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Some Lecture Notes on Poems by John Keats
- “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”
The poem, a ballad written in imitation of the traditional medieval ‘Troubadour Poetry’ of Provence (France), was probably written in April 1819. The title of the ballad is from the Old French and means literally, “The Beautiful Maiden/Woman Without Mercy”. It is interesting that in “ The Eve of St.Agnes”, in stanza XXXIII, Keats mentions Porphyro singing a ballad with the same name to Madeleine. There is no evidence of any such poem actually existing in medieval Provencal poetry so we can conceive Keats as having created this as a figment of his imagination, later being inspired to create a poem in this mode and with this title.
The ballad is in 12 stanzas, each a quatrain and with a rhyme scheme of a-b-c-b. The story is medieval in tone and setting, as is “The Eve of St.Agnes”, but the fate of the knight/man-at-arms in the former is very different to that of Porphyro and Madeleine in the latter.
The story/narrative of this poem can be imagined as that of the poet, or a poetic ‘persona’ talking to the knight/man-at arms, and the latter narrating his story to him.
Brief Explanation of Stanzas:
- The poet/persona meets a knight-at-arms, a medieval warrior, wandering around in the wilderness. He asks the knight what ails him, what is wrong with him. It is Winter or Autumn time, and very cold and he wonders why the knight is wandering, pale and lost, in that desolate place, where even the sedge() has dried up and no birds sing at that time of the year.
- Again, the poet/or his adopted persona asks the knight, with insistence, what is wrong with him, why he looks so wild and sad, at this time. The Autumn harvest of crops has been completed by the farmers and even the squirrel has collected all its nuts and other grains, food etc against the cold and gone off into hibernation. In other words, he wonders that at that time, when humans and animals are all resting, provided against the cold weather, why the knight is wandering thus in the bitter cold.
- Again, the poet addresses the knight and states that he sees the knight’s brow to be pale, like a lily, very sickly, covered with the sweat of anguish/worry; and it also seems to him that the knight is feverish. On his cheeks the colour is also fading away, as in someone stricken by some dire malady.
- The knight at last answers by telling the poet that once, he met a beautiful lady/woman in these meadows. She was very beautiful indeed, a fairy or some such magical creature. Her hair was long and she stepped lightly and delicately over the ground. And, almost like an ominous warning, he states that her eyes shone with a wild, unearthly light.
- The knight goes on to say that he made a wreath of flowers for this beautiful creature, as well as bracelets of fragrant flowers and herbs. She looked at him with loving looks and made soft moaning sounds of pleasure and joy at his attentions.
- Then, the knight took up the beautiful maiden on his horse, beside him, and all that day he did nothing but pay full attention to wooing her. During this time, she would look at him occasionally as if she loved him as much as he loved her, and would even sing a fairy’s song, sweet and enthralling, for him.
- As they wandered about in the fields and forests, she found sweet roots and herbs for him to eat, and also all manners of strange magical food such as manna, and the honey of the wild bees. And, in her strange, unfamiliar language she indicated that she loved him truly and devotedly.
- She eventually took him to her fairy/magical cave and there she sighed and wept tears, as if deeply moved by her emotions. The knight then kissed her on her wild eyes with four kisses, to console her, and at that she closed her eyes as in a swoon.
- And then, she gradually put him off to sleep with her magic, and once he fell asleep, he dreamt. Alas, he exclaims, those were the last dreams that he dreamt there on that magic hillside in the maiden’s cave. In fact, he rues the dreams, which were more like nightmares than anything else.
- In his dreams he saw the spirits of long-dead and gone kings and princes, and warriors, all looking pale and wan, who cried out and warned him, “ You have been enthralled /bewitched by the Beautiful Woman Without Mercy!” In fact, they are warning him that she is some sort of legendary, magical enchantress, such as Circe or Morgan la Fey, and that he should try to escape lest he also fall into her clutches and become like them.
- He saw their thin, hungry lips in the darkness, opening and warning him with their mute voices; and then, suddenly, as if by magic, he found himself awake and lying out in the open on a cold, bare hillside. The maiden, the magical atmosphere, had all disappeared. But, we understand that he, too, is stricken by the magic of this “Belle Dame Sans Merci”.
- And, turning to the poet, once again, the knight says, that is why I am enthralled, captivated, have lost all peace of mind, and am wandering thus lost, and alone and pale, even though it is cold and the sedge has dried up from the side of the lake and no birds sing.
At first reading, the ballad, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” seems to be a simple enough poem, in the medieval mode, with obvious Romantic elements and a straight-forward narrative of a knight bewitched by a beautiful fairy maiden who leaves him disconsolate after a brief interlude of pleasure. He seems to be one more knight, or hero, of old tales, like the spirits that appear before him, victims to the magic of this cruel, magical woman without any mercy. On another level, it can be read as a story of unrequited love, with a cold beloved, the fairy-maiden, jilting her all-too-human lover, the chivalrous knight who still continues to pine away for her and owe her fealty.
Of course, such a reading or understanding of the poem would be quite okay, and in keeping with the ostensible tone and imagery of the work. We could easily compare the knight and the cruel fairy-maiden with the hero and heroine of “The Eve of St.Agnes”—there, love is requited as both young lovers are true and loyal and good human beings; in the latter case, the poor knight is a symbol of that typical medieval strain where a lover, although chivalrous and true, is left to wander about in eternal sorrow and separation through the cruelty of a woman or a magical creature as we encounter here. It is also interesting to compare this poem with another long narrative poem of Keats’s, “Lamia”, where a similar magical creature is also about to take advantage of an innocent, devoted young man, when he is saved at the last minute by the wisdom of his teacher/mentor.
Yet, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is not just a narrative poem, like “The Eve of St.Agnes”, nor is its message or intent so simple. There seems to be much more being suggested, behind the allegorical/symbolic story of this poem.
Various critics and scholars have read and analysed the allegorical-symbolic matter of this poem in different ways. We can list and discuss these simply, as follows:
- On one level, possibly, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” can be interpreted as a poem about Life and Death. The fairy-maiden/Belle Dame is thus a symbol of Death itself, which enthralls the knight, who is ‘alive’, a symbol of ‘life/living’. He is mesmerised and enchanted by Death or drawn to it. Can this point of view be reconciled to Keats’s life at this point in time? It could be—in 1818, Keats had gone on his famous ‘walking-tour’ through parts of England and Scotland, and returned with a sore throat which precipitated his hereditary disease. By February 1819, he was quite unwell himself and realised his fatality, when he began to spit up blood. “I am done for”, he told a friend at this time. His friends tried to make things more comfortable for him, as there was no real cure for consumption or T.B back then, and rest, good food and clean air were the only treatment given to patients. While at Hempstead he had already met Fanny Brawne in late-Autumn 1818 and his emotions were already stirred up by this meeting although he tried to keep away from her. Later, Fanny also began to reciprocate some of his sentiments but by that time (Jan-Feb.1819) Keats was already beginning to realise that he was doomed and this must have set about some upheaval within him, love, the promise of life and joy on the one hand, and his dread disease on the other, which threatened to end it all. It would be natural for him to feel that Life itself was in ‘thrall’ as it were, to Death; the idea of it must have been strong in his mind, obsessively, even. It could have inspired a poem of this sort, or introduced subconscious elements in it, where his depression and sadness find symbolic expression in such a way.
- The poem can also be seen as a comment on Love and Loyalty, broadly speaking. The Belle Dame represents false love, the enthrallment that one feels for such, but which is not ‘true’ and leaves one at the last minute. Whereas the knight stands for loyalty and trustfulness and chivalry to the final degree. Here, it would be useful to take up once again the comparison between Madeleine and Porphyro, in “The Eve of St.Agnes”(Jan.1819, Chichester and Standsted) and the knight and cruel fairy-maiden of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. We have seen that ostensibly, the idea for the latter was born out of the reference to it n the former. Perhaps, then, Keats also wanted to portray a difference/comparison between the type(s) of love i.e., the true and devoted love that found happiness in the end, as in the case of Madeleine and Porphyro and the ‘false’, illusionary love in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”? This is also a valid consideration and the poem could also reflect such a comparison.
- If we consider symbolic dimensions of the poem, another possibility linked to the above two interpretations is that it could just be a poem about unfulfilled hope and promise—of love and desire, of ideals, hopes, dreams, expectations etc. This has been suggested by MacNeice, and bears a lot of weight when we consider all the aspects. Keats’s life and his art, therefore, would seem to merge very skillfully and beautifully and poignantly here.
Another interesting thing to note here, in this poem, is the direct influence of Spenser, among Keats’s favourite poets, along with he likes of Shakespeare and Milton. We are indebted to Prof.Gittings for this insight, in his landmark research in John Keats: The Living Year (London, 1954), where he shows us that Keats had been reading Spenser’s Faerie Queen before writing this poem in April 1819; like ‘false Florimel’ in Spenser’s poem, the Belle Dame is also unreal and disappears like a phantom. The false Florimel also met a knight ‘upon a courser strong’ who carried her off, so quite obviously, Keats must have been inspired by some elements in Spenser’s work which helped him find a reference point to launch off ion his own imaginative flight.
In the end, it is worth remembering that Keats was a poet, first and foremost and all his life he had struggled to achieve a certain lofty standard by which he could be counted among the greatest poets of English. The tragedy of his life and its impact on his poetry is there but it should not be exaggerated above his basic creative urge. Whatever the ‘reasons’ involved, Keats here managed to produce a beautiful ballad, of a highly lyrical tone, with considerable thought-provoking ideas and symbols behind the simple medieval story and setting.
- “Ode on a Grecian Urn”(May-June 1819)
1819 was Keats’s ‘living year’, as claimed by so many, and in it he produced his greatest, maturest works, which in a space of months only, placed him amongst the greatest of English poets. “Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is one of the poems from this period and of this type.
The poem is an ode, in classical Greek mode, as adopted for English poetry by earlier poets too. It is a Sapphic Ode, in regular 10-line stanzas, with the typical rhyme scheme and a total of five stanzas.
Stanza 1: Keats is personifying a Grecian vase or Urn, and addressing it, by calling it the still undestroyed/undamaged bride of quietness—as a husband and wife are closely tied together, so are this vase/urn and the quietness of history, the passing of the ages; and over all this time, the vase still retains its splendour, it is undamaged and unchanged. He then addresses it as the ‘foster child’ i.e., the adopted child of passing time. That is, a foster-child is adopted by a parent or parents and given love by them, similarly the vase seems to have received attention and love. He then calls it a ‘Sylvan historian’. Sylvan means of/belonging to the forest or wilderness. The urn/vase seems to Keats to be the historian of the wilderness, telling its story or tale, over the centuries, more sweetly than all the poems of Keats’s time/age. After thus praising the urn he then asks it a question, about the shapes and drawings depicted on it. He asks it what are the stories/legends that you know about men or gods of long ago, what stories can you tell me of those times, of those who lived in Tempe or Arcady? He then asks, what are these drawings depicted on you? What scenes do they represent? Are these figures of men or gods? Who are these maidens who seem unwilling ('loth') to be with the men or make love to them? What is happening? Why are they chasing them (the maidens)? Did they struggle to escape from the men or gods? Why are these figures carrying pipes/flutes and timbrels (a type of musical instruments), what festival are they going to? What does their wild ecstasy and fervour signify? Basically, all these are the fascinating questions that come to Keats’s mind, asked of the urn personified, as if it would reply.
Stanza 2: Keats makes the philosophical comment that those melodies or tunes we can hear are sweet; but at times, those we cannot hear, which we can only hear in our imagination or guess at, are sweeter. He is addressing the urn again, looking at the figures on it. He then tells the musicians depicted there to go on playing their pipes, as they had done for centuries, silently, immortalised in that depiction. He tells them to play, not for the ear but for the soul, the heart, the sweet, silent ‘melodies’ which appeal to the imagination. He sees the figure of a handsome youth a young Grecian man, standing under some trees, who is playing or singing and tells him that you can never stop your song, it is immortal, frozen in time, like the trees under which he is standing, whose leaves can also never fall. He addresses the bold lover chasing the maidens, commenting that you will never be able to catch hold of the maidens and get your kiss, you’ll be always chasing them in this scene. You will only seem to be getting closer to your goal, in your own mind, but this will not be the case, really. Even the maiden, or one of the maidens running away from the bold lover, says Keats, will never grow old or fade away into dust or death. You will, both, never get your joy or bliss, the fulfillment of your lovers hopes and expectations, although you will love and chase her forever and she will forever remain beautiful, young and alluring.
Stanza 3: He continues in this vein. He addresses the leaves and boughs, saying that you will never shed your leaves and for you, Spring will never end. Addressing another musician, he tells him that you are indeed happy, oh piper/pipe-player, for you’ll be always be piping your songs or tunes as if they were forever new or fresh, a source of eternal inspiration. Suddenly, full of emotions of joy and wonder, he exclaims, calling the urn ‘happy love’ i.e., an object that he loves, which gives him pleasure, for it remains ever warm and alive, forever to be enjoyed/enjoyable. It will always be ‘panting’ (like the young lovers chasing after each other on it) and, thus, forever ‘young’ like them. The urn, he says, is more lasting than mere human/mortal passion; for this passion or emotion is short, limited, it leaves one’s heart full of sorrow and clogged up with emotions, so that one feels ill with fever, or like a thirsty person, wanting to get more water.
Stanza 4: He now wonders, looking at the urn again, who are all the people depicted on it going to some sacrifice or religious ritual of old? A priest is also shown on it taking a young cow (heifer), which is crying out. He asks the priest to which green forest altar he is taking it, with all the flowers draped over her sides as an offering to some god? In the distance/background he can see a small town) perhaps by the sea or riverside), or perhaps a mountain village, and he wonders what place it is, with all its inhabitants come out this day to perform this sacred ritual or duty? They will never go back to it, he says, its streets will always remain empty, similarly frozen like all the other sights depicted on the urn. There will be no one to tell of this desolation or emptiness.
Stanza 5: He then cries out ‘Attic shape!’, praising the workmanship of this Greek object of art9probably made in Attica, a region of Greece); he then calls it a ‘fair attitude’ i.e., a perfect representation of the culture and civilisation of the Ancient Greeks—he is praising it. He says that it is it is indeed something beautiful, with its frieze or braid (sculpture carved on the sides, like embroidery), with its drawings and depictions of ‘marble’ (cold/ruthless) men and ‘overwrought’ (heated/excited) maidens, and with all the sights such as forest branches and the grass and weeds on which the people are walking. He tells the urn that it seems to me that your silent form/shape entices us today to think about eternity—for you are frozen in your rustic scene, in that eternity (‘Cold Pastoral’). He believes that when his generation, the men and women of Keats’s time, are long dead and gone, the urn shall remain, in other times to follow, with its own problems and difficulties, always a friend to mankind (bringing them joy and relief). Future generations will hear your (the urn’s) message that ‘Beauty is truth and truth beauty” i.e., that the only truth that survives, is eternal is this that of the continuity of an object from ancient times, which is unalloyed and unchanged in its beauty. Remember that it is not Keats who is making this philosophical statement (as many people mistakenly suppose) but what Keats feels is the message of the Urn itself, passed down over the ages to humanity.
We have already talked about Keats’s life and situation at/around the time this ode was begun (May 1819, after the Nightingale Ode) so it would be useful to keep this in mind. Also, the obvious similarities as to thematic concerns/main themes are to be noted i.e., the quest for Truth and Beauty, the philosophic musings on these and so on—themes which are present in a lesser degree in some of Keats’s other poems, too, such as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, the opening of Endymion etc.
On a specific note, one major and unique feature here in this poem (as mentioned above) is that here it is the Urn itself that is giving a philosophic ‘message’, rather than Keats. Walsh says that loosely paraphrased, the central motif of the poem amounts to this, “In future times, suffering men and women will turn to you, and you will do for them the same friendly office that you have done for me—that of helping them believe in a reality which is unalloyedly beautiful.”
It is also worth dwelling on the nature of the Urn itself. We know today that there never was any one particular urn that Keats was praising in this ode, that it was actually an imagined one based on various composite influences and/or objects that he had seen or known or experienced. Let us look at this matter a little more. Walsh again informs us:
The figures and incidents depicted on the Urn were imaginary ones, but in
describing them Keats made use of the knowledge of Greek life and art which
he derived from pictures portraying Greek subjects, from the Elgin Marbles in the
British Museum, and from [readings in] Homer and various other writers.
Prof.Gittings also provides very valuable insights in this regard. In the same manner that he identified Spenser’s influence in the thought and even some of the lines of the Nightingale Ode, he identifies some other works that Keats was reading at the time of writing this particular work, and he shows how these impacted the poem. Keats was always susceptible to classical works, and wished to emulate their standards, and it is not uncommon to find him drawing similar inspiration from such sources, but this must not be mistakenly construed for plagiarism. Around the middle of May 1819 when Keats was writing this ode, after having just finished the Nightingale one, he was also reading two other books (1) Burton’s philosophical text, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and (2) Lampriere’s famous collection or Classical Dictionary of Mythology, which was quite popular among those readers who wished to deepen their knowledge of Greek myths and legends etc. Both these volumes had some effect on this ode. In Burton’s work, there is a chapter entitled “Pleasant Objects of Love”, where he states, “Pleasant objects are infinite, whether they be such as have life, or be without life.” It is reasonably sure that Keats must have been reading this when he decided to make his Urn (an inanimate object and a pleasant one) into the theme for a poem, converting it into something especially valuable and lovable. Keats went on to develop the thought of his reading and to construct the poem, on Burton’s philosophy, which was itself based here on the view of Plato, the great ancient Greek philosopher, that Good and Beauty and Truth and Wisdom are identical, and that virtue is a good and a beauty in itself and this is the only way of expressing an eternal truth. There is a whole passage in Lampriere, where he describes some residents of an ancient Greek town, going out to perform some sacrifice or ritual, in the section called’ “Hyacinthia”, which goes like this:
The city[or town] began to be filled with joy, and immense numbers of victims
were offered on the altars of Apollo…during the latter part of the festivity all
were eager to be present at the games, and the city was left almost without inh-
It is simple to trace out the relevant allusions in the stanzas of the ode, which were inspired by this description. The rest, Keats’s imagination could easily fill up for itself.
It is easier to understand and analyse this poem when one knows these perspectives. It would be quite useful to read the whole of it again, with the simple explanation and the critical comments and points mentioned here. In addition, it would also be useful to see the technical/stylistic aspects of the poem, too, in the manner that we have done with other poems, to see what a mature and condensed and effective work this is, like most of his writings of 1819.
The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, which has clear affinities with the Nightingale ode, offers us something special. The Urn, like the nightingale’s song, gives the poet a temporary resting place for his roving, disturbed spirit, and offers for contemplation the idea of immortality. There is the same sensuous luxuriating in a beauty from which suffering is briefly excluded. The appeal of the Urn lies essentially in the fact that it is beyond the reach of change, that its beauty is far above all human passion and mortality.
- “Lamia” (June—September 1819)
“Lamia” is a long narrative poem by Keats, somewhat along the lines of “Endymion”. It was written by Keats intermittently during the period from June to September 1819, and was published in 1820 in the form of two (2) ‘books’ or parts, all of which is included in our course.
“Lamia” does not have the spectacular virtues, the beauty and poetic excellence of the other great poems of this period—the famous odes and some few other poems—and can, indeed, be compared with “ Endymion” and “Hyperion”, as one of his less successful, long narrative poems. Yet, it has its high spots. It is well-written, although it tends to be too long and ramble at places, it has a better sense of unity or organisation than earlier narrative poems (excepting “The Eve of St.Agnes”) and tends to drift off into the philosophizing which is a weakness in Keats. It is, however, comparatively less philosophical and the narrative structure is better made and tighter, more direct, compared to the abstractions of the other narratives mentioned above.
What prompted Keats to write this poem, which does not seem to be one with his other poems from his fantastic ‘living year’, as Gittings put it? Firstly, all poets, even the greatest (and Keats certainly numbers among these) cannot produce great poems of uniform quality all the time—they are inspired by different topics/subjects, they experiment with ideas and forms, and the result is sometimes success and sometimes failure. Keats is no exception. This poem is a good enough narrative attempt but certainly not one of his best poetic efforts. His fame must rest with that handful of truly excellent poems that we now recognise as his ‘classic’ work.
Another aspect to be considered is Keats’s all too human susceptibility to the influence of classical literary sources. The literature and mythology of Greece and Rome always exerted a fascination on him and if a new myth or story or legend from these times came to his knowledge, he was spellbound by it and had to try to make a poem out of it. In the case of “Lamia”, we know that Keats was reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy in June when he began this poem; in fact, some of his other poems at this time were also influenced in some parts by this work. In one chapter, Burton tells the story of a serpent-woman, a ‘Lamia’, who once transformed into human form and captivated the heart of a young scholar and philosopher, who became enamoured of her and proposed to marry her. On the day of the marriage feast, this young man’s master/teacher, a wise old sage, recognised the Lamia and made her disappear with his powers. The passage in Burton goes thus:
“ Philostratus, in his fourth book de Vita Apollonii, hath a memorable instance in this kind, which I may not omit, of one Menippus Lycius, a young man twenty-five years of age, that going between Cenchreas and Corinth, met some phantasm in the habit of a fair gentlewoman, which, taking him by the hand, carried him to her house, in the suburbs of Corinth, and told him she was a Phoenician by birth, and if he would tarry with her, he should hear her sing and play, and drink such wine as never any drank, and no man would molest him; but she, being fair and lovely to behold. The young man, a philosopher, otherwise staid and discreet, able to moderate his passions, though not this of love, tarried with her a while to his great content, and at last married her, to whose wedding, amongst other guests, came Apollonius; who, by some conjectures, found her out to be a serpent, a lamia; and that all her furniture was, like Tantalus’s gold, described by Homer, no substance but mere illusions. When she saw herself descried, she wept, and desired Apollonius to be silent, but he would not be moved, and thereupon she, plate, house and all that was in it, vanished in an instant. Many thousands took notice of this fact, for it was done in the middle of Greece.” (Part 3, Sec.2)
Thus, as we see so obviously, this particular passage became the imaginative base or inspiration for the writing of this poem.
The story, as Keats tells it, however, is as follows. From Mt.Olympus, Hermes saw a beautiful nymph on the island of Crete, and came down to woo her, but found that she had been rendered invisible by a powerful, magical serpent Lamia. Lamia offers to show the nymph to Hermes; in return, Hermes is to transform Lamia into a woman. Hermes agrees to the bargain and is shown his captivating nymph. While Lamia, now in woman’s shape, proceeds to captivate a handsome young philosopher, Lycius, who abandons his studies to live with her in her magical palace. All seems well. Lycius is bent on marrying Lamia. On the day of their wedding feast, Apollonius, Lycius’s teacher walks in uninvited and announces that Lamia is a serpent and that her palace and all its furnishings are illusions. Finding herself discovered, Lamia utters a shriek and disappears along with her palace and all, while Lycius immediately dies of shock and anguish.
Simple Explanation of the Poem
Stanza 1: Once upon a time, before the elves and fairies fought and drove out the more ancient nymphs and satyrs from the woods/forests; before King Oberon (the king of all the fairies in English folklore) scared away all the Dryads and Fauns from the forest valleys, meadows and reedy water-fronts, once Hermes, the messenger of the old Olympian gods, left his throne on Mt Olympus and crept down to the world of men. He was always amorous, or smitten by the love of one maiden or the other. He made his way to a forest on the isle of Crete for somewhere on that island, there lived a beautiful nymph whom all the satyrs admired, and at whose white feet even the Tritons or sea-deities poured heaps of pearls in admiration as they died on land away from their sea, lost in love for her. Near the spring where she used to come and bathe there were all sorts of treasures and gifts left by her admirers, of wonderful nature, even that the Muses could not name all of these treasures. She was the center of the love of lots of admirers, and this thought was in Hermes’s mind as he flew down and he burnt with a heavenly heat or passion for this nymph, too. His white skin became red with the force of this passion, coloring him all the way up to his golden locks.
Stanza 2: He flew from valley to valley, seeking out the nymph who had smitten his heart. As he flew, he breathed his passion upon the flowers and spoke to many a river asking about the whereabouts of the nymph. It was all in vain. He could not find the sweet nymph anywhere. So, tired, fatigued, he rested for a while on the ground, thinking his thoughts. He was full of jealousy against the wood-gods and satyrs, as he felt that they had done something to the nymph or hidden her away from him. Then, suddenly, as he stood up there, he heard a sad voice speak out. It seemed to be almost like the voice of one’s heart, or thoughts, so soft it was. The voice then spoke again and said, “ Oh when shall I wake up from this horrible, twisted shape, which is like a tomb for me? When shall I be able to enjoy a life of love and pleasure, and the struggle between hearts and lips (i.e., physical, erotic love), oh, I’m so miserable!” Hermes, with stealthy movements, glided round bushes and trees, the tall grasses and weeds, and there discovered a snake, quivering and palpitating, bright and coiled up in a dusty place. It was female snake, and she was tied up in a very intricate knot, her shape of bright colors—vermilion, golden, green and blue—and she was striped like a zebra, dotted like a leopard, with eye-like patterns such as the peacock has, and also covered with crimson/red bars. A silvery light shone out of her so that when she breathed, the light shone out into the dark forest and filled it with a mysterious light. She seemed very miserable, despite all her rainbow colors, and seemed a mixture of an elf/fairy in agony and of a she-demon. On her crest, at the top of her head, she had a fiery crown-like light, as bright as Ariadne’s crown; her head and mouth were like a snake’s but also sweet-looking, almost like a real woman’s, with white, pearl-like teeth. And she had lovely eyes, too, which made one wonder what such lovely eyes were doing in a snake? But these eyes were constantly weeping, like Proserpine, who is always weeping for the sweet air of Sicily, her home, from where she was carried off (for mythological details, pl. see the relevant notes given to you). Although her throat was like a snake’s, the words she said were almost human and very sweet, like honey, and full of Love. This was the situation, as Hermes watched her and waited squatting on his legs, about to pounce on her if she should make a false move.
Stanza 3: “ Oh my lovely Hermes, crowned with feathers and shining with divine light”, said this serpent-woman, “ I had a dream of you last night. I saw you sitting, among the gods up on Mt Olympus, and you were the only one who looked sad there. You did not pay attention to the sweet song of the Muses or the song Apollo was singing, but shot down like a bolt of light from the sun, straight here to Crete! And here you are, before me! Oh gentle Hermes, have you found your maid, your nymph?” At which Hermes could not hold back his fiery and passionate voice and asked, “ Oh serpent with smooth clever, clever words, You are definitely inspired by some celestial force to speak thus! You beautiful wreath-like creature, with the sad eyes, become the owner of whatever happiness/joy that you desire (i.e., I will fulfill whatever you wish) if you but tell me where my nymph has gone! Where is she?” The snake answered, “ Oh bright star-like god, swear solemnly what you have just promised.” “ I swear by my sacred serpent-shaped rod, which I carry as my symbol, and by your eyes and by your starry crown!”, exclaimed Hermes. As he spoke, his words floated up lightly into the trees and blossoms. Then, again, the shining female serpent spoke, “ Oh, you, do not be so weak of heart/without hope! Your nymph is all right, she is still free and wanders freely here in these forests—but she is invisible. You cannot see her. She moves about, tasting things, her agile feet leave unseen traces in the grass, she plucks fruit without being seen, she bathes invisibly. And I am the one, it is by my power, that she is like this. I did this so that those unworthy should not look upon her, with evil looks—the Satyrs, Fauns and drunken Silenus (teacher/mentor of Dionysus, god of wine), and such creatures. She was growing pale and fretful due to the attentions of these lovers, who chased her all the time. And she was so sad that I took pity upon her and told her how to use certain magical herbs and their oils to become invisible and thus save her beauty, at the same time keeping the ability to move about freely in the forest. You, you alone Hermes, shall see her, if you will grant me my wish!” Then, once again, Hermes made his magical oaths and these ran through the serpent’s ears like with warm promise and sacred meaning. She was enchanted by them and raised her magical (like Circe, the famous sorceress in the Odyssey) head, blushed red like a rose and with lisping tones swiftly said, “ I was once a woman and please let me have a woman’s shape again, as beautiful and charming as before! I am in love with a young man of Corinth—oh the joy! Give me a woman’s shape and take me where he is (Corinth). Please, Hermes, bend down so I can breathe upon you brow and you will be able to see your nymph again.” The god sank down on his feathers, calmly, and she breathed on his eyes and quickly, he saw the hidden nymph smiling shyly on the meadow. It was not a dream (indeed, even if it was, the dreams of gods are very real) and for one moment he seemed to be about to dash off after the nymph but he remembered his promise. With a light movement, he turned towards the fainting serpent-woman and blessed her with his magical charm. Then, he turned again towards the nymph with adoring, tearful eyes and stepped after her. She, like a waning moon, faded before him, afraid and cowering, with sobs, as a flower closes itself when faced with a cold frost in the evening. But Hermes took her cold hand and soothed her, she felt warm again, her eyes opened wide with joy, and she opened up/blossomed like a new flower, which gives up its honey to the bees. They both flew off into the verdant woods, to make love, never to grow old like mortals do but to love forever.
Stanza 4: Left alone, the serpent began to change. Her elf/fairy blood raced wildly. Her mouth foamed. And where this foam fell (actually her poison) the grass withered and died. Her eyes were fixed with pain and anguish at the transformation that she was undergoing. They were hot, wide, with burning eyelids, and sparks of phosphorescent light shot out from them, without even a tear to cool them down. Her long serpentine train or body writhed in agony and she was convulsed by this. A deep yellowish color now replaced her body’s graceful colors and hues and as lava destroys the field, this color spoilt her silver scales and golden skin. All her speckles and dots and designs vanished, as did all the other wonderful hues, all except her lovely crown—and then she almost melted and disappeared altogether, suddenly. In the air, a new, melodious voice was heard crying out, as it flew away, “Lycius! Oh my gentle/dear Lycius!”. This voice was carried away above the height of the mountains and then the words dissolved and couldn’t be heard anymore. Crete’s forests heard no more of this serpent, she had gone.
Stanza 5: Where did Lamia fly, now a beautiful lady/woman? A full-born/complete beauty, new and lovely? She flew into that valley through which those travelers who want to go to Corinth must pass, near the shore of Cenchreas. She rested at the foot of the wild hills there, the rugged mounts of the Peraean range, which reach out to connect with another range south-westwards, towards Cleone (all places in Greece). She stood there, like a young bird, fluttering (with excitement) out of a wood, beautiful, on a green bit of mossy ground next to a clear pool of water. Here, she was happy to see herself thus, in her lovely gown that rivaled the daffodils in their beauty, finally escaped from her previous, horrible shape, and her sadness.
Stanza 6: ‘Oh, Lucky Lycius!”, exclaims the poet at this point—since the transformed Lamia was basically longing for him—what a beautiful maiden she had become. She was more beautiful than any other maiden who had ever worn her hair in a braid, or who had sighed or blushed or on a flowery meadow had spread out her gown to sit down to listen to minstrels/singers singing her praise. She was a virgin of pure and unsullied lips, yet in her heart fully aware and knowledgeful of all the tricks of love. She was not yet a woman more than for more than an hour, yet she possessed a clever brain to charm anyone. She could easily separate pain and joy, through her wit, and do so in a manner that they could not meet again[i.e., she could charm any lover into joy so that he would forget pain forever] and she had the skill to play with and manipulate a lover in the most artful way. It seemed as if she had been a student of some special college/school of love run by Cupid himself! And she now waited, a sweet graduate of the ‘school’ of love, keeping alive the loving and illusionary arts that she had been taught by Cupid, in idleness[as she waited for Lycius].
Stanza 7: Why she lingered here by the way side [near the road] we shall soon see, says Keats. It would first be useful to know how she used to think and dream when she was still caught up in her ‘prison’ i.e., her serpent’s skin or form. She would imagine all kinds of wonderful things, moving freely in her imagination, sometimes to Elysium and sometimes to the waves of the sea where the Nereids live, and go down to the chambers of Thetis down a pearl-covered staircase. Or, sometimes, she would go[in her mind] to where Bacchus/Dionysus used to dwell, drinking his divine cups of wine, stretched out at ease under a pine tree. Or, at times she would drift off to Pluto’s underground world where he lived in a splendid palace with its marbled pillars and sometimes she would wander in her imagination and dreams, in fair cities, where she would indulge in all sorts of parties and festivals. Once, while she was doing this, she saw a young Corinthian, Lycius, in a dream, competing with other young men in a wild chariot race, and the moment she saw him she fell in love with him. She knew[through seeing him in her dreams all the time and thus knowing him well] that he would be passing by on this road in the evening[the ‘moth-time’, when the moths came out] as he returned to Corinth from his regular journey down to the sea-shore. For the breeze was blowing freshly and Lycius[who had an interest in sailing as well] would have gone to the nearby island of Egina and would be returning to Cenchreas port in his ship or galley. While on his way back, Lycius had actually stopped in Cenchreas, to offer a sacrifice to Jove/Jupiter/Zeus, desiring a fulfillment of his desires, and for which purpose he had become separated from his companions. Thus, being separated, he began to walk back home alone, maybe he wanted solitude and was tired of all their chatter—whatever the reason, he wandered over the lonely hills at first without any thoughts fixed in his mind but gradually, as the evening star (Venus, also the goddess of love), his dreams were lost/went away into the shades of that dark place that Plato (the philosopher—Lycius is also a ‘philosophic youth despite all his energetic activities) mentions and his reason also fled. Lamia, meanwhile, lay in wait for him, and watched his every step as he drew nearer and nearer. He was close to her now, lost in his reverie, walking silently on the grass. So near to him, yet still unseen she stood. He passed by, lost in his philosophical musings, in the realms of his subconscious and her eyes followed his every step and her long, graceful neck turned after him saying in its every gesture, ‘Oh dear Lycius would you leave me alone here on these hills tonight? Look back look at me, have pity!’ He did. Not with fear and wonder (at seeing a maiden at night in this place) but rather, in the way Orpheus must have looked at Eurydice (in the Greek myth). Indeed, so sweet were the words she sung now, so sweet her voice, that it seemed to him he had always loved her and this voice. He was enthralled. Soon, he had also seen her beauty and drunk it up with his eyes like a thirsty man would drink a cup of wine and still the cup remained full. He was now afraid that she would vanish before he had a chance to say words of admiration and love to her. Thus, he at once began to speak: ‘Leave you here! Look back! Oh, goddess, can my eyes ever do that? Pity me, for the moment you go I shall die. Stay! Even if you are a Nereid, a nymph of the rivers stay! Your stream (or abode) will wait for you no matter how far you might be. Stay, even if you are a nymph of the woods, they can wait too. Stay even if you are one of the Pleiades, the constellation of stars, your other sisters will keep the heavenly spheres revolving even without you! Your sweet voice came so beautifully to my tired ears, that if now you disappear, your memory will make me die. For pity’s sake, do not vanish!’
‘If I do stay, ‘ replied Lamia, ‘Here on this earth, and put my feet on flowers that are rough to (since I’ve come from a place where even the ground is softer), what can you say or do that will make me forget the memory of my home and make me wish to stay with you? You cannot tell me to wander amongst these hills and valleys where there is no joy! They are without immortality and joy. You are a scholar, Lycius, and must know that the finer/heavenly spirits/beings cannot long breathe here on earth and hope to live. Alas, my poor young man, what refined air can you promise me here, to calm my spirit and to keep me alive? Where can I please all my senses and by my magic tricks and art bring you a hundred pleasures? It cannot be—goodbye!’ Saying this, she turned, as if to go, on her tiptoes and with her arms outspread. Lycius, sick at the thought of losing her loving promise, swooned and almost fainted, murmuring softly of his love, all pale and full of pain. Lamia, a cruel lady now, without a care for his condition, but rather with shining eyes, kissed him and once again gave her poor victim the charm/enthrallment that she had already worked on him. He was caught up even deeper in her nets. He now began to revive as if from a trance, into another magical trance-like state. She began to sing in a happy voice that promised all sorts of joys and pleasures, a song of love, too sweet for any earthly harps/lyres, while even the stars were moved by it and held their breath and seemed to twinkle with suppressed fire. Then, she whispered enchanting words to him and told him to rise , in a private manner like lovers who have met after a long separation. She raised his drooping head with her magic words and lifted his spirits so that he no longer had any doubts that she was a woman, a mortal, with normal human blood in her veins and that she loved him as he loved her. She now wondered if he would miss her eyes and their magic when he got back to Corinth and she told him that she, too, lived there in the city, a private, secluded life, living life as best as she could with money but without love. Yet, she had been quite content in this existence until she had seen him as she once passed by him as he leant against a column in the porch of the temple of Venus/Aphrodite amid baskets of fragrant herbs and flowers, newly cut on the eve of the festival of Adonis (whom Venus had loved). Since then, she had not been happy any more, she had wept for him. Lycius awoke from his stupor to this amazing news and became delighted at her feminine, alluring words and to still see her there, singing to him. Every word she spoke to him enticed him more, to new delights and pleasures. Let the mad poets talk of their fairies and of ‘peris’ (Persian fairies) and goddesses, but there is no creature so enthralling as a real woman, descended from either the stones thrown by Pyrrha (in Greek myth) or descended from the seed of Adam (Biblical), interpolates Keats here. Since Lycius could not love a goddess, so lamia threw off that role and took on that of a woman and it was in fact her human/mortal beauty (so Lycius thought) that encouraged him to reply at last. He pointed towards Corinth, and told her that they’d go back together as it was not too far. Lamia, eager now, made the few miles seem like a few steps with her magic, which the besotted Lycius did not note. Thus, they passed through the gates of the city, quietly, without any sight or sound, and he never even wondered about this.
Stanza 8: Corinth seemed like a dream to Lycius now. As he walked down its streets, by the imperial palaces, and the busy streets and temples, full of people, whose voices seemed like the distant sounds of a storm, he barely saw all the men and women, of all classes, moving about all around him. Lights fell here and there, from various feasts and temples, and they would seek the darker porches and columns to hide behind (lamia and Lycius).
Stanza 9: Lycius covered his face now, so that he wouldn’t be recognized if they encountered any friends of his. He pressed Lamia’s fingers closely into his own as he saw an old man walking by, with curly gray beard, sharp eyes and a bald head, walking slowly and wearing the gown of a philosopher. Lycius shrank at his sight and hid. Lamia asked him, ‘Why do you shudder thus my love, full of embarrassment? Why is your hand suddenly so sweaty? I’m tired—tell me, who is that old man? I cannot remember his face. Why did you hide yourself from his perceptive eyes?’ Lycius replied, ‘It is Apollonius, the wise philosopher and my teacher/mentor. Oh good instructor! But I cannot face you tonight, since I am lost in a folly of love and sweet dreams tonight (he was ashamed to be seen by his mentor in the company of a woman, since the ancient philosophers advised their students to live in chastity for the sake of knowledge).
Stanza 10: As he was still speaking, they arrived at a house with pillared porch and lofty doors, outside which hung a lamp of silver, the glow of which reflected gently on the marble floor like a star reflected in the water. So beautiful was the floor itself, with marbled veins and patterns that it seemed it had never been stepped on by mortals, that it was a divine abode of gods. The sounds of Aeolian harps could be heard from behind the doors and as these opened, a vast palace opened up which had not be seen by any others except these two lovers. A few Persian mutes, slaves, were seen by some people in the market-place but who then mysteriously disappeared were now there to serve them as slaves/servants (who were they? Creatures made by Lamia’s magic? Or snakes transformed into these forms? No idea). We must leave the two of them, Lamia and Lycius, at this point, since once they went into that magical palace of Lamia’s, their lives and pleasures were private and hidden from our view, ends Keats.
With this Book/Part 1 ends.
PART 2/BOOK 2
Stanza 1: Keats begins the first stanza of Part/Book 2 by quoting a proverb, in which he says that Love cannot survive in a poor hut, for it soon turns to ashes and dust i.e., is soon destroyed by the realities of life. He further goes on to say, rather cynically, that perhaps, while Love might also die in a palace its pain/torment might last longer, like the fast of a hermit who imposes extra hardships on himself. Of course, this is an imaginary proverb, of Keats’s own making, and he goes on to say that this is a famous saying of fairy-land, and is hard for those who are not familiar with the wisdom of the fairy-folk to understand. He regrets that hard Lycius lived longer, might have explained this to us, either by accepting or rejecting it. But the love story (to resume the tale) between Lycius and Lamia was too short-lived to develop into the mutual hatred and distrust that turns love into anger. Indeed, Love itself personified, became jealous of their perfect and happy relationship for a brief while and began to fly outside their house and to send down a fiery glow of light on their lives/future. In other words, he is trying to say that the love between the couple was rather short and about to end in tragedy.
Stanza 2: This love story was doomed, he says, and soon to come to a point of disaster. One evening they were both sitting side by side upon a couch, in the magical palace, next to a light gauze curtain which let in the blue light of the sky falling between two columns of marble. Here, in this beautiful place, they rested together, half asleep, half awake, looking at each other, when from outside came a sound of trumpets and Lycius suddenly awoke with a jolt. The sounds faded but an idea or thought was left in his mind. For the first time since entering that magic palace and starting his hidden life of love and romance with Lamia, his spirit/soul longed to be able to return outside among other people, which he had almost given up. Lamia watched him, as ever careful and wary, saw this pain and realized that Lycius was now wanting more than just her love. So, cleverly, she began to moan and sigh, knowing well that she must cover up and hold his attention for if even a moment’s thought entered his head her magic would be lost, since it was based on keeping him entrapped in a web of illusion. “Why are you sighing, oh beautiful one?’, asked Lycius. “Why do you think?’, she answered, “ You have deserted me and no longer love me as you used to. New thoughts are in your mind. You have left me alone and gone off somewhere.” Lycius answered, “Oh the star of my life! How can you say so when at this moment I am thinking only of you and how to make you mine forever? Do you want to know my thoughts? Let me share them! Who else but me in all Corinth has such a wonderful, beautiful prize, as you? I want to let everyone know about my good fortune. I want my friends to admire you and my enemies to become jealous of you. I can only do this if I take you publically through the streets of the city in a bridal cart i.e., by marrying you.” Lamia’s cheek trembled a little but she said nothing. She got up and knelt by his side and wept many sad tears that moved his heart and at last begged him to give up this idea. He became angry at this, almost like a picture of Apollo when he was slaying a serpent (metaphorically) and forced himself adamantly upon her so that she finally gave in to his anger and accepted his proposal of marriage. Lycius then said, “ I have not asked you before, but I’m sure that you have some beautiful name. I have never asked you, since I've always considered you a goddess or descended from gods but tell me, now, do you have a human name? Or do you have any friends or relatives whom we can invite to our marriage feast?” “I have no friends”, replied Lamia, “Not on. No one knows me at all in Corinth. My parent s have been long-dead and their ashes are lying in some graveyard where I have not been to perform rituals of respect or light incense, since I have met you- I am the only one of all my family still left alive. But as you plan to invite many guests to our wedding, let me make one request. Do not invite old Apollonius to our wedding feast, but keep me hidden from him.” Lycius was deeply worried by this and asked her many questions in trying to get to the bottom of this mystery but she shrank away from these and pretended to fall asleep, Soon, he too fell asleep and forgot about this matter.
Stanza 3: Keats tells us, that in those days it was the custom to go to the bride’s house in the daytime with one’s friends and relatives and to bring away the bride in a chariot or cart with great ceremony. But this unknown beautiful maiden had no one so she was left all alone at her home as Lycius went off to collect all his kinsfolk for the rites and ceremonies. Thus, knowing that she could not now stop Lycius from his very formal course that he was set on, she decided to spend this time by getting suitably ready for the wedding party. She began to prepare herself in a magnificent dress but no one knows where it came from or who helped her dress. There was a noise of wings all over the palace and soon a wonderful banquet-room was ready, decorated with all sorts of designs and ornaments for the party, and at one end was a big canopy for the wedding couple to sit under and ready on the tables lay a truly wonderful feast. Wearing exotic perfumes and in her regal dress, Lamia Lamia silently walked about this room and checked out all the preparations and ordered her invisible servants to make other preparations and changes etc. Finally when all the preparations were to her satisfaction, she went to her chamber quietly and shut the door, to rest before all the guests would come to disturb her solitude and peace.
Stanza 4: The day/time of the wedding finally arrived. Oh silly, senseless Lycius, exclaims the poet—why did you have to thus show off your quiet good fortune? Why did you have to bring everyone to show off your hidden place of joy? The great crowd of guests now approached. Each guest was wondering at all this splendor of Lamia’s palace, which they never remembered having seen there before in that place although they knew the street well. They were all curious and spellbound by this sight—except for one person, who looked around him with a severe, serious look and inspected everything carefully. Sometimes, he would laugh, but this was like the laugh of a person who has solved some difficult problem or found the answer to some mystery. This was Apollonius, who had come to the feast unbidden.
Stanza 5: He now went over to Lycius, with a serious and angry countenance and said, “ It is not common Lycius, for someone to go to a wedding where he has not been invited. I am sorry to be forcing myself upon you like this, but this is something that I had to do.” Lycius blushed with shame when his mentor said these words and took the old man inside with great courtesy and respect, and said many soothing words of apology so that the old philosopher’s anger calmed down into sweetness.
Stanzas 6-9: Here follows a very long and detailed description, in these stanzas, of the wedding. Firstly, a description of the banquet hall and all its ornaments and preparations, with a number of mythological references to add texture and colour to the scene. Then, further, how each guest was treated and made much of. This is followed up by another very long, tedious and complicated stanza on the setting, when Lamia makes her appearance and with a number of mythological allusions, again. Here, as Lamia is seated under the bridal canopy with Lycius, the poet also dwells briefly on the contrast between sensations (which are found here in plenty) versus reason (as represented by Apollonius).
Stanza 10: In the final stanza, we have the full scene laid out, as at the close of a play. Lycius is seated by Lamia’s side, completely besotted by her. The old philosopher Apollonius now proceeds towards them and fixes the bride with his eye of ‘reason’ which can see through illusionary magic—as he keeps looking at Lamia she becomes afraid and undergoes a startling transformation and begins to shrivel up. Lycius is greatly disturbed, since he imagines that Apollonius is somehow harming his bride with some bad/evil magic but Apollonius goes on staring at Lamia. She appeals to Apollonius to stop but he doesn’t and before the eyes of the guests and us all, she re-transforms into a serpent and is exposed and vanishes. Unfortunately, Apollonius is too late, he cannot save Lycius at this stage and the young man swoons and falls into a stupor and dies. His body is buried in the marriage gown that he last wore. Here, Keats differs from the original version of the story as read in Burton. But the moral seems to be nearly the same, ostensibly speaking—that one should ‘beware’ the charms of the senses, emotions and passions, lest we be swept away by illusion that destroys reason and lest we be destroyed by this.
It is, of course, quite easy to categorize this long narrative poem with other poems like “Endymion” and “Hyperion”, and see that it is not an exceptionally good example of Keats’s poetry. How come that at this time, in 1819, when he had composed some of his best, maturest poems, Keats should also write “Lamia”? It is worth thinking about. One way at looking at this, which is very logical, is that anyone—even the best of artists or poets, and Keats was certainly one of these—cannot sustain the same level of effort in all his work. Where he wrote some very fine poems at this time, he also wrote other poems that display all the weaknesses of his earlier poetry and his predilection for myths etc from Greece and Classical Greco-Roman culture. “Lamia” is one of the lesser efforts of this time.
However, another view is also to be considered—did Keats have some special reason(s) for writing this allegorical story, in all this profuse detail, somehow more closely linked to the way the events of his life were developing at this time? Can we, perhaps, relate the poem to Keats’s own predicament at this time, over the months that he was writing “Lamia”? In order to understand this, it would be advisable to look at the main critical responses to the poem and then draw our own conclusions.
There are two (2) main points of view about “Lamia”, from the critics and scholars, that need to be understood:
- Walsh and others see the poem as simply a general allegory, in which (i) Apollonius stands for Reason and Moderation; (ii) Lamia for charm and the life of the senses/sensuousness; and (iii) Lycius for the man who forsakes one for the other, and so perishes. It is a valid argument or reading, but it seems too simple. Although “Lamia” does set forth Lycius’s plight and his ultimate destruction, it does not necessarily point to a simple moral. Maybe, Burton’s original text based on ancient sources, which Keats read, has this simple moral but this particular poem is much more complex. The main argument against the simple moralistic perspective is that Keats does not engage our sympathies strongly against Lamia. Indeed, at times, we have a sneaking sympathy for the poor snake-woman who only wanted to live a life of love with the youth that she admired; and the poor youth, too, Lycius, who loved Lamia despite all enchantments, and was only foolish enough to declare this love publically. By contrast, Apollonius, who is definitely a symbol of Reason, does not always appear so sympathetic, he seems hard and ruthless and intent on just proving his point of ‘unmasking’ Lamia’s illusions.
- Another critic, J.Middleton Murry, provided an alternative and very interesting view, which might be helpful in seeing this poem from a different perspective. He sees the persons/characters in this poem as entirely ‘representative’— representing real people and emotions and actions. He believed that the story of Lamia, in Burton, was only the outer frame in which Keats ‘hid’ his real purpose. When he read this story it must have suggested a suitable and similar set of circumstances to express his own feelings. According to Murry, Keats is Lycius; Fanny Brawne is Lamia; and Apollonius is Charles Brown, Keats’s friend. He also believed that the poem actually refers to real attempts by Brown, in the summer of 1819 onwards, to break Fanny’s ‘spell’ over Keats. He was a realist, and like many of Keats’s friends, had no sympathy for the poet’s romantic involvement with Fanny and also realized the consequences of such a relationship, which Keats could not hope to fulfil. There is no way of really proving this and the analysis might seem difficult to justify at times—but it is also somehow believable and we are tempted to see Lycius’s plight as Keats’s own.
A middle course of sorts might logically be reached between these two opinions, certainly, as follows:
- The allegorical aspect is certainly there, generally speaking, and should not be negated. Whether we want to take this poem as ‘representational’ or not in the perspective of Keats’s own life, we can always find the basic allegory/moral there. A young man of promise, dedicated to his studies and sport, under the tutelage of a philosopher and sage who seeks to develop the faculty of Reason in the mind of his pupil; a beautiful tempting maiden of doubtful antecedents, representing a life of passion, sensuousness, emotional excess and the pleasures of the flesh; and the inevitable ‘division’ of the young man, his gradual decline and final destruction despite the efforts of his teacher to save him. It could be any allegorical work, from any cultural tradition—Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, or the story of the Young Rama in the Ramayana, or something out of a Persian Sufi text by Saadi, Jaami or Attar. That constitutes the universal dimension of Keats’s art.
- On the other hand, it would not be right to discount the very strong pulse of personal sentiment that runs through the poem. We know the circumstances of Keats’s life, especially around the time the poem was begun and then through the subsequent months until he finished it. Already mortally ill, he was desperately in love with a bright, cheerful young maiden who lived in his vicinity at Hampstead, in Brown’s home. He knew that he did not have long to live, in all probability, and he also realized that this relationship in which his love was now being reciprocated (there was an engagement of sorts, too) was ill-starred; and his friends, including Brown, were strongly of the view that Keats needed to be ‘protected’ from Fanny and any serious liaison with her. It would shorten his life span and take his mind off his art, and they were all acutely aware of his tremendous talent and what it meant for English Literature eventually. We can see him in desperate straits, around this time, trying to make something of his financial position, to be able to marry and to have a home to settle down in—always with Fanny and her mother in the background, not actually pushing but certainly ‘suggesting’ a more regular/formal declaration on his part. Ultimately, as his condition worsened Keats realized the necessity of breaking up with Fanny (we have the sonnet “Bright Star” to also give testimony to his anguish at this decision, but that came later) and his friends’ advice, no matter how sincere, must have been difficult to digest. So, his poetic imagination turned to the traditional story-telling mode of the Greeks, in the form of an allegorical poem, whereby he could express and channelize his dilemma, his emotions.
- This makes sense, finally. It is true to his art and his intentions, in writing this poem. It might not be a very good poem, in aesthetic terms compared to the poetry that he was writing now in 1819, but it leaves us with a very poignant message—that of a love lost and the consequences for the lovers. That is why, Lamia/Fanny Brawne is sympathetic because Keats/Lycius feels for her, feels with her. Apollonius/Brown, although well-intentioned, is unwittingly the cause of the their ‘destruction’ in a number of ways. Lycius is ‘foolish’ in wanting to show off his love, to declare it openly, since this results in the final tragedy. Keats himself is not foolish certainly, his tragedy is based in reasons beyond his control, in fate and genes, if anything, but that does not stop him associating himself imaginatively with Lycius. In the end, Fanny might disappear out of his life (as she finally did to a large extent by 1820) just as Lamia vanishes—but it is Keats/Lycius who dies full of sorrow. What a wonderful insight into the poet’s mind, so deeply ingrained into the poem! Keats, despite his illness, was no weakling as we have seen. He was very different to the popular image of him as a sort of sensitive plant wilting at the very touch. Indeed, he was able to develop a very strong and positive attitude towards the fact of his impending mortality and accept it. And he did not display too much overt emotion when he separated from Fanny, only a very reserved grief or sorrow. Yet, finally, we can never forget that he was a poet and a sensitive human being after all and that he did feel both his situation and his loss of Fanny acutely. Imagine yourself in his place. A lesser person would have broken down under the strain but Keats was kept going by his art, his poetic genius, which as able to translate all these pent up emotions into a creative form or direction. By this standard, “Lamia’ is indeed a valuable poem not to be dismissed lightly despite any weaknesses that it might evince.
It would be advisable, finally, for you to think about this and to read the text on your own and to form an informed opinion and analysis from exam perspectives. Again I would strongly suggest that a comparison with “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, might also prove useful in developing your own independent, analytical opinion(s).
This was one of a series of lectures given in April 2006