‘LAMIA’ By John Keats 

(Form, Structure, Language & context)


The annotations usually point out features from, structure and context, which are suitable for critical analysis.  This page is also designed to help students wishing to answer the AQA Section A question, ‘How does Keats tell the story?’

 Part 1

Fairy tale opening with a classical setting.  ‘Lamia’ is a third-person, narrative poem written in heroic couplets

Upon a time, before the faery broods

Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods,     Nymphs are mythical deities of nature and Satyrs are mythical goatlike  creatures

Before King Oberon‘s bright diadem,   King Oberon is the legendary king of the fairies

Sceptre, and mantle, clasp’d with dewy gem,

Frighted away the Dryads and the Fauns     Dryads are oak tree spirits and Fauns half-human half-goat mythical spirits

From rushes green, and brakes, and cowslip’d lawns,

The ever-smitten Hermes empty left

His golden throne, bent warm on amorous theft:     Hermes is a lascivious, long-haired God who conducts souls to the place of the dead

From high Olympus had he stolen light,   In Greek mythology, Mount Olympus is the home of the Gods

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.

Hermes’ theft and subsequent hiding on Crete gives a dubious moral backdrop to the later narrative elements concerning Lamia & Lycius

For somewhere in that sacred island dwelt

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, and a celestial heat

Burnt from his winged heels to either ear,

That from a whiteness, as the lily clear,

Blush’d into roses ‘mid his golden hair,

Fallen in jealous curls about his shoulders bare.   Rhyming triplet to conclude and develop a sense of Hermes’ illicit passion

From vale to vale, from wood to wood, he flew,   Poetical repetition of phrase structure and vocabulary 

Breathing upon the flowers his passion new,

And wound with many a river to its head,

To find where this sweet nymph prepar’d her secret bed:

In vain; the sweet nymph might nowhere be found,

And so he rested, on the lonely ground,

Pensive, and full of painful jealousies

Of the Wood-Gods, and even the very trees.

There as he stood, he heard a mournful voice,

Such as once heard, in gentle heart, destroys

All pain but pity: thus the lone voice spake:

The serpent speaks and is overheard by Hermes – this soliloquy conveys her plight

When from this wreathed tomb shall I awake!

When move in a sweet body fit for life,   Repetition of ‘When’: suggests desperation.

And love, and pleasure, and the ruddy strife

Of hearts and lips! Ah, miserable me!”   The snake’s maudlin egocentrism.

The God, dove-footed, glided silently

Round bush and tree, soft-brushing, in his speed,

The taller grasses and full-flowering weed,

Finally, at the end of the stanza, we are dramatically introduced to the sensuous, heart-beating and sinister nature of the snake: she is at once ‘bright’ yet also antithetically lying coiled and partly hidden.  Through the narrator’s perspective, we begin to see her nature.

Until he found a palpitating snake,

Bright, and cirque-couchant in a dusky brake.

In the next stanza, the magical description of the snake includes reference to a shimmering range of colours and patterns of exotic animals and such natural wonders as sun moon and stars.  The description is breath-taking, even more so because of the movement

She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,   ‘gordian’ = intricate

Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;

Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,

The similes bring together hunter and prey.  The reader is never fully sure as to how to respond to the serpent.  

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,   The full spectrum of colour

She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,

Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.

Contradictions abound in the description of the snake.  Is she absolved of her sin or the devil incarnate?

Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire

Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:

Adriadne: more mortal than goddess daughter of King Minos of Crete was given the constellation of seven u-shaped stars by Dionysius on her wedding day.

Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!   The oxymoron seems to suggest even Keats’ own uncertainty

She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:   The metaphor of pearls = not just teeth but lustrous gems of inestimable worth.

And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there

But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?   The rhetorical question shows Keats’ view

As Proserpine still weeps for her Sicilian air.

The Goddess of Spring weeping in the underworld is used in the simile to heighten the serpent’s forlorn state.

Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake

Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love’s sake,

The simile, above, conveys unalloyed sweetness contrasting with the use of the heavily connotated word ‘serpent’

And thus; while Hermes on his pinions lay,

Like a stoop’d falcon ere he takes his prey.

The snake is not surprised to see Hermes – thus suggesting that her earlier soliloquy was calculated for his benefit.  The dialogue, in which she directly addresses Hermes, now begins:

“Fair Hermes, crown’d with feathers, fluttering light,

I had a splendid dream of thee last night:

I saw thee sitting, on a throne of gold,

Among the Gods, upon Olympus old,


The only sad one; for thou didst not hear The soft,    Quite a statement, considering Apollo is the musician of the Gods!

lute-finger’d Muses chaunting clear,

Nor even Apollo when he sang alone,

Deaf to his throbbing throat’s long, long melodious moan.

In the  above opening address, the snake relates her ‘dream’ which shows Hermes’ isolation.

I dreamt I saw thee, robed in purple flakes,

Break amorous through the clouds, as morning breaks,

And, swiftly as a bright Phoebean dart,

Strike for the Cretan isle; and here thou art!

Too gentle Hermes, hast thou found the maid?”   Direct question!

Whereat the star of Lethe not delay’d

His rosy eloquence, and thus inquired:

The star of Lethe is Hermes … who now replies, using the same archaic ‘thou’ as Lamia, which conveys a sense of the language of myth. 

Thou smooth-lipp’d serpent, surely high inspired!

Thou beauteous wreath, with melancholy eyes,

Possess whatever bliss thou canst devise,

Telling me only where my nymph is fled,–

Where she doth breathe!” “Bright planet, thou hast said,”

Return’d the snake, “but seal with oaths, fair God!”

I swear,” said Hermes, “by my serpent rod,

And by thine eyes, and by thy starry crown!”

The contract is made: any bliss of the snake’s choice, in return for her betrayal of the nymph, by withdrawing her protection, which she says was given through compassion.  

However, the degree of the snake’s self-interest can be measured against her own description of the idyll that she destroys.  Note the underlined repetition in the next part of the poem:

Light flew his earnest words, among the blossoms blown.

Then thus again the brilliance feminine:

“Too frail of heart! for this lost nymph of thine,

Free as the air, invisibly, she strays

About these thornless wilds; her pleasant days

She tastes unseen; unseen her nimble feet

Leave traces in the grass and flowers sweet;

From weary tendrils, and bow’d branches green,

She plucks the fruit unseen, she bathes unseen:

And by my power is her beauty veil’d

To keep it unaffronted, unassail’d

By the love-glances of unlovely eyes,

Of Satyrs, Fauns, and blear’d Silenus’ sighs.

Pale grew her immortality, for woe

Of all these lovers, and she grieved so

I took compassion on her, bade her steep

Her hair in weird syrops, that would keep

Her loveliness invisible, yet free

To wander as she loves, in liberty.

Thou shalt behold her, Hermes, thou alone,   Exclusive to him!  How can he refuse the offer!

If thou wilt, as thou swearest, grant my boon!”

She repeats the condition of the contract between them and the vow that Hermes must make.

Then, once again, the charmed God began

An oath, and through the serpent’s ears it ran

Warm, tremulous, devout, psalterian.

Note the irony of the devotional psaltered words running through the serpent’s ears.

Ravish’d, she lifted her Circean head,

Blush’d a live damask, and swift-lisping said,

Physicality is shown in ‘ravish’d’ and the blush, whilst lasciviousness is inferred by the lisp.  She now gives her specific wish:

“I was a woman, let me have once more

A woman’s shape, and charming as before.

I love a youth of Corinth–O the bliss!

Give me my woman’s form, and place me where he is.

Stoop, Hermes, let me breathe upon thy brow,

And thou shalt see thy sweet nymph even now.”

The serpent uses the imperative form: ‘stoop’; uses the possessive ‘thy nymph’ and tempts Hermes with immediate sight of her.

The God on half-shut feathers sank serene,

She breath’d upon his eyes, and swift was seen

Of both the guarded nymph near-smiling on the green.

Note how the three rhymed lines above and the sibilance demonstrate Hermes’ utter capitulation.  The nymph is revealed in the third rhymed line which is also an Alexandrine.

In the last part of the stanza, below, the world of the Gods is shown to be different from that of humans; Their dreams are real and there is no end to their existence:

It was no dream; or say a dream it was,

Real are the dreams of Gods, and smoothly pass

Their pleasures in a long immortal dream.

One warm, flush’d moment, hovering, it might seem

Dash’d by the wood-nymph’s beauty, so he burn’d;

Then, lighting on the printless verdure, turn’d

To the swoon’d serpent, and with languid arm,

Delicate, put to proof the lythe Caducean charm.

Hermes casually fulfils his side of the bargain with the alliteratively ‘swoon’d serpent’ and now only has eyes for the nymph:

So done, upon the nymph his eyes he bent,

Full of adoring tears and blandishment,

And towards her stept: she, like a moon in wane,   Simile of the feminine moon in retreat.

Faded before him, cower’d, nor could restrain

Her fearful sobs, self-folding like a flower

That faints into itself at evening hour:

Above, vulnerable and without power and intimidated, the female is heard to be helpless in the soft ‘f’ alliterated sounds.

But the God fostering her chilled hand,   ‘Fostering’: paternalistic active vocabulary of male dominance clothed in softness.

She felt the warmth, her eyelids open’d bland,

And, like new flowers at morning song of bees,

Bloom’d, and gave up her honey to the lees.

periphrastic socially acceptable metaphor  for the passive, erotic sexual act, where flowers only have to open.  Keats sails very close to the wind here!

Into the green-recessed woods they flew;

Nor grew they pale, as mortal lovers do.

i.e. they do not die but also, perhaps, there is the implication of untiring sexual activity.  We hear no more of Hermes but the the worlds of fairies and Gods continue to pervade the text as motifs.

The snake’s transformation now takes place.  Note how the description mirrors and contrasts with the earlier description of the serpent:  I recommend photocopying lines 47-67 and 146-170 and placing the copies side by side, to pick up on all the structural antithetical elements.  The suffering is a prelude to bliss.

Left to herself, the serpent now began

To change; her elfin blood in madness ran,

Her mouth foam’d, and the grass, therewith besprent,

Wither’d at dew so sweet and virulent;

Her eyes in torture fix’d, and anguish drear,

Hot, glaz’d, and wide, with lid-lashes all sear,

Flash’d phosphor and sharp sparks, without one cooling tear.    Alexandrine line.

The colours all inflam’d throughout her train,

She writh’d about, convuls’d with scarlet pain:

A deep volcanian yellow took the place

Modern readers may well apply a Freudian interpretation: the basic primitive instinct, of the very unpleasantly coloured, id now rises, to cover and destroy the constructed surface ego of ‘the mead’.

Of all her milder-mooned body’s grace;

And, as the lava ravishes the mead,    Note the lustful language

Spoilt all her silver mail, and golden brede;

Made gloom of all her frecklings, streaks and bars,

No reference to the zebra, pard or peacock of the lines 49-50 but the ‘dazzling’ markings are now ‘made gloom’.  

Eclips’d her crescents, and lick’d up her stars:

The dramatic astronomical phenomenon of an eclipse and the personification of ‘lava’ obliterates the celestial patterns on her skin. 

So that, in moments few, she was undrest

Of all her sapphires, greens, and amethyst,

And rubious-argent: of all these bereft,

Reference to the value of amethyst and gemstone colours being lost through death, by way of the personification in the word ‘bereft’ 

Nothing but pain and ugliness were left.

Still shone her crown; that vanish’d, also she

Melted and disappear’d as suddenly;

And in the air, her new voice luting soft,   This adverb is a fine example of poetic diction: it conveys different meanings simutaneously

Cried, “Lycius! gentle Lycius!”– Borne aloft

With the bright mists about the mountains hoar

These words dissolv’d: Crete’s forests heard no more.

Whither fled Lamia, now a lady bright,    Her name, now that she is a woman, is used for the first time

A full-born beauty new and exquisite?     The narrator, in the oral story-telling tradition, asks where she has gone. 

She fled into that valley they pass o’er      He now replies to his own question.

Who go to Corinth from Cenchreas‘ shore;   Many would travel the road from Cenchreas because it was Corinth’s port

And rested at the foot of those wild hills,

The rugged founts of the Peraean rills,

And of that other ridge whose barren back

Stretches, with all its mist and cloudy rack,

South-westward to Cleone. There she stood  Lamia now waits for Lycius

About a young bird’s flutter from a wood,   Suggesting innocence, insecurity and vulnerability

Fair, on a sloping green of mossy tread,

By a clear pool, wherein she passioned    Lamia is emotionally charged – note the concision of poetic diction

To see herself escap’d from so sore ills,

While her robes flaunted with the daffodils.   Lamia as coquette  through metonymic association with her robes

Ah, happy Lycius!–for she was a maid    It is helpful to read the few pages, which are available online, of Andrew Motion’s book on Keats.

More beautiful than ever twisted braid,    Use of tripled but varying alternative comparisons on this and the two following lines, to the personified ‘braid’

Or sigh’d, or blush’d, or on spring-flowered lea

Spread a green kirtle to the minstrelsy:    skirt

A virgin purest lipp’d, yet in the lore   In this and the following lines to the end of the stanza, the contradictions in Lamia’s nature continue: she is at once an innocent virgin and a sexually experienced woman, who is versed in the Art of Love (ref: Ars amatoria by Ovid Book III).  She is blameless – yet she is also imagined  a graduate of Cupid’s College!  Keats uses antithesis to create an impossible resolution to the Madonna-whore complex, as later named by Freud, which is still a relevant dilemma for men and women today. 

Of love deep learned to the red heart’s core:    Note the use of colour

Not one hour old, yet of sciential brain    ‘sciental’ = knowing.  Poetical, latinate diction.

To unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain;

Define their pettish limits, and estrange

Their points of contact, and swift counterchange;

Intrigue with the specious chaos, and dispart

Its most ambiguous atoms with sure art;

As though in Cupid’s college she had spent

Sweet days a lovely graduate, still unshent,    ‘unshent’ = blameless

And kept his rosy terms in idle languishment.

Why this fair creature chose so fairily    revisiting the motif of fairy tale

In the next two lines, the narrator’s persona conspicuously brings himself and the reader into the narrative process.  We are now prepared for Keats to take us back to an earlier period in the sequence of events – thus revealing the plot which is earlier alluded to in line 119.

By the wayside to linger, we shall see;

But first ’tis fit to tell how she could muse

And dream, when in the serpent prison-house,    Her form imprisons her nature.

Of all she list, strange or magnificent:

How, ever, where she will’d, her spirit went;   Despite her physical imprisonment, Lamia’s spirit is, antithetically, free to travel to the paradise of the after-life reserved for Gods, demi-gods and heroes .   The textual motif Greek mythology brings the reader to consider the human condition, dreams and the nature of the imagination.

Whether to faint Elysium, or where    Elysium = the after-life

Down through tress-lifting waves the Nereids fair    Nereids = sea nymphs in Greek mythology

Wind into Thetis‘ bower by many a pearly stair;    Thetis = the goddess of water, attended by sea nymphs

Or where God Bacchus drains his cups divine,    Bacchus (Roman) = Dionysus (Greek) = God of wine and ecstasy

Stretch’d out, at ease, beneath a glutinous pine;   suggests physical excess

Or where in Pluto‘s gardens palatine   Pluto = ruler of the underworld

Mulciber’s columns gleam in far piazzian line.

And sometimes into cities she would send

Her dream, with feast and rioting to blend;    ‘real are the dreams of the gods’ (Part 1 Line 127)

And once, while among mortals dreaming thus,

She saw the young Corinthian Lycius

Charioting foremost in the envious race,

Like a young Jove with calm uneager face,    The simile compares him most favourably to the king of the gods.  ‘Uneager’ suggests to me that Lamia sees Lycius to be beyond petty competitiveness.  

And fell into a swooning love of him.    all encompassing physical response

Now on the moth-time of that evening dim    Keats returns to the present.   Moth-time =t he time of being irresistibly drawn.

He would return that way, as well she knew,

To Corinth from the shore; for freshly blew

The eastern soft wind, and his galley now

Grated the quaystones with her brazen prow

In port Cenchreas, from Egina isle

Fresh anchor’d; whither he had been awhile

To sacrifice to Jove, whose temple there

Waits with high marble doors for blood and incense rare.

Jove heard his vows, and better’d his desire;    The animal sacrifice binds together the two worlds of gods and men. 

For by some freakful chance he made retire       In the narrative, Jove furthers the match by virtue of his actions and in the allegory, Keats raises the power of the imagination above the limiting nature of reason: this latter point is explored further and reaches its apotheosis when we meet Apollonius.

From his companions, and set forth to walk,

Perhaps grown wearied of their Corinth talk:

Over the solitary hills he fared,

Thoughtless at first, but ere eve’s star appeared

His phantasy was lost, where reason fades,    As the light of day fades, so does Lycius’ power to reason diminish, in the metaphor ‘reason fades’.

In the calm’d twilight of Platonic shades.   Daylight’s sharpness of thought, in the personified form of the philosopher Plato, is dimmed for Lycius 

Lamia beheld him coming, near, more near–   In contrast, Lamaia can see

Close to her passing, in indifference drear,

His silent sandals swept the mossy green;   This sibilantly alliterated synecdoche vocalises Lycius’ dreaming self-absorption  

So neighbour’d to him, and yet so unseen   Ironic antithesis

She stood: he pass’d, shut up in mysteries,

His mind wrapp’d like his mantle, while her eyes    Another synecdoche

Follow’d his steps, and her neck regal white

Turn’d–syllabling thus, “Ah, Lycius bright,    Further synecdoche.  One should evaluate the effect of these figures of speech being so closely laid upon each other.

And will you leave me on the hills alone?    Dialogue and direct address beginning with a question – a question reminiscent of the Knight’s fate on the barren, emotionless and dreamless ‘cold hill side’ inLa Belle Dame Sans Merci.  

Lycius, look back! and be some pity shown.”

He did; not with cold wonder fearingly,   Lycius is neither physically bereft nor emotionally weak.  He is not afraid of the unknown. 

But Orpheus-like at an Eurydice;    The line draws out the contrasts to the previous one.  The mythological  love of Orpheus for Eurydice moved the gods

For so delicious were the words she sung,    Song is another form of the creative

It seem’d he had lov’d them a whole summer long:

And soon his eyes had drunk her beauty up,    The extended drinking metaphor in these three lines conveys the literal impossiblity of true love.   The cup is ‘bewildering’ because it defies reason.

Leaving no drop in the bewildering cup,

And still the cup was full,–while he afraid    The only fear Lycius has is of time being too short.   One might say that he appears able to exist in a state of ‘Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (from Keats’ letter dealing with men of literary achievement,  dated 21 December 1817).   One might say that Lycius has (and represents) the imagination of the artist who seeks to maintain the creative vision against ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’.

Lest she should vanish ere his lip had paid

Due adoration, thus began to adore;

Her soft look growing coy, she saw his chain so sure:   Lamia sees Lycius’ mortality

“Leave thee alone! Look back! Ah, Goddess, see

Whether my eyes can ever turn from thee!

For pity do not this sad heart belie–

Even as thou vanishest so I shall die.    Prophetic.   Also note that he recognises Lamia’s presence is magical.

Stay! though a Naiad of the rivers, stay!    Lycius’ use of the imperative ‘stay’… even if she is a mythological nymph

To thy far wishes will thy streams obey:

Stay! though the greenest woods be thy domain,    Repeated sentence structure … even if she is some fairy of the woods

Alone they can drink up the morning rain:

Though a descended Pleiad, will not one     Structure repeated a third time … even if she is one of The Seven Sisters

Of thine harmonious sisters keep in tune

Thy spheres, and as thy silver proxy shine?    This time,  there is a most reasonable question!

So sweetly to these ravish’d ears of mine

Came thy sweet greeting, that if thou shouldst fade

Thy memory will waste me to a shade

   i.e. a ghost.  Reminding us of the ‘Pale warriors, death-pale’ in

 La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

For pity do not melt!”–“If I should stay,”    Lamia replies with an impossible question for a mortal to answer.

Said Lamia, “here, upon this floor of clay,    The base human world – expressed both literally and metaphorically.

And pain my steps upon these flowers too rough,    Even delicate blooms are too coarse

What canst thou say or do of charm enough    Can Lycius weave magical charms?

To dull the nice remembrance of my home?    Dramatic irony: the reader knows the anguish she has endured to leave her home and is thereby more aware of Lamia’s knowledge of the love arts and her manipulative nature!

Thou canst not ask me with thee here to roam    Declarative

Over these hills and vales, where no joy is,–

Empty of immortality and bliss!    She declares her unearthly nature and (below) admits to being one of the  ‘finer spirits”

Thou art a scholar, Lycius, and must know

That finer spirits cannot breathe below   In the metaphorical sense of satisfying their imaginative needs 

In human climes, and live: Alas! poor youth,   Condescending tone

What taste of purer air hast thou to soothe   Note the merciless nature of the manipulative rhetorical questions posed by one well versed in the love arts!

My essence? What serener palaces,    Repetition of the ‘What’ question demonstrates the hopelessness of a match.

Where I may all my many senses please,

And by mysterious sleights a hundred thirsts appease?      Alexandrine line used to demonstrate the range of appetites satisfied in the other world.

It cannot be–Adieu!” So said, she rose

Tiptoe with white arms spread. He, sick to lose   Dramatically angelic

The amorous promise of her lone complain,

Swoon’d, murmuring of love, and pale with pain.    Alliteratively 

The cruel lady, without any show

Of sorrow for her tender favourite’s woe,

But rather, if her eyes could brighter be,

With brighter eyes and slow amenity,

Put her new lips to his, and gave afresh

The life she had so tangled in her mesh:    The didactic narrator shows that Lycius will never escape from Lamia’s entrapment in this metaphor of this ensnarement 

And as he from one trance was wakening   The language of dreaming, being spellbound and mesmerised by the snake

Into another, she began to sing,  In Greek mythology, sirens lure mariners to their destruction by singing.

Happy in beauty, life, and love, and every thing,

A song of love, too sweet for earthly lyres,

While, like held breath, the stars drew in their panting fires    The alexandrine line is used to explore how Lamia’s passion even overcomes celestial bodies – not just human ones!

And then she whisper’d in such trembling tone,    Alliterated

As those who, safe together met alone

For the first time through many anguish’d days,

Use other speech than looks; bidding him raise

His drooping head, and clear his soul of doubt,

For that she was a woman, and without

Any more subtle fluid in her veins

Than throbbing blood, and that the self-same pains    Palpitating physicality (line 45).  Elfin blood (line 147)

Inhabited her frail-strung heart as his.

And next she wonder’d how his eyes could miss

Her face so long in Corinth, where, she said,    Note that Lamia’s own account, of living in Corinth and seeing Lycius at Venus’ porch, differs substantially from the narrator’s in lines 215 onwards 

She dwelt but half retir’d, and there had led

Days happy as the gold coin could invent

Without the aid of love; yet in content

Till she saw him, as once she pass’d him by,

Where ‘gainst a column he leant thoughtfully

At Venus’ temple porch, ‘mid baskets heap’d

    For the social mores of the early 19th century, this is adequately disguised priapic and vulvic sexual symbolism, showing Lycius leaning against the entrance of the temple dedicated to physical love.

Of amorous herbs and flowers, newly reap’d

Late on that eve, as ’twas the night before

The Adonian feast; whereof she saw no more,    Appropriate: Adonis is the mortal god of beauty

But wept alone those days, for why should she adore?    The Alexandrine line enables the complexity of the question: on the one hand, this is the question she tells Lycius she is asking herself as part of her programme of calculated enchantment; on the other hand, is she herself bemused by her preoccupation?

Lycius from death awoke into amaze,

To see her still, and singing so sweet lays;

Then from amaze into delight he fell

To hear her whisper woman’s lore so well;   ‘The soft sound  ‘w’ alliteration and the close sounding  ‘l’   is sensuously enrapturing.  It also draws attention to the motif of the Art of Love, as in e.g. the earlier line: ‘lore/Of love deep learned to the red heart’s core’ (lines 188-9)

And every word she spake entic’d him on

To unperplex’d delight and pleasure known.

Let the mad poets say whate’er they please

Of the sweets of Fairies, Peris, Goddesses,

There is not such a treat among them all,

Haunters of cavern, lake, and waterfall,

As a real woman, lineal indeed

From Pyrrha’s pebbles or old Adam’s seed.

Thus gentle Lamia judg’d, and judg’d aright,

That Lycius could not love in half a fright,

So threw the goddess off, and won his heart    Calculated decision!

More pleasantly by playing woman’s part,

With no more awe than what her beauty gave,

That, while it smote, still guaranteed to save.

Lycius to all made eloquent reply,

Marrying to every word a twinborn sigh;

And last, pointing to Corinth, ask’d her sweet,

If ’twas too far that night for her soft feet.    Delicious use of dramatic irony showing Lycius believing the hyperbole that Lamia pains her ‘steps upon these flowers too rough’

The way was short, for Lamia’s eagerness

Made, by a spell, the triple league decrease    Ironically, Lamia discards ‘playing the woman’s part’ (line 337) when it suits

To a few paces; not at all surmised

By blinded Lycius, so in her comprized.    Lycius is metaphorically not rational.  The literal meaning of ‘blinded’ is critical.  

They pass’d the city gates, he knew not how

So noiseless, and he never thought to know.     These last words of the stanza are very telling in both content and position  

As men talk in a dream, so Corinth all,    Again, motif of a dream.   Corinth is seen as in pre-Christian times, the cult centre of Venus

Throughout her palaces imperial,Venus

And all her populous streets and temples lewd,

Mutter’d, like tempest in the distance brew’d,    Corinth, in toto, personified 

To the wide-spreaded night above her towers.

Men, women, rich and poor, in the cool hours,

Shuffled their sandals o’er the pavement white,    ironic contrast to the speed of Lamia and Lycius (line 346)

Companion’d or alone; while many a light

Flared, here and there, from wealthy festivals,    momentary illumination

And threw their moving shadows on the walls,    Keats surely intended this line to refer to Plato’s cave.  The reader should, in any  case, consider the insight it casts upon the poem, which addresses the differences between reality and perceptions of it. 

Or found them cluster’d in the corniced shade

Of some arch’d temple door, or dusky colonnade.

The excesses and dark shadows of Corinth are juxtaposed with the rationalist, Apollonius.

Muffling his face, of greeting friends in fear,

Her fingers he press’d hard, as one came near

With curl’d gray beard, sharp eyes, and smooth bald crown,   Triple aspect to the description

Slow-stepp’d, and robed in philosophic gown:

Lycius shrank closer, as they met and past,

Into his mantle, adding wings to haste,

While hurried Lamia trembled: “Ah,” said he,

“Why do you shudder, love, so ruefully?

Why does your tender palm dissolve in dew?”–

“I’m wearied,” said fair Lamia: “tell me who

Is that old man? I cannot bring to mind

His features–Lycius! wherefore did you blind    In contrast to the passive used in line 347, Lycius actively blinds himself here.

Yourself from his quick eyes?” Lycius replied,

“Tis Apollonius sage, my trusty guide    First mention of the antithetical character

And good instructor; but to-night he seems

The ghost of folly haunting my sweet dreams.”   The dilemma is made explicit in Lycius’ admits that reason opposes the glories of the imagination.

In this last stanza of Part 1, Keats’ creative imagination runs riot in the description of the mansion.   The alliteration of the exterior (line 389) grandiloquently prepares the reader for the magnificence of the interior, where e.g. the  simile of ‘a star in water’ is un-graspable.

While yet he spake they had arrived before

A pillar’d porch, with lofty portal door,

Where hung a silver lamp, whose phosphor glow

Reflected in the slabbed steps below,

Mild as a star in water; for so new,

And so unsullied was the marble hue,

So through the crystal polish, liquid fine,    Note the unexpected creative  use of ‘so’, after the two previous more prosaic use.

Ran the dark veins, that none but feet divine

Could e’er have touch’d there. Sounds Aeolian

Breath’d from the hinges, as the ample span    Music of the wind is personified

Of the wide doors disclos’d a place unknown

Some time to any, but those two alone,

And a few Persian mutes, who that same year

Were seen about the markets: none knew where

They could inhabit; the most curious

Were foil’d, who watch’d to trace them to their house:

And but the flitter-winged verse must tell,    This reminds us of the connection between the poet and Lamia who stands in the open, ‘a bird’s flutter from a wood’ (line 180).  There is to be regret for both!  At the end of Part One, the narrative is interrupted by the author’s comment on sentiment.   Because he signals that there will not be a happy ending, we are less inclined to wonder what happens than look to see how it takes place and consider the antitheses of Part Two.

For truth‘s sake, what woe afterwards befel,     In Ode on a Grecian Urn, the notion of ‘truth‘ is equated with ‘beauty’.    As beauty is the depicted scenes on the urn and since both the urn and Lamia are products of the creative, might we reasonably think that Keats views the poem Lamia in a similar way to how he views the scenes on the Grecian urn?  If so, can we say that to achieve beauty the poet must relinquish such escapist ‘fancy’ as that  of the next line?  Thereby, making possible a full engagement with the ‘truth’ of the creative imagination in its conflict with the ‘truth’ of Apollonius’ rational thought and the ‘more incredulous’ (who occupy the important position at the end of Part One)?  For further consideration, see The Romantic Context.

‘Twould humour many a heart to leave them thus,

Shut from the busy world of more incredulous.   So the last two lines are in the form of a narrator’s comment to the reader.  They presage there may be trouble ahead from sceptics.

My other pages on Keats:

John Keats: Brief biography

Worksheet on ‘Lamia’ critical aspects

Lamia Part 2: annotated text

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

The Eve of St Agnes: critical views


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