Lamia, by John Keats

Part 1

Upon a time, before the faery broods

Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods,

Before King Oberon’s bright diadem,

Sceptre, and mantle, clasp’d with dewy gem,

Frighted away the Dryads and the Fauns

From rushes green, and brakes, and cowslip’d lawns,

The ever-smitten Hermes empty left

His golden throne, bent warm on amorous theft:

From high Olympus had he stolen light,

On this side of Jove’s clouds, to escape the sight10

Of his great summoner, and made retreat

Into a forest on the shores of Crete.

For somewhere in that sacred island dwelt

A nymph, to whom all hoofed Satyrs knelt;

At whose white feet the languid Tritons poured

Pearls, while on land they wither’d and adored.

Fast by the springs where she to bathe was wont,

And in those meads where sometime she might haunt,

Were strewn rich gifts, unknown to any Muse,

Though Fancy’s casket were unlock’d to choose.20

Ah, what a world of love was at her feet!

So Hermes thought, and a celestial heat

Burnt from his winged heels to either ear,

That from a whiteness, as the lily clear,

Blush’d into roses ‘mid his golden hair,

Fallen in jealous curls about his shoulders bare.

From vale to vale, from wood to wood, he flew,

Breathing upon the flowers his passion new,

And wound with many a river to its head,

To find where this sweet nymph prepar’d her secret bed:30

In vain; the sweet nymph might nowhere be found,

And so he rested, on the lonely ground,

Pensive, and full of painful jealousies

Of the Wood-Gods, and even the very trees.

There as he stood, he heard a mournful voice,

Such as once heard, in gentle heart, destroys

All pain but pity: thus the lone voice spake:

“When from this wreathed tomb shall I awake!

When move in a sweet body fit for life,

And love, and pleasure, and the ruddy strife40

Of hearts and lips! Ah, miserable me!”

The God, dove-footed, glided silently

Round bush and tree, soft-brushing, in his speed,

The taller grasses and full-flowering weed,

Until he found a palpitating snake,

Bright, and cirque-couchant in a dusky brake.

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;50

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.

Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire

Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:

Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!

She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:60

And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there

But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?

As Proserpine still weeps for her Sicilian air.

Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake

Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love’s sake,

And thus; while Hermes on his pinions lay,

Like a stoop’d falcon ere he takes his prey.

“Fair Hermes, crown’d with feathers, fluttering light,

I had a splendid dream of thee last night:

I saw thee sitting, on a throne of gold,70

Among the Gods, upon Olympus old,

The only sad one; for thou didst not hear

The soft, lute-finger’d Muses chaunting clear,

Nor even Apollo when he sang alone,

Deaf to his throbbing throat’s long, long melodious moan.

I dreamt I saw thee, robed in purple flakes,

Break amorous through the clouds, as morning breaks,

And, swiftly as a bright Phoebean dart,

Strike for the Cretan isle; and here thou art!

Too gentle Hermes, hast thou found the maid?”80

Whereat the star of Lethe not delay’d

His rosy eloquence, and thus inquired:

“Thou smooth-lipp’d serpent, surely high inspired!

Thou beauteous wreath, with melancholy eyes,

Possess whatever bliss thou canst devise,

Telling me only where my nymph is fled —

Where she doth breathe!” “Bright planet, thou hast said,”

Return’d the snake, “but seal with oaths, fair God!”

“I swear,” said Hermes, “by my serpent rod,

And by thine eyes, and by thy starry crown!”90

Light flew his earnest words, among the blossoms blown.

Then thus again the brilliance feminine:

“Too frail of heart! for this lost nymph of thine,

Free as the air, invisibly, she strays

About these thornless wilds; her pleasant days

She tastes unseen; unseen her nimble feet

Leave traces in the grass and flowers sweet;

From weary tendrils, and bow’d branches green,

She plucks the fruit unseen, she bathes unseen:

And by my power is her beauty veil’d100

To keep it unaffronted, unassail’d

By the love-glances of unlovely eyes,

Of Satyrs, Fauns, and blear’d Silenus’ sighs.

Pale grew her immortality, for woe

Of all these lovers, and she grieved so

I took compassion on her, bade her steep

Her hair in weird syrops, that would keep

Her loveliness invisible, yet free

To wander as she loves, in liberty.

Thou shalt behold her, Hermes, thou alone,110

If thou wilt, as thou swearest, grant my boon!”

Then, once again, the charmed God began

An oath, and through the serpent’s ears it ran

Warm, tremulous, devout, psalterian.

Ravish’d, she lifted her Circean head,

Blush’d a live damask, and swift-lisping said,

“I was a woman, let me have once more

A woman’s shape, and charming as before.

I love a youth of Corinth — O the bliss!

Give me my woman’s form, and place me where he is.120

Stoop, Hermes, let me breathe upon thy brow,

And thou shalt see thy sweet nymph even now.”

The God on half-shut feathers sank serene,

She breath’d upon his eyes, and swift was seen

Of both the guarded nymph near-smiling on the green.

It was no dream; or say a dream it was,

Real are the dreams of Gods, and smoothly pass

Their pleasures in a long immortal dream.

One warm, flush’d moment, hovering, it might seem

Dash’d by the wood-nymph’s beauty, so he burn’d;130

Then, lighting on the printless verdure, turn’d

To the swoon’d serpent, and with languid arm,

Delicate, put to proof the lythe Caducean charm.

So done, upon the nymph his eyes he bent,

Full of adoring tears and blandishment,

And towards her stept: she, like a moon in wane,

Faded before him, cower’d, nor could restrain

Her fearful sobs, self-folding like a flower

That faints into itself at evening hour:

But the God fostering her chilled hand,140

She felt the warmth, her eyelids open’d bland,

And, like new flowers at morning song of bees,

Bloom’d, and gave up her honey to the lees.

Into the green-recessed woods they flew;

Nor grew they pale, as mortal lovers do.

Left to herself, the serpent now began

To change; her elfin blood in madness ran,

Her mouth foam’d, and the grass, therewith besprent,

Wither’d at dew so sweet and virulent;

Her eyes in torture fix’d, and anguish drear,150

Hot, glaz’d, and wide, with lid-lashes all sear,

Flash’d phosphor and sharp sparks, without one cooling tear.

The colours all inflam’d throughout her train,

She writh’d about, convuls’d with scarlet pain:

A deep volcanian yellow took the place

Of all her milder-mooned body’s grace;

And, as the lava ravishes the mead,

Spoilt all her silver mail, and golden brede;

Made gloom of all her frecklings, streaks and bars,

Eclips’d her crescents, and lick’d up her stars:160

So that, in moments few, she was undrest

Of all her sapphires, greens, and amethyst,

And rubious-argent: of all these bereft,

Nothing but pain and ugliness were left.

Still shone her crown; that vanish’d, also she

Melted and disappear’d as suddenly;

And in the air, her new voice luting soft,

Cried, “Lycius! gentle Lycius!”— Borne aloft

With the bright mists about the mountains hoar

These words dissolv’d: Crete’s forests heard no more.170

Whither fled Lamia, now a lady bright,

A full-born beauty new and exquisite?

She fled into that valley they pass o’er

Who go to Corinth from Cenchreas’ shore;

And rested at the foot of those wild hills,

The rugged founts of the Peræan rills,

And of that other ridge whose barren back

Stretches, with all its mist and cloudy rack,

South-westward to Cleone. There she stood

About a young bird’s flutter from a wood,180

Fair, on a sloping green of mossy tread,

By a clear pool, wherein she passioned

To see herself escap’d from so sore ills,

While her robes flaunted with the daffodils.

Ah, happy Lycius! — for she was a maid

More beautiful than ever twisted braid,

Or sigh’d, or blush’d, or on spring-flowered lea

Spread a green kirtle to the minstrelsy:

A virgin purest lipp’d, yet in the lore

Of love deep learned to the red heart’s core:190

Not one hour old, yet of sciential brain

To unperplex bliss from its neighbour pain;

Define their pettish limits, and estrange

Their points of contact, and swift counterchange;

Intrigue with the specious chaos, and dispart

Its most ambiguous atoms with sure art;

As though in Cupid’s college she had spent

Sweet days a lovely graduate, still unshent,

And kept his rosy terms in idle languishment.

Why this fair creature chose so fairily200

By the wayside to linger, we shall see;

But first ’tis fit to tell how she could muse

And dream, when in the serpent prison-house,

Of all she list, strange or magnificent:

How, ever, where she will’d, her spirit went;

Whether to faint Elysium, or where

Down through tress-lifting waves the Nereids fair

Wind into Thetis’ bower by many a pearly stair;

Or where God Bacchus drains his cups divine,

Stretch’d out, at ease, beneath a glutinous pine;210

Or where in Pluto’s gardens palatine

Mulciber’s columns gleam in far piazzian line.

And sometimes into cities she would send

Her dream, with feast and rioting to blend;

And once, while among mortals dreaming thus,

She saw the young Corinthian Lycius

Charioting foremost in the envious race,

Like a young Jove with calm uneager face,

And fell into a swooning love of him.

Now on the moth-time of that evening dim220

He would return that way, as well she knew,

To Corinth from the shore; for freshly blew

The eastern soft wind, and his galley now

Grated the quaystones with her brazen prow

In port Cenchreas, from Egina isle

Fresh anchor’d; whither he had been awhile

To sacrifice to Jove, whose temple there

Waits with high marble doors for blood and incense rare.

Jove heard his vows, and better’d his desire;

For by some freakful chance he made retire230

From his companions, and set forth to walk,

Perhaps grown wearied of their Corinth talk:

Over the solitary hills he fared,

Thoughtless at first, but ere eve’s star appeared

His phantasy was lost, where reason fades,

In the calm’d twilight of Platonic shades.

Lamia beheld him coming, near, more near —

Close to her passing, in indifference drear,

His silent sandals swept the mossy green;

So neighbour’d to him, and yet so unseen240

She stood: he pass’d, shut up in mysteries,

His mind wrapp’d like his mantle, while her eyes

Follow’d his steps, and her neck regal white

Turn’d — syllabling thus, “Ah, Lycius bright,

And will you leave me on the hills alone?

Lycius, look back! and be some pity shown.”

He did; not with cold wonder fearingly,

But Orpheus-like at an Eurydice;

For so delicious were the words she sung,

It seem’d he had lov’d them a whole summer long:250

And soon his eyes had drunk her beauty up,

Leaving no drop in the bewildering cup,

And still the cup was full — while he, afraid

Lest she should vanish ere his lip had paid

Due adoration, thus began to adore;

Her soft look growing coy, she saw his chain so sure:

“Leave thee alone! Look back! Ah, Goddess, see

Whether my eyes can ever turn from thee!

For pity do not this sad heart belie —

Even as thou vanishest so I shall die.260

Stay! though a Naiad of the rivers, stay!

To thy far wishes will thy streams obey:

Stay! though the greenest woods be thy domain,

Alone they can drink up the morning rain:

Though a descended Pleiad, will not one

Of thine harmonious sisters keep in tune

Thy spheres, and as thy silver proxy shine?

So sweetly to these ravish’d ears of mine

Came thy sweet greeting, that if thou shouldst fade

Thy memory will waste me to a shade —270

For pity do not melt!”—“If I should stay,”

Said Lamia, “here, upon this floor of clay,

And pain my steps upon these flowers too rough,

What canst thou say or do of charm enough

To dull the nice remembrance of my home?

Thou canst not ask me with thee here to roam

Over these hills and vales, where no joy is —

Empty of immortality and bliss!

Thou art a scholar, Lycius, and must know

That finer spirits cannot breathe below280

In human climes, and live: Alas! poor youth,

What taste of purer air hast thou to soothe

My essence? What serener palaces,

Where I may all my many senses please,

And by mysterious sleights a hundred thirsts appease?

It cannot be — Adieu!” So said, she rose

Tiptoe with white arms spread. He, sick to lose

The amorous promise of her lone complain,

Swoon’d, murmuring of love, and pale with pain.

The cruel lady, without any show290

Of sorrow for her tender favourite’s woe,

But rather, if her eyes could brighter be,

With brighter eyes and slow amenity,

Put her new lips to his, and gave afresh

The life she had so tangled in her mesh:

And as he from one trance was wakening

Into another, she began to sing,

Happy in beauty, life, and love, and every thing,

A song of love, too sweet for earthly lyres,

While, like held breath, the stars drew in their panting fires300

And then she whisper’d in such trembling tone,

As those who, safe together met alone

For the first time through many anguish’d days,

Use other speech than looks; bidding him raise

His drooping head, and clear his soul of doubt,

For that she was a woman, and without

Any more subtle fluid in her veins

Than throbbing blood, and that the self-same pains

Inhabited her frail-strung heart as his.

And next she wonder’d how his eyes could miss310

Her face so long in Corinth, where, she said,

She dwelt but half retir’d, and there had led

Days happy as the gold coin could invent

Without the aid of love; yet in content

Till she saw him, as once she pass’d him by,

Where ‘gainst a column he leant thoughtfully

At Venus’ temple porch, ‘mid baskets heap’d

Of amorous herbs and flowers, newly reap’d

Late on that eve, as ’twas the night before

The Adonian feast; whereof she saw no more,320

But wept alone those days, for why should she adore?

Lycius from death awoke into amaze,

To see her still, and singing so sweet lays;

Then from amaze into delight he fell

To hear her whisper woman’s lore so well;

And every word she spake entic’d him on

To unperplex’d delight and pleasure known.

Let the mad poets say whate’er they please

Of the sweets of Fairies, Peris, Goddesses,

There is not such a treat among them all,330

Haunters of cavern, lake, and waterfall,

As a real woman, lineal indeed

From Pyrrha’s pebbles or old Adam’s seed.

Thus gentle Lamia judg’d, and judg’d aright,

That Lycius could not love in half a fright,

So threw the goddess off, and won his heart

More pleasantly by playing woman’s part,

With no more awe than what her beauty gave,

That, while it smote, still guaranteed to save.

Lycius to all made eloquent reply,340

Marrying to every word a twinborn sigh;

And last, pointing to Corinth, ask’d her sweet,

If ’twas too far that night for her soft feet.

The way was short, for Lamia’s eagerness

Made, by a spell, the triple league decrease

To a few paces; not at all surmised

By blinded Lycius, so in her comprized.

They pass’d the city gates, he knew not how,

So noiseless, and he never thought to know.

As men talk in a dream, so Corinth all,350

Throughout her palaces imperial,

And all her populous streets and temples lewd,

Mutter’d, like tempest in the distance brew’d,

To the wide-spreaded night above her towers.

Men, women, rich and poor, in the cool hours,

Shuffled their sandals o’er the pavement white,

Companion’d or alone; while many a light

Flared, here and there, from wealthy festivals,

And threw their moving shadows on the walls,

Or found them cluster’d in the corniced shade360

Of some arch’d temple door, or dusky colonnade.

Muffling his face, of greeting friends in fear,

Her fingers he press’d hard, as one came near

With curl’d gray beard, sharp eyes, and smooth bald crown,

Slow-stepp’d, and robed in philosophic gown:

Lycius shrank closer, as they met and past,

Into his mantle, adding wings to haste,

While hurried Lamia trembled: “Ah,” said he,

“Why do you shudder, love, so ruefully?

Why does your tender palm dissolve in dew?”—370

“I’m wearied,” said fair Lamia: “tell me who

Is that old man? I cannot bring to mind

His features — Lycius! wherefore did you blind

Yourself from his quick eyes?” Lycius replied,

“’Tis Apollonius sage, my trusty guide

And good instructor; but to-night he seems

The ghost of folly haunting my sweet dreams.”

While yet he spake they had arrived before

A pillar’d porch, with lofty portal door,

Where hung a silver lamp, whose phosphor glow380

Reflected in the slabbed steps below,

Mild as a star in water; for so new,

And so unsullied was the marble hue,

So through the crystal polish, liquid fine,

Ran the dark veins, that none but feet divine

Could e’er have touch’d there. Sounds Æolian

Breath’d from the hinges, as the ample span

Of the wide doors disclos’d a place unknown

Some time to any, but those two alone,

And a few Persian mutes, who that same year390

Were seen about the markets: none knew where

They could inhabit; the most curious

Were foil’d, who watch’d to trace them to their house:

And but the flitter-winged verse must tell,

For truth’s sake, what woe afterwards befel,

‘Twould humour many a heart to leave them thus,

Shut from the busy world of more incredulous.

ll. 1–6. before the faery broods . . . lawns, i.e. before mediaeval fairy-lore had superseded classical mythology.

l. 2. Satyr, a horned and goat-legged demi-god of the woods.

l. 5. Dryads, wood-nymphs, who lived in trees. The life of each terminated with that of the tree over which she presided. Cf. Landor’s ‘Hamadryad’.

l. 5. Fauns. The Roman name corresponding to the Greek Satyr.

l. 7. Hermes, or Mercury, the messenger of the Gods. He is always represented with winged shoes, a winged helmet, and a winged staff, bound about with living serpents.

l. 15. Tritons, sea-gods, half-man, half-fish. Cf. Wordsworth, ‘Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn’ (Sonnet —‘The World is too much with us’).

l. 19. unknown to any Muse, beyond the imagination of any poet.

l. 28. passion new. He has often before been to earth on similar errands. Cf. ever-smitten, l. 7, also ll. 80–93.

l. 42. dove-footed. Cf. note on l. 7.

l. 46. cirque-couchant, lying twisted into a circle. Cf. wreathed tomb, l. 38.

l. 47. gordian, knotted, from the famous knot in the harness of Gordius, King of Phrygia, which only the conqueror of the world was to be able to untie. Alexander cut it with his sword. Cf. Henry V, I. i. 46.

l. 58. Ariadne’s tiar. Ariadne was a nymph beloved of Bacchus, the god of wine. He gave her a crown of seven stars, which, after her death, was made into a constellation. Keats has, no doubt, in his mind Titian’s picture of Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery. Cf. Ode to Sorrow, Endymion.

l. 63. As Proserpine . . . air. Proserpine, gathering flowers in the Vale of Enna, in Sicily, was carried off by Pluto, the king of the underworld, to be his queen. Cf. Winter’s Tale, IV. iii, and Paradise Lost, iv. 268, known to be a favourite passage with Keats.

l. 75. his throbbing . . . moan. Cf. Hyperion, iii. 81.

l. 77. as morning breaks, the freshness and splendour of the youthful god.

l. 78. Phoebean dart, a ray of the sun, Phoebus being the god of the sun.

l. 80. Too gentle Hermes. Cf. l. 28 and note.

l. 81. not delay’d: classical construction. See Introduction to Hyperion.

Star of Lethe. Hermes is so called because he had to lead the souls of the dead to Hades, where was Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Lamb comments: ‘ . . . Hermes, the Star of Lethe, as he is called by one of those prodigal phrases which Mr. Keats abounds in, which are each a poem in a word, and which in this instance lays open to us at once, like a picture, all the dim regions and their habitants, and the sudden coming of a celestial among them.’

l. 91. The line dances along like a leaf before the wind.

l. 92. Miltonic construction and phraseology.

l. 98. weary tendrils, tired with holding up the boughs, heavy with fruit.

l. 103. Silenus, the nurse and teacher of Bacchus — a demigod of the woods.

l. 115. Circean. Circe was the great enchantress who turned the followers of Ulysses into swine. Cf. Comus, ll. 46–54, and Odyssey, x.

l. 132. swoon’d serpent. Evidently, in the exercise of her magic, power had gone out of her.

l. 133. lythe, quick-acting.

Caducean charm. Caduceus was the name of Hermes’ staff of wondrous powers, the touch of which, evidently, was powerful to give the serpent human form.

l. 136. like a moon in wane. Cf. the picture of Cynthia, Endymion, iii. 72 sq.

l. 138. like a flower . . . hour. Perhaps a reminiscence of Milton’s ‘at shut of evening flowers.’ Paradise Lost, ix. 278.

l. 148. besprent, sprinkled.

l. 158. brede, embroidery. Cf. Ode on a Grecian Urn, v. 1.

l. 178. rack. Cf. The Tempest, IV. i. 156, ‘leave not a rack behind.’ Hyperion, i. 302, note.

l. 180. This gives us a feeling of weakness and weariness as well as measuring the distance.

l. 184. Cf. Wordsworth:

And then my heart with pleasure fills

And dances with the daffodils.

ll. 191–200. Cf. Ode on Melancholy, where Keats tells us that melancholy lives with Beauty, joy, pleasure, and delight. Lamia can separate the elements and give beauty and pleasure unalloyed.

l. 195. Intrigue with the specious chaos, enter on an understanding with the fair-looking confusion of joy and pain.

l. 198. unshent, unreproached.

l. 207. Nereids, sea-nymphs.

l. 208. Thetis, one of the sea deities.

l. 210. glutinous, referring to the sticky substance which oozes from the pine-trunk. Cf. Comus, l. 917, ‘smeared with gums of glutinous heat.’

l. 211. Cf. l. 63, note.

l. 212. Mulciber, Vulcan, the smith of the Gods. His fall from Heaven is described by Milton, Paradise Lost, i. 739–42.

piazzian, forming covered walks supported by pillars, a word coined by Keats.

l. 236. In the calm’d . . . shades. In consideration of Plato’s mystic and imaginative philosophy.

l. 248. Refers to the story of Orpheus’ attempt to rescue his wife Eurydice from Hades. With his exquisite music he charmed Cerberus, the fierce dog who guarded hell-gates, into submission, and won Pluto’s consent that he should lead Eurydice back to the upper world on one condition — that he would not look back to see that she was following. When he was almost at the gates, love and curiosity overpowered him, and he looked back — to see Eurydice fall back into Hades whence he now might never win her.

l. 262. thy far wishes, your wishes when you are far off.

l. 265. Pleiad. The Pleiades are seven stars making a constellation. Cf. Walt Whitman, ‘On the beach at night.’

ll. 266–7. keep in tune Thy spheres. Refers to the music which the heavenly bodies were supposed to make as they moved round the earth. Cf. Merchant of Venice, V. i. 60.

l. 294. new lips. Cf. l. 191.

l. 297. Into another, i.e. into the trance of passion from which he only wakes to die.

l. 320. Adonian feast. Adonis was a beautiful youth beloved of Venus. He was killed by a wild boar when hunting, and Venus then had him borne to Elysium, where he sleeps pillowed on flowers. Cf. Endymion, ii. 387.

l. 329. Peris, in Persian story fairies, descended from the fallen angels.

ll. 330–2. The vulgarity of these lines we may attribute partly to the influence of Leigh Hunt, who himself wrote of

The two divinest things the world has got —

A lovely woman and a rural spot.

It was an influence which Keats, with the development of his own character and genius, was rapidly outgrowing.

l. 333. Pyrrha’s pebbles. There is a legend that, after the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha cast stones behind them which became men, thus repeopling the world.

ll. 350–4. Keats brings the very atmosphere of a dream about us in these lines, and makes us hear the murmur of the city as something remote from the chief actors.

l. 352. lewd, ignorant. The original meaning of the word which came later to mean dissolute.

l. 360. corniced shade. Cf. Eve of St. Agnes, ix, ‘Buttress’d from moonlight.’

ll. 363–77. Note the feeling of fate in the first appearance of Apollonius.

l. 377. dreams. Lycius is conscious that it is an illusion even whilst he yields himself up to it.

l. 386. Æolian. Æolus was the god of the winds.

l. 394. flitter-winged. Imagining the poem winging its way along like a bird. Flitter, cf. flittermouse = bat.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44