Lamia, by John Keats

Introduction To Lamia.

Lamia, like Endymion, is written in the heroic couplet, but the difference in style is very marked. The influence of Dryden’s narrative-poems (his translations from Boccaccio and Chaucer) is clearly traceable in the metre, style, and construction of the later poem. Like Dryden, Keats now makes frequent use of the Alexandrine, or 6-foot line, and of the triplet. He has also restrained the exuberance of his language and gained force, whilst in imaginative power and felicity of diction he surpasses anything of which Dryden was capable. The flaws in his style are mainly due to carelessness in the rimes and some questionable coining of words. He also occasionally lapses into the vulgarity and triviality which marred certain of his early poems.

The best he gained from his study of Dryden’s Fables, a debt perhaps to Chaucer rather than to Dryden, was a notable advance in constructive power. In Lamia he shows a very much greater sense of proportion and power of selection than in his earlier work. There is, as it were, more light and shade.

Thus we find that whenever the occasion demands it his style rises to supreme force and beauty. The metamorphosis of the serpent, the entry of Lamia and Lycius into Corinth, the building by Lamia of the Fairy Hall, and her final withering under the eye of Apollonius — these are the most important points in the story, and the passages in which they are described are also the most striking in the poem.

The allegorical meaning of the story seems to be, that it is fatal to attempt to separate the sensuous and emotional life from the life of reason. Philosophy alone is cold and destructive, but the pleasures of the senses alone are unreal and unsatisfying. The man who attempts such a divorce between the two parts of his nature will fail miserably as did Lycius, who, unable permanently to exclude reason, was compelled to face the death of his illusions, and could not, himself, survive them.

Of the poem Keats himself says, writing to his brother in September, 1819: ‘I have been reading over a part of a short poem I have composed lately, called Lamia, and I am certain there is that sort of fire in it that must take hold of people some way; give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation — what they want is a sensation of some sort.’ But to the greatest of Keats’s critics, Charles Lamb, the poem appealed somewhat differently, for he writes, ‘More exuberantly rich in imagery and painting [than Isabella] is the story of Lamia. It is of as gorgeous stuff as ever romance was composed of,’ and, after enumerating the most striking pictures in the poem, he adds, ‘[these] are all that fairy-land can do for us.’ Lamia struck his imagination, but his heart was given to Isabella.

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