Sunday, 23 August 2015

Lamia by John Keats.

Illustrated by Robert Anning Bell (1897).

Lamia was written by John Keats in 1819 and published in 1820 along with Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, Hyperion, To Autumn (one of my absolute favourites) and other poems. It's about 708 lines and is divided into two parts, and it is based on the Greek myth of Lamia, the mistress of Zeus who his wife Hera detests, and she kills all of Lamia's children and turns her into a monster that hunts and kills the children of others. In the 19th Century this myth was changed somewhat and Lamia was essentially a monster who would hunt and devour men.

1888 edition.
Part I begins,
Upon a time, before the faery broods
Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods,
Before King Oberon’s bright diadem,
Sceptre, and mantle, clasp’d with dewy gem,
Frighted away the Dryads and the Fauns
From rushes green, and brakes, and cowslip’d lawns,
The ever-smitten Hermes empty left
His golden throne, bent warm on amorous theft:
From high Olympus had he stolen light,
On this side of Jove’s clouds, to escape the sight
Of his great summoner, and made retreat
Into a forest on the shores of Crete.
In Crete there is a nymph - 
A nymph, to whom all hoofed Satyrs knelt;
At whose white feet the languid Tritons poured  
Pearls, while on land they wither’d and adored.
Fast by the springs where she to bathe was wont,
And in those meads where sometime she might haunt,
Were strewn rich gifts, unknown to any Muse,
Though Fancy’s casket were unlock’d to choose.    
Ah, what a world of love was at her feet!
So Hermes thought...
So Hermes tries to find this nymph but cannot, but soon he comes across a serpent:
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;         
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries—
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,        
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:      
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
As Proserpine still weeps for her Sicilian air.
Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake
Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love’s sake,        
And thus; while Hermes on his pinions lay,
Like a stoop’d falcon ere he takes his prey.
First illustration of Lamia
by Robert Anning Bell (1897)
This serpent is a woman changed into a snake, and she tells Hermes she will reveal the invisible nymph if he will change her back into a woman. He agrees, and the serpent is changed: it is Lamia, and she quickly flees in search of Lycius, a young man from Corinth.  When she finds him he falls in love,
And soon his eyes had drunk her beauty up, Leaving no drop in the bewildering cup, And still the cup was full,—while he afraid Lest she should vanish ere his lip had paid Due adoration, thus began to adore...
He takes her to Corinth where they live together, "Shut from the busy world of more incredulous".

In Part II, Keats begins by writing their love is "a doubtful tale from faery land". Lycius wishes to marry her, and she eventually consents on the condition that his friend Apollonius, the philosopher, is not invited to the wedding. However Apollonius does come, uninvited, and Lycius lets him join the wedding party:
Lycius blush’d, and led The old man through the inner doors broad-spread;
With reconciling words and courteous mien Turning into sweet milk the sophist’s spleen.
This philosopher is not taken in by Lamia's charms - " Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?". Keats writes,
... The bald-head philosopher    
Had fix'd his eye, without a twinkle or stir Full on the alarmed beauty of the bride, Brow-beating her fair form, and troubling her sweet pride. Lycius then press’d her hand, with devout touch, As pale it lay upon the rosy couch:    
'Twas icy, and the cold ran through his veins; Then sudden it grew hot, and all the pains Of an unnatural heat shot to his heart. "Lamia, what means this? Wherefore dost thou start? Know’st thou that man?" Poor Lamia answer’d not.
Second illustration of Lamia by Robert Anning Bell (1897).
He continues to stare at her, and Lamia is increasingly nervous. Lycius panics and tells Apollonius to stop staring - "Shut, shut those juggling eyes, thou ruthless man!". He answers, "Fool", and
"Fool! Fool!" repeated he, while his eyes still  
Relented not, nor mov'd; "from every ill
Of life have I preserv’d thee to this day, And shall I see thee made a serpent’s prey?"
Then Lamia breath’d death breath; the sophist's eye, Like a sharp spear, went through her utterly,      
Keen, cruel, perceant, stinging: she, as well
As her weak hand could any meaning tell,
Motion’d him to be silent; vainly so, He look’d and look’d again a level—No!
"A Serpent!" echoed he; no sooner said,
Than with a frightful scream she vanished:
And Lycius' arms were empty of delight...
Lycius, on the very moment she vanishes dies, "no pulse, or breath they found", and there the poem ends.

Lamia is throughout manipulative, deceptive, and at times callous - a perfect snake, in short, but she is not completely hateful, not completely a 'belle dame sans merci', another poem by Keats that reminded me of Lamia. It seems to be a poem (I write cautiously because I'm not so good on the Romantics) about the destructiveness on love based on image; a passionate but ultimately superficial love. As ever, I'm enthralled by Keats' language and descriptions, but still it is not an easy read however enjoyable. I think I'm the superficial reader that Keats would hate - I love the beauty of it but struggle with the deeper meanings! Something to work on.

To finish, two beautiful paintings by John William Waterhouse inspired by Keats' poem.

Lamia by John William Waterhouse (1905).

Lamia by John William Waterhouse (1909).


  1. I love Keats but I always like to read him in peace and quiet and relaxation, which I never have. Sigh! One day, I'd love to have that quiet to read through a volume of his poetry.

    1. Yes, I'd like to - I want to read the rest of the poems in this volume at least! Love Keats, but it doesn't come easy to me. :)

    2. I had a friend years ago who told me that if she ever could retire ,she would read the classics. She died relatively young. Don't think she got the chance.

    3. Ah, that's sad. Sorry to hear that.


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