According to Damrosch and Dettmar, Lamia is a “wickedly satirical, bitter romance” (975). The poem was written by John Keats in the summer of 1819 in an attempt at commercial success and published in 1820. The story revolves around the woman-serpent hybrid Lamia and her young, idealistic lover Lycius. After being transformed from a snake into a woman, Lamia and Lycius engage in an illicit, secretive affair that ends abruptly with the sage Apollonius’s revelation of Lamia’s true identity. Considered to be one of Keats’s most ambiguous and difficult poems, Lamia is also one of his most famous (Colvin 408; 471).
John Keats was born in 1795 to Thomas and Frances Keats. He and his siblings spent most of their early years with their grandmother but were eventually “remanded to the guardianship of a practical businessman” after their mother died (Damrosch and Dettmar 973). This man apprenticed Keats to a London hospital surgeon, and Keats obtained a license as an apothecary. In 1816, when Keats came of age, he abandoned the world of medicine in favor of the realm of poetry. Keats’s most famous works include his Odes of 1819, Lamia (1820), The Eve of St. Agnes (1820), and La Belle Dame sans Mercy (1820). He wrote his longest work, a 4,000-line poem called Endymion, in 1817 as part of a contest with Leigh Hunt and Percy Bysshe Shelley. John Keats’s career lasted from 1814-1820 when he died of tuberculosis.
Art and Reason
Like other Romantic poets, John Keats believed in and marveled at the endurance of ancient art, finding in it hope for the immortality of his own poetry. Writing in the post-Enlightenment age when superstition and fantasy were considered folly, Keats brought the debates between superstition and Enlightenment and Art and Reason into his works to argue for compromise between the apparently conflicting ideas. Lamia opens “upon a time, before the faery broods / Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods,” immediately distancing the reader from the present to instigate unbiased reflection and delving into a dream-like world of magic and myth that Keats propagates throughout the poem (I.1-2). Keats represents the necessity of compromise between the two through his representation of the fates of Lamia and Lycius. Though Lycius is a victim to Lamia’s magic and beauty, “tangled in her mesh” and sequestered from the natural world, at the “thrill of trumpets” he is drawn back and finds a way to moderate the realm of beauty and the realm of reason with a marriage of the two (I.295; II.27-28). Lycius invites the “busy world” into Lamia’s enchanted palace and for a moment combines the real and the illusory in a celebratory scene (I. 397). Apollonius, though breaking Lycius from Lamia’s spell, ultimately kills him with his unmoderated insertion of “cold philosophy” (II. 230).
Apollonius succeeds in his endeavor not only by revealing Lamia’s true nature but also by systematically destroying her beauty. In line 237, Keats compares this process to “[unweaving] a rainbow” through scientific analysis, ultimately relegating what was formerly beautiful and poetic to the status of a calculated scientific process. Under Apollonius’s reasoning, critical eye, Lamia “withers” (II.290) and is “no longer fair” (II.276). By destroying the dream-like beauty of Lamia and decrying her not even as the part-human snake that Hermes encounters but rather as merely “a serpent,” Apollonius breaks the pleasure that appears to be vital to Lycius’s life (II. 303). Keats says that “Lycius’s arms were empty of delight” then extends the image to the rest of his “limbs,” and the loss of the delight of Lamia’s beauty becomes the cause of Lycius’s loss “of life” (II.307-308). By juxtaposing Lamia’s poetic beauty with Apollonius’s reason and noting their guilt in Lycius’s death, Keats ultimately expresses the necessity of moderation and compromise between these two camps of thought while also relating the importance of both to life and well-being.
The Power of Knowledge
The theme of knowledge pervades this text and guides the successes and failures of its characters from the very beginning. In most Gothic texts, the possession of or attempt to obtain forbidden knowledge becomes the protagonist’s downfall. Lamia subverts this notion and instead lists the concealment of knowledge as the ultimate source of both destruction and power. Lamia first exhibits her control over this power when she exercises it against Hermes. She states that it is “by [her] power” that the nymph Hermes seeks is “veil’d,” thereby placing herself in a position to demand a boon from the god because of her advanced knowledge and ability to transmit it (I. 100). The attainment of this knowledge grants Hermes the power to “[fly]” into the “green-recessed woods” with the accepting nymph who “like new flowers at morning song of bees, / Bloom’d” upon Hermes’s discovery of her (I. 142-144). Keats’s use of nature imagery to depict the nymph’s openness and the freedom of the two supernatural lovers indicates the positivity of the transmission of previously forbidden knowledge and attributes to it a saving power.
Keats repeats this model with Lycius later in the poem. Because Lycius does not possess the knowledge to see through Lamia, he becomes entrenched in her spell and ultimately causes his own downfall. Lycius does not perceive nor does he seek to perceive Lamia’s supernatural nature. The impossible speed of their arrival in Corinth is “not at all surmised / By blinded Lycius, so in her comprised” (I. 346-347). Keats goes on to say that Lycius “knew not how” they reached their destination and “never thought to know” (I. 348-349). It is this complete abandonment of his desire for knowledge that places Lycius in the role of subservient victim, merely moving from “one trance . . . into another” and unable to emerge from Lamia’s sequestered, dream-like world (I. 296-297).
Lamia’s concealment of her identity becomes her downfall with the entrance of Apollonius who possesses knowledge equal to hers. With its revelation Apollonius gains power over Lamia and disillusions Lycius and the wedding guests from Lamia’s enchantment. Though ultimately resulting in Lycius’s death, this is a victory for Apollonius who considers the youth a “fool” and is determined not to see Lycius “made a serpent’s prey” (II. 295; 298). For Apollonius himself, knowledge becomes a liberating force and allows him to triumph over what he considers a “foul dream” (II. 271).
Relevance to Romanticism and the Gothic
In a letter to his brother and sister-in-law, Keats famously says that he is “certain there is that sort of fire in [Lamia] which must take hold of people in some way—give them either pleasant or unpleasant situation” (Damrosch and Dettmar 1014). The transmission of sensation was one of the key concerns of Romanticism. The Romantic poets believed that imagination and emotion were the source of transcendence and deeper understanding (“Romanticism”). Keats employs this idea in his characterization of Lamia. Though she is a serpent, she also possesses the ability to feel a range of human emotions, including love, bliss, and pain. Her love for Lycius prompts her to manipulate Hermes’s desire for the nymph and gain a human body. Though indirectly, emotion grants to Lamia the opportunity to transcend her natural state for a potentially happier one and speaks on a grander scale to the relationship of freedom and individual emotion that Romantic poets commonly explored. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth proposed a revolution in poetry that would focus on the transmission of emotion for the purpose of connecting feelings with "important subjects" so that "the understanding of the Reader" could be "enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified" (Wordsworth 6). Keats attends to this aspect of Wordsworth's project by placing an emphasis on his character's reactions, often employing the use of laments and exclamations to indicate powerful emotion and blurring the lines between the sympathetic and unsympathetic. Ultimately Lamia deceives and manipulates Lycius and can be considered a dangerous villain without scruple. However, because Keats attends to and has sympathy for her emotions, depicting her not as a cold and calculating individual but rather as a woman acting on her passions. he forces one to reconsider one's immediately negative reaction and indicates his personal interest in producing sympathy and sensation in a way that corresponds with Wordsworth's project as well as the Romantic project in general.
Coming out of the Romantic tradition, Gothic literature asked the reader to question the social constructs and preconceived notions with which a text is read and instead give in to the power of imagination to see the blurring of the lines between apparently dichotomous pairs such as past and present, good and evil, dream and reality, etc. With its fantastic descriptions, play on sympathy, and complication of its main character, Lamia embodies all of these aspects. Like other Gothic texts, namely Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel, Lamia conflates the notion of good and evil through Keats’s characterization of the title character. Lamia dwells uniquely between the natural and supernatural worlds. She is a serpent that possesses “a woman’s mouth” (I. 60) and one who seems “at once, some penanced lady elf, / Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self” (Keats I. 55-56). The ambiguity surrounding Lamia’s identity and role in the poem suggests a more complicated reading that forces one to abandon all preconceived notions about the boundaries between protagonist and antagonist and recognize that nothing in the poem may be what it appears. A similar instance occurs with the entrance of Geraldine in Coleridge’s Christabel. Though Coleridge depicts the antagonist Geraldine as “beautiful exceedingly” and appears to relate her purity by depicting her “silken robe of white,” by the end of the first part of the poem it is clear that Geraldine is not what she appears and actually possesses a very dark and dangerous soul (Coleridge I. 66; 61). The ambiguity of both texts supports the Gothic trope of uncertainty and expresses the need for unbiased examination and freedom of imagination to confront the often fluid boundaries of the world.
The goal of any Romantic author, whether involved with aspects of revolution, nature, or the Gothic, was to make the reader experience a sensation and jar that reader out of the mechanical mindsets and routines brought about by the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment thinking. Romantic poets adamantly believed in the power of the imagination to imbue the world with meaning and free the mind from the strictures of cold reason. Though using more formal verses and classical imagery than poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats achieves this ultimate goal, writing an ambiguous poem that causes the reader to question the definition of the femme fatale, the victim, and even the roles of imagination and reason in daily life.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "Christabel." The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A. Ed. Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Detmar. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. 652-658. Print.
Colvin, Sidney. John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, Critics and After-fame.London: Macmillan and Co., 1917. Web.
Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Detmar. "John Keats." The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A. Ed. Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Detmar. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. 652-658. Print.
Keats, John. “Lamia.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A. Ed. Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2012. 1014-1031. Print.
"Romanticism." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 15 Apr 2015.
Wordsworth, William. Preface. Bartleby, Harvard Classics, 1909-14. Web. 24 April 2015.
Keats biography and link to poems: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-keats
Extended Keats biography: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/36356/36356-h/36356-h.htm#page513
Benvenuto, Richard. "'The Ballance of Good and Evil' in Keats's Letters and 'Lamia.'" The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 71, No. 1. University of Illinois Press, 1972. 1-11. PDF.
Clarke, Bruce. "Fabulous Monsters of Conscience: Anthropomorphosis in Keats's Lamia." Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 23, No. 4. Boston University, 1984. 555-579. PDF.
Sitterson, Joseph C., Jr. "'Platonic Shades' in Keats's 'Lamia.'" The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 83, No. 2. University of Illinois Press, 1984. 200-213. PDF.