessive nature as well as a weak- in the face of reality. Lycius is modeled on the pattern of the knight-in-arm of La Belle Dame Sans Mercia though with a contemplative and philosophic bent of mind. But he is essentially the romantic lover, unable to bear reality. In Apollonius, we have the personification of reality, the antithesis of the dreamer’s fancy.

      Keats’s Descriptive Power is very much evident in Lamia, There is color, movement and sensuousness in the descriptions. The description of the serpent is a masterpiece—a riot of color as well as suggestive of the movement of the story.

      Style and versification. The vocabulary used by Keats in Lamia shows his intimacy with Spenser, Milton and the Elizabethans. In this poem, Keats uses the heroic couplet, the form mastered by Dryden. Like Dryden, Keats varies the use by the introduction of an Alexandrine. Says Garrod: “In versification, it achieves more of masculinity than he elsewhere masters.” Herford observes that the study of Dryden gave Keats the ability to adapt the supple and sinewy narrative style to a lithe serpentine energy, so apt to the subject.

      Significance of "Lamia". The basic meaning of Lamia seems to be that the magical spell of romance is broken when analyzed coldly and philosophically. Keats asks in the poem:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of philosophy?

      Philosophy says the poet, “will clip an Angel’s wings” and “unweave a rainbow”. Vision and dreams are shown to be painfully unreal. As E. de Selincourt observes, in this poem Keats “concentrates his power upon a dramatic presentation of the antagonism between reason and emotion”.

      According to Clarence Thorpe, the ephemeral pleasure palace in the poem is the pleasure-house of the unreflecting dreams of the young poet who has been attracted to the seemingly beautiful Lamia (but she is false). “Cold philosophy” causes the ‘palace of barren dreams’ to crumble. The youngster who loved so unwisely also dies, but in his place is born a stronger and firmer soul. Thus it is an allegory of Keats’s own education of self, the realization of the unreality of romantic vision and the need to accept the reality of logic and reason.

      M R. Ridley feels that it is not right to make a formula out of the poem. Keats, he insists, does not take sides, as he realized that the world is a mixed one. Keats is merely propounding a problem—Lamia is lovely, but a serpent and a phantom; Apollonius is far from lovely, but he is reality; Lycius must be saved from the phantasm, even though the salvation kills him. Keats is thus wandering down one of the dark passages of maiden thought.”

      According to David Perkins, the poem presents the contradiction between dream and actuality with Keats caught between the two. As long as Lycius remains in pure love with Lamia, everything is fine; as soon as he tries to give his dream a social shape by marriage, the whole vision disappears. “By confusing dream and reality, the dreamer, who is to have an unhappy end, brings them together. Confronted with actuality, the dream is inevitably dispelled. By contrast with the heart’s illusion, reality appears meager and crabbed. Meanwhile, the dreamer, having lived so long with his illusion, has become incapable of dwelling in the actual human world. He cannot bear mortal life as it really is and crumples at the impact.” The contradiction between dream and reality, vision and actuality, is a theme more powerfully expressed in the Odes; in Lamia, too, the theme is dealt with.

      Conclusion. Lamia has been observed to have a close autobiographical note. Lycius is Keats, Lamia is Fanny Brawne, while Apollonius is Charles Brown who told Keats to forget Fanny. But the poem is not a subjective outpouring of emotion, and it is not necessary for us to know biographical details to understand or appreciate its meaning. It is a polished work, and its theme is one which was ever close to Keats’s heart—the contradiction of the attractions of the dream world and the miseries of the real world, and the firm conviction that the attitudes Apollonius stands for must be come to terms with. The poet must confront ‘the miseries of the world if he was to acquire Shakespearean heights.

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