On This Day in 1820: Keats publishes Lamia in his last volume

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Today on the BARS Blog we present a post on John Keats and his poem Lamia by Mariam Wassif. The ‘On This Day’ Series celebrates the 200th anniversary of literary and historical events of the Romantic period. Want to contribute a future post? Get in touch.

On This Day in 1820: Keats publishes Lamia in his last volume

by Dr. Mariam Wassif

J. W. Waterhouse, Lamia (1905)

This week marks 200 years since the publication of John Keats’s enigmatic narrative poem Lamia. While there is much uncertainty about the exact date, Lamia was published around 1 July 1820, possibly at the end of June.[i] It was the longest work in his last lifetime volume entitled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems, including the odes of 1819. Despite its pride of place in the title and volume, Lamia remains one of the lesser known of Keats’s works except for the famous lines that accuse science of “unweav[ing] the rainbow” (II.237). The bicentenary offers an occasion to revisit this poem: written at the apex of Keats’s creativity and fixation with Fanny Brawne in the summer of 1819, but published as his productivity and health declined in the summer of 1820, Lamia reflects Keats’s career-long preoccupation with exoticism, beauty, love, death, and poetry itself.[ii]

In this two-part poetic romance in rhyming couplets, which begins in the fairy tale manner with “Upon a time” (I.1), Keats uses the shape-shifting serpent-woman Lamia as a figure for poetic language, continuing a long tradition of equating feminine beauty and exoticism with seductive eloquence. In Keats’s account, Lamia falls in love with Lycius, a “youth of Corinth” (I.119) whom she marries once Hermes transforms her from serpent back to woman in the first part of the poem. At their wedding feast, the philosopher Apollonius, Lycius’s teacher, arrives uninvited, occasioning the poem’s well-known lines about the enmity between science (“philosophy”) and poetry: 

            Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings, 

            Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, 

            Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine— 

            Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made 

            The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade. (II.235-38)

Apollonius’s scientific gaze breaks the spell, killing Lycius and transforming Lamia back into a serpent. 

But if philosophy kills through disenchantment, the enchantments of poetry, in the figure of Lamia, are not without peril. 

While Keats’s Lamia is a largely sympathetic figure, she is the hybrid offspring of a number of literary and mythological traditions describing the serpent-woman as alluring, deceptive, and deadly. In a note to the poem, Keats cited as his source Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which recounts a similar story from Philostratus’s Vita Apollonii of a serpent disguised as a woman who vanishes along with her house and possessions when found out by Apollonius. Yet Keats’s depiction of Lamia goes beyond Burton’s, combining Greek and African myth with a hybrid of Satan and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, which Keats also used, defines lamiae as 

Certain monsters of Africa, who had the face and breast of a woman, and the rest of their body like that of a serpent. They allured strangers to come to them, that they might devour them, and though they were not endowed with the faculty of speech, yet their hissings were pleasing and agreeable.[iii]

Lamia is Libyan or half-Libyan according to some accounts, but like Lemprière, Keats would have seen Africa from an Orientalizing perspective as a monolithic place of danger and enchantment. [iv] In the poem he transforms the “pleasing and agreeable” hissings of Lemprière’s lamiae into articulate and speech, specifying that Lamia has a serpent’s head, but a “woman’s mouth” (I.60), and recounting: 

            Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake 

            Came, as though bubbling honey, for Love’s sake. (I.64-5)

In this figure of a speaking serpent with a woman’s mouth, Keats not only evokes Lemprière’s African monsters (who unlike Burton’s version, have the “face” of a woman and thus a mouth), but also hybridizes Eve and Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he cites. Milton’s Satan in the guise of a serpent does not have a “woman’s mouth,” but Milton describes him in ways that associate Satanic eloquence with Eve’s feminine beauty. A keen reader of Milton, Keats picks up on the interchange of woman and serpent and creates an amalgam of the two, mapping eloquence more directly onto the woman’s body through the mouth. Much like Milton’s shape-shifting Satan, Lamia can be thought of as a (dis)embodiment of speech, itself invisible but taking many seductive and sometimes deceptive forms.

Lamia, then, represents both interspecies (serpent and woman) and literary hybridity, with an undercurrent of racial hybridity (African and Greek), though Keats insists on her whiteness (“her neck regal white”) (I.243) as a marker of feminine beauty when she ceases to be a half-serpent of many dazzling hues. Through this multiform hybridity, Keats renders poetry as a Frankenstein-like monstrous creation, if a beautiful one, made from many parts thought to be incommensurate with one another. Lamia begs Hermes to make her a whole woman, for only as such can she win Lycius’s love; yet this illusion of organic wholeness and genealogical purity dissipates under Apollonius’s gaze, leaving in the marriage dress only a “heavy body wound” (II.322), a coiled snake. 

In this depiction of Lamia, Keats draws upon the western classics not only for mythology but also for different theories of rhetorical style. That favored by some manifestations of eighteenth-century neoclassicism emphasized rhetorical regularity, with Pope’s “Nature methodized” manifesting in rhetorical manuals offering taxonomies of genres and figures and their appropriate uses. Keats does indeed “methodize” his poem, imitating Dryden’s couplets and Alexandrines, a verse form of 12-syllable lines in iambic meter with a caesura in the middle. Line 60, which I evoked above, follows this pattern to stress the importance of Lamia’s ability to speak: 

            She had a woman’s mouth | with all its pearls complete.

Yet Keats’s narrative and stylistic excess strain against such regularity, revealing that poetry remains ungovernable however systematized. This idea is embodied in Lamia and allegorized in her story. A hybrid whose being cannot be explained, Lamia vanishes under the pressures of analysis, emerging as a figure of the mystical in poetry. Importantly, Apollonius banishes Lamia by naming her: 

            ’A serpent!’ echoed he; no sooner said, 

            Than with a frightful scream she vanished. (II.305-306) 

Lamia’s vanishing is simultaneous with losing her eloquence in a “scream,” marking her as a figure for poetic language, which consists in the naming of things through metaphor but remains as elusive as the things it attempts to name. 

The empty dress left behind evokes a common comparison in classical rhetoric of language as the “dress” of thought, in the sense of giving visible and beautiful form to things unseen. The dress further links femininity and poetic language in a long tradition comparing rhetorical ornament to the ornaments of a woman’s body, fleshly or artificial. Following the example of texts from Gorgias’s 4th century BCE Encomium of Helen to George Puttenham’s 16th century Arte of English Poesie, Keats projects onto the feminine a variety of concerns about the elusiveness and illusoriness of poetic language. He also projects these anxieties racially through the evocation of African myth, much as Byron does in his play Sardanapalus, in which the titular Assyrian emperor evokes extravagance and irregularity as much in his “oriental” habits as in his preference for wearing feminine dress. Thus, in Lamia, Keats maps the excesses, mysteries, and deceptions of poetic language onto the precarious feminine and the racial other.

Image via British Library

[i] Hrileena Ghosh recently argued for the earlier, end-of-June publication date. See John Keats’ Medical Notebook: Text, Context, and Poems, Liverpool UP, 2020, p.233.

[ii]  On 25 July 1819, Keats wrote to Fanny saying, “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of both of in the same minute.” 

[iii] See John Lemprière, A Classical Dictionary (1788), pp. 389-90.

[iv] See Debbie Lee, “’Certain Monsters of Africa’: Poetic voodoo in Keats’s Lamia,” Times Literary Supplement, 27 October 1995, p.14; and “Keats and ‘Lamia,’” Times Literary Supplement, 1 December 1995, p. 15.

About the author: I received my PhD from Cornell University in 2018 with a specialization in British literature of the long eighteenth century, including Romanticism. My published work has appeared in European Romantic Review, Philological Quarterly, and The Wordsworth Circle, and my book manuscript in progress is entitled “Poisoned Vestments”: Rhetoric and Material Culture in England and France, 1660-1820. I am currently a research and teaching fellow at the University of Paris 1- Panthéon-Sorbonne.