Lamia: Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of Lamia

Lamia by John William Waterhouse 1905Part 1

Once upon a time the god Hermes hears a female voice lamenting that she has been trapped in the body of a snake. The snake form that she inhabits is spectacularly beautiful, covered in a rich array of colours. This voice tells Hermes that she knows he is in love and is trying to search for a nymph who is hiding from him. She also says that she has given this nymph the power of invisibility but will reveal the nymph to Hermes, if only the god will allow her once again to resume her human shape, releasing her from the serpent form which currently imprisons her. Hermes is happy to agree to this, so the snake turns into a beautiful woman and vanishes, whilst the nymph appears to Hermes.
The snake-turned-woman is called Lamia; whilst she was in serpent form she had the power of sending her spirit wherever she wanted. On one of these disembodied journeys she had come across a youth called Lycius from Corinth and had been immediately attracted to him. Now, in human form, she travels to the road along which she knows Lycius will walk on his way to Corinth and stands beside it, waiting for him to arrive. When he appears she starts talking to him and asks whether he will pass on and leave her alone on the hills. When Lycius looks at her he immediately starts to ‘adore’ her, deciding that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her. Together they walk to Corinth and set up home together in a mansion to which she leads him. Shunning the company of other people, they live together as man and wife.

Part 2

The couple live happily together, united by passionate love. However, one day Lycius decides that they should get married and so he invites all their friends to the marriage feast. Lamia thinks this is a very bad idea but Lycius is persistent and Lamia eventually and reluctantly agrees. She imposes just one condition: the philosopher Apollonius should not be invited.
Whilst Lycius is busy inviting all his friends and relations to the wedding, Lamia summons up spirits who prepare the banquet room, decorating it and filling it with an array of rich food. The day arrives and Lycius’ guests arrive (Lamia has told Lycius that all her potential guests live too far away to come); they marvel at the magnificence of the couple’s mansion. In fact, none of them had been aware that such a splendid house existed in Corinth. Amongst the guests is Apollonius; Lycius did not invite him but he has turned up anyway.
At the height of the celebrations Apollonius begins staring hard at Lamia – who not surprisingly finds such scrutiny very uncomfortable. The colour drains from her face and she cannot answer Lycius who asks her what the matter is. The music and feasting come to a sudden halt and Lycius sharply orders Apollonius to stop staring at his bride. Apollonius is uncompromising and contemptuous. He calls Lycius a fool, saying that he has looked after the interest of the young man up till now only to find Lycius made into ‘a serpent’s prey’. He stares at Lamia again and utters the words: ‘A serpent!’ Lamia immediately vanishes. That same night Lycius dies.

Commentary on Lamia

In a note printed at the end of the poem, Keats stated that his source was a story found in Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621:
One Menippus Lycius, a young man twenty-five years of age, that going betwixt Cenchreas and Corinth, met such a phantasm in the habit of a fair gentlewoman, which, taking him by the hand, carried him home to her house, in the suburbs of Corinth…The young man, a philosopher, otherwise staid and discreet, able to moderate his passions, though not this of love, tarried with her a while to his great content, and at last married her, to whose wedding, amongst other guests, came Apollonius; who, by some probable conjectures, found her out to be a serpent, a lamia; and that all her furniture was, like Tantalus’s gold, described by Homer, no substance but mere illusions. When she saw herself descried, she wept, and desired Apollonius to be silent, but he would not be moved, and thereupon she, plate, house, and all that was in it, vanished in an instant: many thousands took notice of this fact, for it was done in the midst of Greece.     
Title: According to Greek mythology, the Lamia was a monster in the form of a woman (or half snake, half woman) who ate people’s children because her own had been stolen away. In Keats’ poem Lamia is an enchantress, a liar and an expert when it comes to affairs of the heart. However, she apparently means no harm since she is genuinely in love as well as being very beautiful. On the other hand, both human male characters in the poem have serious shortcomings: 
  • Lycius may be attractive in many ways but he is gullible, over-emotional and capable of being cruel
  • Apollonius may be able to assess situations clearly but he is unbendingly puritanical and lacks humanity.


Part 1

Lines 1-46

Nymph: In classical mythology, a feminine spirit of the fields; in pastoral poetry, a synonym for a young woman
Satyr: In classical mythology, a male spirit of Nature who was said to reside in mountains and forests. They are often associated with the pastoral genre and depicted as half-man, half-goat, with strong sexual potency. 
Oberon: King of the fairies (as depicted in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Dryads: wood-nymphs who lived in trees
Fauns: In classical mythology fauns (or satyrs) were the attendants of Faunus (Pan). They were strange spirits, partly man and partly goat, who lived in mountains and forests.
brakes: bushes/thickets
Hermes: known as Mercury in Roman mythology, the winged messenger of the gods, represented as having winged shoes and helmet and carrying a staff covered in living serpents
Olympus: a sacred mountain in northern Greece, where it was believed the gods dwelt
Jove: Jove is another name for the Roman god Jupiter (in Greek mythology, Zeus), chief of the gods.
Tritons: sea-gods, half man and half fish
Muse: The Muses were goddesses who were believed to give inspiration to all types of creative artists. There were usually considered to be nine of them.
cirque-couchant: lying twisted into a circle.

Lines 47-67

gordian: knotted, from the famous knot in the harness of Gordius, King of Phrygia, which only the conqueror of the world could untie
pard: leopard
penanced: From the Latin (poena) for punishment, penance was an act expressing repentance for misdeeds
demon: an evil spiritual force
Ariadne's tiar: Ariadne was a nymph beloved of Bacchus, the god of wine. He gave her a tiara of seven stars which, after her death, was made into a constellation.
serpent: a snake. In some religions and mythologies seen as the embodiment of deceit, cunning and evil. Keats’ readers would associate it with Satan, who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden
Proserpine...air: Proserpine was carried off by Pluto, the king of the underworld, to be his queen, whilst she was gathering flowers in the Vale of Enna in Sicily.
pinions: the outer flight feathers of a bird’s wing – Hermes was depicted as a winged god.

Lines 68-145

Apollo: Greek and Roman god of prophecy, music, the arts, light, medicine and archery
Phoebean dart: a ray of the sun – Phoebus was believed to draw the sun across the sky each day in his chariot. 
Star of Lethe: Hermes is called this because he had to lead the souls of the dead to Hades in which there was Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.
my serpent rod: the magic staff carried by Hermes called a caduceus, which was wreathed with two snakes (sometimes also with wings at the top)
Silenus: the satyr nurse and teacher of Bacchus, a demi-god of the forests
psalterian: like a prayer or incantation, Keats alluding to the Anglican Psalter which was a worship book containing the psalms and canticles
Circean: Circe was the great enchantress who turned the followers of Odysseus into pigs.
lythe: quick-acting
Caducean charm: Caduceus was the name of Hermes' magic staff, the touch of which could give the serpent human form.

Lines 146-170

besprent: sprinkled
silver mail and golden brede: Keats describes the pattern of Lamia’s discarded snakeskin as being like chainmail and braided hair.
rubious-argent: ruby-coloured silver.

Lines 171-184

Corinth: Greek city/port just south of the Isthmus. Keats’ readers would associate it with its New Testament reputation for immorality. 
Cenchrea (Cenchreas, according to Keats) was a harbour of Corinth in southern Greece.
Peraean: Keats is alluding to the springs flowing from the Perachora peninsular near Corinth.
Cleone: town in southern Greece with a sacred fountain/spring.

Lines 185-199

kirtle: archaic term for gown or outer skirt
Intrigue...chaos: enter on an understanding with the superficially attractive confusion of joy and pain
Cupid: in Roman mythology, the little god of love, often depicted as the son of Venus, the goddess of love
unshent: unreproached.

Lines 200-250

all she list: all she desired
Elysium: in Greek mythology, the place where the gods dwelt
Nereids: sea-nymphs
Thetis: a sea-nymph, the daughter of Nereus, wife of Peleus and mother of Achilles
Bacchus: Roman god of wine (Greek name, Dionysus)
glutinous: referring to the sticky substance which oozes from the trunk of the pine tree
Pluto: Roman god of the underworld – Greek name Hades
Mulciber: Vulcan, the blacksmith of the gods
Egina: the island of Aegina, near Athens
incense: aromatic dried sap, the smoke of which is used in worship to represent prayers
Platonic: relating to the philosophy of Plato
Orpheus-like at an Eurydice: just as Orpheus looked at Eurydice in Hades. Orpheus was allowed by Pluto to lead his beloved Eurydice back to earth on condition that he did not look back at her. However, he could not help himself and disobeyed the rule with the result that he lost her once more.

Lines 251-300

Pleiad: The Pleiades are seven stars making a constellation.
keep...spheres: The heavenly bodies were supposed to make music as they revolved around the earth.
lyres: an ancient type of harp.

Lines 301-349

Venus’ temple: Corinth was famed for its temple to Aphrodite, whose worship included ‘sacred’ prostitution.
Adonian feast: the feast of Adonis, who was beloved by Venus
Peris: fairylike creatures in Persian mythology
From Pyrrha’s pebbles: descended from the pebbles with which, in Greek mythology, Pyrrha and Deucalion repopulated the earth after the great flood
Adam: According to the Bible, the first man and thus father of all humankind.

Lines 350-361

temples lewd: temples of Venus, whose worship sometimes involved ritual prostitution
corniced: the decorative ledge at the top of a wall or column.

Lines 362-377

philosophic gown: the robes recognised as being worn by philosophers
sage: wise person.

Lines 378-397

Sounds Aeolian: like sounds from the wind harp (Aeolus being god of winds), which responds musically to a current of air
Persian mutes: Keats adds a mysterious oriental detail of ‘hidden people’.

Part 2

Lines 1-15

hermit: someone who lives in solitude, and has little or no contact with people. Hermits devote their lives to prayer, frequently disciplining their bodily needs through fasting or other abstinence.
non-elect: those not chosen. Keats’ readers would be familiar with the term ‘elect’ being used of those destined for heaven.
Love .. wings: Love is personified as the winged god Cupid.

Lines 16-64

tythe: a tenth.
deafening: making inaudible
purple-lined palace of sweet sin: purple is associated with opulence; the lovers’ activity is ‘sweet sin’ because they are not yet married
empery: bounty of an empire
passing bell: This could mean either the bell rung for a condemned man the night before his execution - or the bell rung when a man was dying so that people could pray for his soul.
trammel up: bind up/ensnare/restrict.

Lines 64-105

sanguineous: blood-red
Apollo: Greek and Roman god of prophecy, music, the arts, light, medicine and archery, whose first triumph was to kill the snake Python with his arrow
Sepulchred: entombed. 

Lines 106-162

charm might fade: Lamia decorates the hall by means of a spell
gossip rout: a disorderly overspill of gossip
amain: archaic term for ‘forcefully’, indicating the onlookers’ amazement 
demesne: dwelling.

Lines 163-172

mien: countenance
sophist: teacher of philosophy
spleen: spite or bad temper.

Lines 173-198

censer: receptacle in which incense is burnt to release its aromatic smoke
insphered: encircled
libbard: archaic term for leopard
horn: the cornucopia or horn of plenty, overflowing with the products of Ceres, goddess of grain
tun: large cask.

Lines 199-220

meridian: mid-day. Bacchus was supreme, as is the sun at mid-day.
osier'd gold: The gold was woven into baskets, as though it were osiers (willow twigs).

Lines 221-238

willow: the weeping willow, so named because its long-leaved branches droop to the ground like dropping tears
adder’s tongue: a kind of fern, obviously appropriate for Lamia
thyrsus: a rod wreathed with ivy and crowned with a fir cone, used by Bacchus and his followers. 

Lines 239-311

myrtle: sacred to Venus, hence an emblem of love
perceant: piercing.

Investigating commentary on Lamia

  • ‘Both male characters have serious short comings.’ From your reading of the synopsis what do you think these shortcomings might be?
  • Why might a ‘lamia’ be an appropriate mythological creature to use in a poem exploring the gulf between appearance and reality?
  • Look at the source Keats used for this poem (in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy). What changes did he make and what is the effect of those changes? 
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