I have recently been reviewing and analysing a few short poems by John Keats. It seems that one of his biggest concerns was the imagination, and how it could offer an escape from reality; Keats believed in the raw power of our imagination but accepted that it came from our minds, which are confined to a temporary existence in the world. These ideas are considered quite fully in some of his longer poems, so I thought that it would be interesting to review them in one of my favourite poems, “Lamia”.
Keats wrote “Lamia” in 1819, the same year that he wrote many of his famous Odes. It is a tricky poem with lots of references to classical mythology, so let me give you a (brief) overview of the main events taking place in the poem.
“Lamia” tells the story of a serpent who claims to have once been a woman called Lamia. She makes a deal with the god, Hermes, and he turns her into a woman. She then meets with a man named Lycius, who she claims to love.
The couple move to a beautiful mansion together and before long, they decide to marry. Despite Lamia’s protests, Lycius insists on hosting a large marriage festival so that he could celebrate the engagement with his friends and family. During the celebrations, a philosopher fixes his eyes on Lamia and announces that she is really a serpent in disguise. As soon as this happens, Lamia disappears from sight. Devastated, Lycius dies of heartbreak soon after.
Going Deeper into the Poem…
The first thing that’s interesting about this poem is that Lamia calls Lycius’ name as soon as she is turned into a woman. As a serpent, she would have been unable to meet Lycius, yet she claims to love him. Keats explains that this is because “she could muse / And dream, when in the serpent prison-house”. Basically, her spirit was able to leave her physical body and seek out Lycius, which enabled her to fall in love with him.
“Where she will’d her spirit went” – “Lamia” by John Keats.
This in itself links to the imagination, for although Lamia does seem to actually meet Lycius through this spiritual connection, her escape from “the serpent prison-house” reflects how our imagination can allow us to escape from our “prison-house” (our bodies) and offer some relief from the struggles of everyday life.
In a way, Lamia’s life with Lycius also links to her imaginative powers. After their engagement, Lamia occupies herself with decorating their home for the marriage festival, yet Keats notes that “’tis doubtful how and whence / Came, and who were her subtle servitors.” The sibilance in this phrase reminds readers of Lamia’s serpentine form and the spiritual powers that she then exhibited. She decorated the hall with unknown “servitors”, which may suggest that either the decorations were an illusion constructed by Lamia’s powers, or that she imagined helpers as she worked.
This idea of imagination being able to alter the physical world is also prevalent later on in the poem. The entire time that Lamia is with Lycius, they are alone, but once guests arrive, she disappears. This may indicate that her entire physicality existed only in Lycius’ mind; perhaps she was never turned into a woman but, as a snake, was able to form images in his imagination. This is particularly interesting as their guests may represent reality breaking their imaginative trance, disturbing the vision and bringing Lycius back to reality. The shock – or perhaps horror – of reality then kills him.
Obviously, there’s a lot more going on in “Lamia” than its references to the imagination, and if you’re interested, there are plenty of readable versions of the text available online. I really just wanted to focus on the imagination today because Keats’ thoughts about it are so interesting. He views it as powerful, but, like Lamia, it is also temporary.
Anyway, it’s a great poem, and if you get a chance, do read it. When I say that it is a long poem, it is nothing on Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it is too long for me to want to write about each individual line, which is why I have chosen to analyse it like this, instead. I hope you enjoyed this post, and thank you very much for reading!