The story of the love of Lamia, transformed from serpent to woman, and Lycius. They live, unseen by the world, in her fairy palace. Lycius insists upon marrying her publicly. His old tutor comes to the wedding feast, recognises Lamia's true nature and denounces her. She disappears and Lycius dies.
In Part 1, the god Hermes, in amorous pursuit of a nymph, encounters Lamia. She has the form of a grotesque serpent, but the mouth and voice of a woman. Lamia promises to restore to him the nymph, whom she has made invisible, if he will in turn restore her to her former human shape. Hermes promises, the nymph appears, and Lamia, after violent convulsions, sheds her skin and a beautiful woman is revealed. She goes to Corinth where she meets and seduces Lycius, the young philosopher of whom she had dreamed and whom she had loved. They retire to a fairy palace which is invisible to everyone in the city, shut away from the 'busy world' (line 397).
Part 2 opens with a blast of trumpets which pierces their secluded magical retreat, prompting Lycius to think of the world outside. Lamia accuses him of wanting to leave her, but he claims that, on the contrary, he simply desires to marry her and make their love known to the world.
Lamia, distressed by this idea, pleads with him to change his mind, but eventually submits to his wishes. Lycius arranges a wedding feast to which he invites all his friends. Lamia invites no-one, but, without giving any reasons, begs him not to invite the philosopher Apollonius, his former tutor. Lycius leaves to deliver the invitations and Lamia magically transforms the palace into an elaborate arbour set with a lavish feast. The guests arrive, marvelling at the house they had never noticed before, and Apollonius comes uninvited to the feast. Able to distinguish illusion from reality, Apollonius sees through Lamia's disguise; he fixes his gaze upon the bride and Lycius feels her terror. He denounces Apollonius who replies that he will not see him made a serpent's prey. As he repeats the word "serpent" and her true nature is disclosed, Lamia vanishes with an awful scream. Lycius, unable to accept the loss of his dream, dies in a frenzy of grief.
With the numerous contrasts it presents - dream and reality, imagination and reason, poetry and philosophy - 'Lamia' has generated more allegorical readings than any other of Keats's poems. The three main characters, Lamia, Lycius and Apollonius, have respectively been read, for example, as poetry, the poet, and the philosopher; as poem, Keats / Poet, and reviewers; and as dream / illusion, the dreamer, reason / reality. Full of shifting perspectives and unresolved tensions, the poem nevertheless ultimately resists all neat diagrammatic links between character and concept. In Keats's source for the events related in this poem, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, the story is quite straightforward: an innocent young man is rescued from the enchantment of a lamia through the aid of a wise philosopher. In retelling and modifying the story, however, Keats introduced far more ambiguity and complexity, and the poem is coloured by as much ambivalence as the shape-shifting serpent-woman after whom it is named. Keats's most significant modification is the addition of the opening episode concerning Hermes, the nymph and Lamia. What might be the relationship between this, introductory episode and the main narrative? Does the former provide an ironic counterpart to the second? We are told that the dreams of gods are real, the implication being that the dreams of mortals are deceptive, unreliable. Mortal lovers are said to grow pale, while immortal lovers do not. The opening episode suggests that in this world of the immortals, love may indeed be simple and easily fulfilled. For Lycius and Lamia in the mortal world, by contrast, Love is complex. Although Lamia's dream comes true and she is united with Lycius in a magic palace where an intense and very human passion is reconciled with permanence, this dream of an immortality of passion is no sooner affirmed than it is rejected, shown as an impossibility.
Keats also introduces some ambiguity about where our sympathies should lie. In Part l, we are alerted to Lamia's real nature, her status as deceptive shape-shifter, her associations with demons and madness. When she foams at the mouth during her transformation, the foam makes the very grass wither and die. There is a clear suggestion that she puts Lycius under a magic spell: when he first meets her and swoons, he is awakened by her kiss 'from one trance ... Into another' (Part 1, line 296-7). He is 'tangled in her mesh' (Part 1, line 295), a victim, and she is in complete control. Compare her as she is presented here with the femme fatale of 'La Belle Dame sans Merci'. In Part 2, however, Lamia loses this control as she in turn becomes the victim of Lycius's human vanity and arrogance. In his overwhelming and pathetic desire to dominate, to parade his 'prize' so that others may be 'confounded and abash'd' (Part 2, lines 51-8), he insists on the public marriage feast. Now he becomes cruel, taking delight in her sorrows, becoming 'fierce and sanguineous' (Part 2, lines 75-6) and he is berated by the narrator as a madman. For the narrator, Lamia's response - 'She burnt, she lov'd the tyranny' (Part 2, line 81) and is subdued - is more than proof of her human nature: 'The serpent - Ha, the serpent! certes, she / Was none' (Part 2, lines 80-1). Lamia has now shape-shifted into a weak woman; with all what the narrator considers to be a mortal woman's predictable qualities. As the lovers alternate between the roles of cruel abuser and innocent victim, our sympathies are split too.
The question is further complicated when we consider the nature of Apollonius. In Burton's original, he is simply the wise sage who saves Lycius. For Keats, who adds the detail of Lycius's death, Apollonius is a sage whose wisdom brings destruction: he is the philosopher who uses reason to save his former pupil, and yet, in the process, kills him. The memorable passage (Part 2, lines 229-38) in which the narrator rhetorically asks 'Do not all charms fIy / At the mere touch of cold philosophy' suggests a rejection of pure reason. Does the poem as a whole suggest Keats is completely condemning the 'cold philosophy' which Apollonius embodies and is pleading instead for the primacy of the poetic imagination, the dream world of Lamia? To claim this we have to ignore all her monstrous and deceptive traits as shown in Part 1. In some ways, Apollonius can be seen as performing the same function as the brothers in 'Isabella', bringing the world of cold reality into the lovers' secret and intimate world. And yet Lycius himself is already marked by and a part of this world; it is after all he who wants to expose the 'secret bowers' (Part 2, line 149) of their "sweet sin" (Part 2, line 31) to 'common eyes' (Part 2, line 149). As a man of Corinth, a city characterised by competition and rivalry, he wants to display Lamia so others can envy his 'prize' (Part 2, line 57).
'Lamia' is written in heroic couplets, lines of iambic pentameter rhymed in pairs. While some of the couplets form closed units, in others the sense is allowed to overrun the couplet rhyme, avoiding the sense of epigrammatic closure. The narrative therefore proceeds briskly, with a continual sense of motion and progression towards one final point. This can be compared with the ottava rima of 'Isabella'? where the stanzaic form repeatedly promises and yet withholds closure. There is a similar sense of detachment in the voices of the narrators of the two narratives. Is there cynicism in such asides to the reader as 'Love in a hut, with water and a crust, / Is - Love, forgive us! - cinders, ashes, dust' (Part 2, lines 1-2)?
What other similarities are there between 'Lamia' and the earlier 'Isabella'. To start with, there seems to be a similar intermingling of beauty and horror; does this serve similar functions in the two poems?
Lamia, last of the tales in verse, followed after an interval of some months and under widely different intellectual conditions. The summer of 1819 found Keats adventuring in regions more than ever remote from the dream-world of Endymion. Shakespeare draws him to the historic drama; to these months belong his experiments, Otho the Great and Stephen; a little later came The Cap and Bells. And now it was the supple and sinewy narrative, the sensuous splendour, the ringing, metallic rimes of Dryden's verse-tales that attracted his emulation. The story of Lamia (June-September) which he found in Burton resembled those of Isabella and of The Eve of St. Agnes in representing two lovers united by a secret and mysterious bond; but, here, the mystery becomes sheer witchcraft. The witch-maiden Lamia, in the hands of the author of La Belle Dame, might well have yielded a counterpart of Coleridge's Geraldine. The influence of Dryden's robust and positive genius has almost banished the delicate reticences of the earlier poems. Lamia's transformations have the hard brilliance of mosaics; the "volcanian yellow" invades her silver mail "as the lava ravishes the mead." The same influence told more happily in the brilliant precision of the picture of the city festival, each half-line a distinct and living vignette. There are not wanting-there could not be-touches of descriptive magic, but the charm of Lamia is rather described than felt; whether woman be her true nature (1,118) or her disguise (11,306) (and this is not made clear), she has not the defined character of either; as a psychological portrait, she cannot stand beside Isabel or Madeline. And the cynical tone of restoration gallantry has, here and there, betrayed Keats into lapses of taste elsewhere overcome, as in the terrible line 1,330 ("there is not such a treat among them all.. As a real woman"), and the opening of part 11. Keats felt intensely the contrast between the romance of passion and the outer world of cold reflection. In The Eve of St. Agnes, the flame-like glow of light colour which surrounds the lovers is symbolically contrasted with the frozen world without. In Lamia, this symbolism is less telling. But it is helped out by an explicit comment on the climax of the story. The sophist's eye transfixes the serpent-lady, and dissolves the pageant of her love. So, "cold philosophy" destroys romance. The "moral" expressed an antagonism dear to Keats' passionately intuitive mind; but its introduction implied just such an obtrusion of reflection upon poetry as it purported to condemn.