‘LAMIA’ By John Keats 

(Form, Structure, Language & Context)


The annotations usually point out features form, 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?’  You will find a Leonard Wilson reading of the Part II here:

 Part 2

Love in a hut, with water and a crust,

Is–Love, forgive us!–cinders, ashes, dust;

Love in a palace is perhaps at last

More grievous torment than a hermit’s fast–    Neither of the contrasted circumstances, in lines one and three, bode well for love. 

That is a doubtful tale from faery land,

Hard for the non-elect to understand.

Had Lycius liv’d to hand his story down,    The omniscient narrator leaves us in no doubt.

He might have given the moral a fresh frown,    The alliteration draws attention to a personified care-worn and troubled moral.

Or clench’d it quite: but too short was their bliss    Lamia is said to ‘unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain’ (line ?)

To breed distrust and hate, that make the soft voice hiss.    Allusion to the metaphorical snake in the human psyche.

Besides, there, nightly, with terrific glare,    the regularity of occurrence makes the events more threatening.

Love, jealous grown of so complete a pair,    The emotion of jealousy personifies Love – and yet Love is also …

Hover’d and buzz’d his wings, with fearful roar,    …. an unidentifiable creature: perhaps part insect, part lion ….

Above the lintel of their chamber door,

And down the passage cast a glow upon the floor.     … which can cast a praeternatural glow!

For all this came a ruin: side by side

They were enthroned, in the even tide,

Upon a couch, near to a curtaining

Whose airy texture, from a golden string,

Floated into the room, and let appear

Unveil’d the summer heaven, blue and clear,

Betwixt two marble shafts:–there they reposed,

Where use had made it sweet, with eyelids closed,

Saving a tythe which love still open kept,    Literally this would mean: a tenth.

That they might see each other while they almost slept;

When from the slope side of a suburb hill,

Deafening the swallow’s twitter, came a thrill     Symbolically connoting the fragility of their love 

Of trumpets–Lycius started–the sounds fled,

But left a thought, a buzzing in his head.

For the first time, since first he harbour’d in

That purple-lined palace of sweet sin,    Alliterative oxymoron encapsulates Lycius’ dilemma

His spirit pass’d beyond its golden bourn

Into the noisy world almost forsworn.   contrast between the two locales

The lady, ever watchful, penetrant,

Saw this with pain, so arguing a want    A sign of Keats’ empathy …. 

Of something more, more than her empery    … and his presentation of Lamia’s limitations not extending beyond the carnal empire.

Of joys; and she began to moan and sigh   ellipsis of the second ‘to’ brings a heavier stress on the ‘sigh’ syllable

Because he mused beyond her, knowing well

That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell.    Alliteration of the fricative non-fricative ‘p’ and ‘b’ draws out the finite finality, which contrasts with ‘a moment’.

“Why do you sigh, fair creature?” whisper’d he:

“Why do you think?” return’d she tenderly:    The retort doesn’t sound tender to me!

“You have deserted me–where am I now?

Not in your heart while care weighs on your brow:     Lamia answers the question in terms of where she would like to be.

No, no, you have dismiss’d me; and I go

From your breast houseless: ay, it must be so.”    melodramatic

He answer’d, bending to her open eyes,

Where he was mirror’d small in paradise,   aka ‘bliss’ in line 9 above

My silver planet, both of eve and morn!    Possessive metaphorical and symbolic endearment (which, because the moon is associated with Diana/Artemis the goddess of chastity, ironically reveals that Lycius sees her as a virgin).

Why will you plead yourself so sad forlorn,

While I am striving how to fill my heart

With deeper crimson, and a double smart?    The snake is ‘crimson barr’d

How to entangle, trammel up and snare    Irony: Lycius sees himself as the proactive hunter …

Your soul in mine, and labyrinth you there    … who seeks to imprison the part-snake part-human with perhaps an allusion to King Minos, who imprisoned the part-animal, part-human Minotaur?

Like the hid scent in an unbudded rose?    What a magnificent simile!   To Lycius, she is more innocent than fragrant; he seeks to maintain the ephemeral in a timelessness existence.

Ay, a sweet kiss–you see your mighty woes.

My thoughts! shall I unveil them? Listen then!

What mortal hath a prize, that other men

May be confounded and abash’d withal,

But lets it sometimes pace abroad majestical,    With his grand latinate word in mind, might we not consider Lycius a tragic hero, with the fatal flaw of pride?   Lycius declares that he wishes to parade their love.  

And triumph, as in thee I should rejoice

Amid the hoarse alarm of Corinth’s voice.

“Let my foes choke, and my friends shout afar,   Evenly balanced (five syllables each) Antithesis

While through the thronged streets your bridal car    To keep the meter: throngéd

Wheels round its dazzling spokes.” The lady’s cheek

Trembled; she nothing said, but, pale and meek,

Arose and knelt before him, wept a rain    metaphorical image

Of sorrows at his words; at last with pain

Beseeching him, the while his hand she wrung,    desperate vocabulary

To change his purpose. He thereat was stung,

Perverse, with stronger fancy to reclaim    This characterisation of Lycius reveals a further flaw in our dreaming hero.  

Her wild and timid nature to his aim:

Besides, for all his love, in self despite,

Against his better self, he took delight    Lycius’ contradictory nature developed through use of negative phrasing: ‘besides’, ‘despite’ and ‘against’.

Luxurious in her sorrows, soft and new.

His passion, cruel grown, took on a hue

Fierce and sanguineous as ’twas possible    Not in his nature … as the visual metonymy in the next line demonstrates. 

In one whose brow had no dark veins to swell.

Fine was the mitigated fury, like

Apollo’s presence when in act to strike    The simile draws together Lycius’ actions with that of Apollo who slew the serpent Pytho

The serpent–Ha, the serpent! certes, she    The narrator draws out the irony of Lycius’ unexpected behaviour, only to …

Was none. She burnt, she lov’d the tyranny,    … strategically present in the enjambed line a further irony that Lamia is no longer a snake.  On a contextual note, the modern reader might bridle at the female loving her unreasonably dominant male lover, …

And, all subdued, consented to the hour    … becoming submissive’ and …

When to the bridal he should lead his paramour.    … being led.   On might also consider (a) how this lies with the idea that Lycius is magically enchanted by feminine wiles (b) that Lycius knows she is not mortal (three lines down) and (c) that he is wholly unable to resist her beauty.

Whispering in midnight silence, said the youth,

“Sure some sweet name thou hast, though, by my truth,

I have not ask’d it, ever thinking thee

Not mortal, but of heavenly progeny,    In his fist words to Lamia, Lycius calls her ‘Goddess’

As still I do. Hast any mortal name,   Even though he seeks to marry her, he does not know her name – a fine example of negative capability

Fit appellation for this dazzling frame?    Perfect choice of vocabulary, meaning both ‘blinded’ and ‘enchanted’

Or friends or kinsfolk on the citied earth,

To share our marriage feast and nuptial mirth?”

“I have no friends,” said Lamia,” no, not one;    Lamia only answers the second question!

My presence in wide Corinth hardly known:

My parents’ bones are in their dusty urns

Sepulchred, where no kindled incense burns,

Seeing all their luckless race are dead, save me,

And I neglect the holy rite for thee.    The extent of her love is measured by what she forsakes.

Even as you list invite your many guests;

But if, as now it seems, your vision rests

With any pleasure on me, do not bid

Old Apollonius–from him keep me hid.”   This single caveat raises the tension – as does her refusal to say why in subsequent lines.

Lycius, perplex’d at words so blind and blank,

Made close inquiry; from whose touch she shrank,    vocabulary of active physical response …

Feigning a sleep; and he to the dull shade    … within passivity.

Of deep sleep in a moment was betray’d.    The rational is ‘betray’d’ by the dream world’

It was the custom then to bring away

The bride from home at blushing shut of day,    This is, at once, a transferred epithet,originally belonging to the bride and a description of a red sky. 

Veil’d, in a chariot, heralded along

By strewn flowers, torches, and a marriage song,    Triple phrasing

With other pageants: but this fair unknown

Had not a friend. So being left alone,

(Lycius was gone to summon all his kin)    Lamia’s isolation developed through the contrast.

And knowing surely she could never win

His foolish heart from its mad pompousness,    Narrator’s opprobrium of Lycius contrasts with …

She set herself, high-thoughted, how to dress    … his view of Lamia.   The metaphor of glamorous dressing gives pathos to the circustance

The misery in fit magnificence.

She did so, but ’tis doubtful how and whence    mystery secludes her even from the omniscient narrator! 

Came, and who were her subtle servitors.    Alliterated

About the halls, and to and from the doors,    The wedding preparations are now described

There was a noise of wings, till in short space    nymphs described metonymically

The glowing banquet-room shone with wide-arched grace.

A haunting music, sole perhaps and lone    The senses: hearing

Supportress of the faery-roof, made moan    Testament to the creative imagination – music is its abstract mainstay

Throughout, as fearful the whole charm might fade.    Note!

Fresh carved cedar, mimicking a glade

Of palm and plantain, met from either side,

High in the midst, in honour of the bride:

Two palms and then two plantains, and so on,

From either side their stems branch’d one to one

All down the aisled place; and beneath all    The senses: sight

There ran a stream of lamps straight on from wall to wall.    Alexandrine line endorses the length of the metaphorical river.

So canopied, lay an untasted feast    The senses: taste

Teeming with odours. Lamia, regal drest,    The senses: smell

Silently paced about, and as she went,

In pale contented sort of discontent,    Oxymoron focuses cloely on Lamia’s pleasure lying within her overarching fear.

Mission’d her viewless servants to enrich    Periphrastic description of nymphs

The fretted splendour of each nook and niche.

Between the tree-stems, marbled plain at first,

Came jasper pannels; then, anon, there burst    dramatic  active description

Forth creeping imagery of slighter trees,

And with the larger wove in small intricacies.

Approving all, she faded at self-will,    Lamia has a human dimension

And shut the chamber up, close, hush’d and still,   Triple phrase

Complete and ready for the revels rude,

When dreadful guests would come to spoil her solitude.    ‘dreadful’ = inspiring dread.   Sibilance.  Alexandrine.

The day appear’d, and all the gossip rout.

O senseless Lycius! Madman! wherefore flout    Keats pulls no punches here!

The silent-blessing fate, warm cloister’d hours,

And show to common eyes these secret bowers?    Does the poet also wonder whether he, himself,  should open his secret world to the common people?

The herd approach’d; each guest, with busy brain,    The wedding day is now described.   The common people are  given an unflattering epithet. 

Arriving at the portal, gaz’d amain,

And enter’d marveling: for they knew the street,

Remember’d it from childhood all complete

Without a gap, yet ne’er before had seen

That royal porch, that high-built fair demesne;

So in they hurried all, maz’d, curious and keen:     perplexed – and perhaps’labrinthed’?

Save one, who look’d thereon with eye severe,    Apollonius is positioned antithetically to the populace

And with calm-planted steps walk’d in austere;    Contrasting with the decorous trees, which have no roots.

‘Twas Apollonius: something too he laugh’d,

As though some knotty problem, that had daft

His patient thought, had now begun to thaw,

And solve and melt–’twas just as he foresaw.

He met within the murmurous vestibule His young disciple.

“‘Tis no common rule, Lycius,” said he, “for uninvited guest    Dialogue: Apollonius speaks

To force himself upon you, and infest

With an unbidden presence the bright throng

Of younger friends; yet must I do this wrong,   impending catastrophe

And you forgive me.” 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.    ‘spleen = irritability.  Contrast with ‘sweet milk’

Now, in the next stanza, comes the description of grandiose luxury in the banquetting room.  All the senses are evoked. 

Of wealthy lustre was the banquet-room,

Fill’d with pervading brilliance and perfume:   Senses: sight  

Before each lucid pannel fuming stood   Senses: sight, smell

A censer fed with myrrh and spiced wood,   Senses: smell

Each by a sacred tripod held aloft,    religious imagery

Whose slender feet wide-swerv’d upon the soft    Senses: touch

Wool-woofed carpets: fifty wreaths of smoke   Alliteration and assonance

From fifty censers their light voyage took    The metaphor gives adventurous movement to the visual description of the (repeated ‘fifty’) wreaths of smoke 

To the high roof, still mimick’d as they rose   The enjambment further extends the journey of the wreaths of smoke  …

Along the mirror’d walls by twin-clouds odorous.    … which are then doubled!

Twelve sphered tables, by silk seats insphered,    Alliterative and also (near-) consonance

High as the level of a man’s breast rear’d

On libbard’s paws, upheld the heavy gold    leopard.   Weighty opulance 

Of cups and goblets, and the store thrice told

Of Ceres‘ horn, and, in huge vessels, wine   The goddess of Agriculture is elided with the horn of plenty.

Come from the gloomy tun with merry shine.    This contrast also metaphorically alludes to Lamia’s state of mind and putting on a brave face (lines 116-7).  

Thus loaded with a feast the tables stood,

Each shrining in the midst the image of a God.   poetic diction giving devotional piety to the abundance.

When in an antichamber every guest

Had felt the cold full sponge to pleasure press’d,

By minist’ring slaves, upon his hands and feet,

And fragrant oils with ceremony meet

Pour’d on his hair, they all mov’d to the feast

In white robes, and themselves in order placed

Around the silken couches, wondering

Whence all this mighty cost and blaze of wealth could spring.   Alexandrine line indicates the guest’s degree of curiosity.

Soft went the music the soft air along,

While fluent Greek a vowel’d undersong

Kept up among the guests discoursing low

At first, for scarcely was the wine at flow;

But when the happy vintage touch’d their brains,

Louder they talk, and louder come the strains

Of powerful instruments–the gorgeous dyes,

The space, the splendour of the draperies,

The roof of awful richness, nectarous cheer,

Beautiful slaves, and Lamia’s self, appear,

Now, when the wine has done its rosy deed,

And every soul from human trammels freed,

No more so strange; for merry wine, sweet wine,

Will make Elysian shades not too fair, too divine.    Alexandrine line ironically juxtaposes the antithesis


Soon was God Bacchus at meridian height;         Sensuous god of wine and viticulture

Flush’d were their cheeks, and bright eyes double bright:

Garlands of every green, and every scent

From vales deflower’d, or forest-trees branch rent,   The alexandrine brings to the fore the shock that physical violence accompanies pleasure.  Keat’s ambivalence is shown once more.

In baskets of bright osier’d gold were brought

High as the handles heap’d, to suit the thought

Of every guest; that each, as he did please,

Might fancy-fit his brows, silk-pillow’d at his ease.

What wreath for Lamia? What for Lycius?   Questions to be answered

What for the sage, old Apollonius?

Upon her aching forehead be there hung

The leaves of willow and of adder’s tongue;    willow is a symbol of creative imagination.   ‘Adder’ reminds us of Lamia’s origins.   

And for the youth, quick, let us strip for him

The thyrsus, that his watching eyes may swim    Bacchus’ wand

Into forgetfulness; and, for the sage,h

Let spear-grass and the spiteful thistle wage   In these three lines,  Keats demonstrates his antipathy to the rational.

War on his temples. Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?    Rhetorical question enhanced by use of the sense: touch.

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:    The feminine endings in this couplet give variety to the usual ten syllablic iambic metre

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,   In this and the following lines, Keats inveighs against the Age of Reason

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,   metonymy focuses the reader on practical signs of rational thought

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—    Three losses on these two lines

Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

By her glad Lycius sitting, in chief place,

Scarce saw in all the room another face,

Till, checking his love trance, a cup he took    rapture

Full brimm’d, and opposite sent forth a look

‘Cross the broad table, to beseech a glance

From his old teacher’s wrinkled countenance,

And pledge him. 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.  The alexandrine line displays Apollonius’ disapprobation.  Whilst the two sets of alliteration shows that of Keats!  

Lycius then press’d her hand, with devout touch,

As pale it lay upon the rosy couch:    contrast of ‘pale’ with ‘rosy’

‘Twas icy, and the cold ran through his veins;

Then sudden it grew hot, and all the pains   the antithesis of ‘icy’ and ‘hot’ draws out the contrast between the physical and the emotional.

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.   Three unanswered questions

He gaz’d into her eyes, and not a jot

Own’d they the lovelorn piteous appeal:

More, more he gaz’d: his human senses reel:    Lycius’ mortality is his undoing

Some hungry spell that loveliness absorbs;

There was no recognition in those orbs.

“Lamia!” he cried–and no soft-toned reply.

The many heard, and the loud revelry

Grew hush; the stately music no more breathes;    verb in the present tense

The myrtle sicken’d in a thousand wreaths.    Myrtle signifies joy and happiness

By faint degrees, voice, lute, and pleasure ceased;

A deadly silence step by step increased,    Personified

Until it seem’d a horrid presence there,

And not a man but felt the terror in his hair.   terror = intense fear of what is to come.

“Lamia!” he shriek’d; and nothing but the shriek

With its sad echo did the silence break.

“Begone, foul dream!” he cried, gazing again

In the bride’s face, where now no azure vein   Three negatives in these three lines …

Wander’d on fair-spaced temples; no soft bloom

Misted the cheek; no passion to illume

The deep-recessed vision–all was blight;

Lamia, no longer fair, there sat a deadly white.

“Shut, shut those juggling eyes, thou ruthless man!    Although Lycius is speaking, one might consider the extent to which Keats might concur that the creative imagination is destroyed by unfeeling reason.

Turn them aside, wretch! or the righteous ban     imperative from of the verb

Of all the Gods, whose dreadful images

Here represent their shadowy presences,

May pierce them on the sudden with the thorn    A terrible divine retribution invoked.  Ironically it is lycius, although he can see, is the one who is blind.

Of painful blindness; leaving thee forlorn,

In trembling dotage to the feeblest fright

Of conscience, for their long offended might,

For all thine impious proud-heart sophistries,    See annotation, two lines down…

Unlawful magic, and enticing lies.

Corinthians! look upon that gray-beard wretch!  Usually we think of wisdom and insight, but here the philosopher is called a sophist, with its association of falsity, and is despised.

Mark how, possess’d, his lashless eyelids stretch

Around his demon eyes! Corinthians, see!   Is this then a battle between good and evil?  Between the creative and the destructive?

My sweet bride withers at their potency.”

Fool!” said the sophist, in an under-tone    Monosyllabic derision

Gruff with contempt; which a death-nighing moan

From Lycius answer’d, as heart-struck and lost,

He sank supine beside the aching ghost.

“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,    Assonance

Like a sharp spear, went through her utterly,    Alliterated simile

Keen, cruel, perceant, stinging: she, as well    Four distinctive adjectives

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,    This is a revelation to Lycius.  The narrative has come full circle.  Lamia is a serpent and when Lycius conceives of her as such, she vanishes.   Once labelled, the dream is unsustainable.

Than with a frightful scream she vanished:

And Lycius’ arms were empty of delight,

As were his limbs of life, from that same night.    Very sudden dramatic conclusion

On the high couch he lay!–his friends came round    Three line rhyme to conclude.

Supported him–no pulse, or breath they found,

And, in its marriage robe, the heavy body wound.   Lycius is depersonalised in death.  His marriage clothes ironically become his shroud.  Final concluding alexandrine.


See my other pages on Keats:

John Keats: Brief biography

Lamia Part 1: annotated text

Worksheet on ‘Lamia’ critical aspects

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

The Eve of St Agnes: critical views

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6 thoughts on “LAMIA: ANNOTATED TEXT Part 2

  1. Thank you SO much! I’m preparing to teach Keats for AQA B next year and this will be hugely helpful to the students. How generous of you to share your work like this; it is excellent.


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