Lamia by Keats: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Keats & Lamia
  • 1:00 Desire & Enchantment:…
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
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. 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 interwreathed
Their 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.

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