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John Keats’ ‘Lamia’ offers an evocative and influential retelling of the Greek legend of the creature who was partly a woman and completely dangerous. Learn about the poem, the story behind it, and the many themes Keats explores within it.

Keats ; Lamia

The concept of reimagining and remaking canonical texts was alive and well centuries before the term ‘fanfic’ entered the English language.

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In the early 19th century, Greek mythology was arguably the Western world’s most popular and most widely shared canon. Painters, composers, and poets of the Romantic movement turned to myths again and again for inspiration.John Keats, a poet of the Romantic movement, was particularly passionate about such source material and unusually creative in his handling of it. His own versions of ancient stories (his head-canons, if you will) in turn became influential for later generations of artists. According to ancient myth, Lamia was a half-woman, half-monster..

. or a woman who became a monster, or gave birth to monsters… or a creature who ate children, or devoured men. Keats offers a single, coherent narrative that acknowledges these complex traditions and adds his own commentary on them.

Desire & Enchantment: Narratives of Lamia

Despite being the title character of the poem, Lamia isn’t named until almost halfway through it, in line 171. Keats’ timing is so good that learning her name feels almost like a plot twist. Following the first sections of the poem can feel like a challenge if you’re unfamiliar with the mythological background Keats is using or expecting to learn all about Lamia straightaway.

But don’t worry! Keats has a reason for everything he’s included.The opening of the poem (lines 1-34) establishes that its events took place long, long ago, in a forest far, far away. Its first events don’t concern Lamia at all, but the god Hermes, who is pursuing a nymph whom he desires.

It’s quite clear that this is an intense and potentially destructive passion: Hermes is described as ‘bent warm on amorous theft’ (line 8). In setting the stage this way, Keats subtly critiques the misogyny, or prejudice against women, of some versions of Lamia’s legend, demonstrating that sexually predatory beings can be male as well as female.Hermes, sulking, overhears Lamia say that she wants to ‘move in a sweet body fit for life, / And love, and pleasure, and the ruddy strife / Of hearts and lips!’ (lines 39-41). That means exactly what it sounds like.

And it’s worth noting that Lamia’s sensual desires here are not about consuming others but about being who she wants to be. Keats’ description of Lamia as a snake (lines 47-56) provides a great example of how he uses imagery to paint a picture for his reader:She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathedTheir lustres with the gloomier tapestries–So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.Isn’t that gorgeous? Even the language seems to twist around itself here, shifting like the coils of the snake it describes. The comparisons to multiple animals suggest possibilities about the snake’s character (swift, dangerous, vain?). In the last few lines of this example, the mysterious nature of the snake is made even more explicit; Keats suggests that she might be a victim of evil, linked to evil, or the embodiment of evil.This ambiguity;is Lamia good, evil, or something else?;continues in subsequent lines. Lamia is compared to Proserpine, who, according to mythology, was kidnapped by the god of the underworld; but Keats also reminds the reader that ‘her throat was serpent’ (line 64), and she speaks with a sinister sweetness, as ‘through bubbling honey’ (line 65).

In the ensuing exchange, Lamia and Hermes strike a bargain: she will help him find the nymph he wants if he will restore her to a woman’s form, so that she can pursue Lycius, a young man of Corinth.The poem takes an ominous tone here: this is a pact made between two ruthless beings. The nymph flees before Hermes in terror, but cannot escape him (lines 134-45).

Lamia’s own desired transformation is described through comparisons with cataclysms of nature; at last, ‘nothing but pain and ugliness were left’ (line 164).Next, Keats describes Lamia’s powers of traveling while disembodied, and how she came to fall in love with Lycius (lines 171-219), writing:Ah, happy Lycius!–for she was a maidMore beautiful than ever twisted braid,Or sigh’d, or blush’d… (lines 185-187)Of course, as Keats has demonstrated, Lamia is no stereotypically sighing, blushing, hair-twisting innocent. In wooing Lycius, however, she struggles to find the right tone; Keats portrays her as a goddess and a woman passionately in love, not as a calculating seductress. The poem’s imagery follows Lamia’s ways of presenting herself, moving from mythological allusions (lines 248, 261-71) to comparisons to secret lovers meeting without their families’ permission (lines 301-09).Soon, Lycius is figuratively blinded by Lamia’s magic as she transports them back to Corinth (lines 344-49). As they move through the nighttime streets of the city (beautifully evoked in lines 350-361), Lycius is described as ‘Muffling his face, of greeting friends in fear’ (line 362). Keats uses this episode to hint that the lovers’ absorption in each other is ominous rather than romantic.

Hiding a new relationship from all your friends is always a bad sign!Lycius himself half-acknowledges this when, speaking to Lamia, he calls his feared tutor ‘The ghost of folly haunting my sweet dreams’ (line 377). Preserving the poem’s ambiguity to the end, however, Keats doesn’t follow this relationship to a mythological conclusion involving death and sea monsters. Rather, he leaves Lamia and Lycius;and the readers;on the threshold of a gorgeous palace, where the lovers live ‘shut from the busy world’ (line 397).

Lesson Summary

In John Keats’ ‘Lamia,’ he reworks ancient myth to create a haunting story of desire, magic, and the destructive potential of both. Throughout, the poem’s language is dazzlingly sensual, as well as allusive to the mythology that inspired it. After striking a bargain with the god Hermes, Lamia is changed from a snake to a woman and courts Lycius, the young man whom she loves. Although the poem ends with the lovers in a Corinthian palace, Keats hints that the enchantment that binds them together is sinister. While tradition painted Lamia as an evil seductress, Keats uses imagery to create a much more ambiguous portrayal of her.

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