John Keats, selected poems Contents
- Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou
- The Eve of St Agnes
- ‘Hush, hush! tread softly! hush, hush, my dear!’
- Isabella: or The Pot of Basil
- La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- Lines to Fanny (‘What can I do to drive away’)
- O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell
- Ode on a Grecian Urn
- Ode on Indolence
- Ode to a Nightingale
- Ode to Autumn
- Ode to Melancholy
- Ode to Psyche
- On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer
- On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
- On the Sea
- Sleep and Poetry
- Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb
- To Ailsa Rock
- To Leigh Hunt
- To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat
- To My Brothers
- To Sleep
- When I have fears that I may cease to be
Lamia: Imagery, symbolism and themes
Imagery and symbolism in Lamia
Lamia herself symbolises any person or thing that seems to be attractive but is actually destructive. She is half-snake, half-woman – beautiful but deadly. Disguised by her ‘full-born’ beauty, Lamia entices Lycius into a relationship which is notable for its blissful obliviousness to the outside world. The house where they live becomes a symbol of retreat from the ‘real’ world and is full of the sights and sounds of idyllic fantasies: silver lamps, marble, musical hinges and a couch ‘near to a curtaining / Whose airy texture from a golden string / Floated into the room.’ Much of the poem’s imagery is grouped around its principal themes of ‘reality versus dreams’ and ‘sight and seeing’.
As a sharp contrast, for instance, to the dream-like nature of the house in which Lamia and Lycius live together, is the imagery associated with Apollonius. The stare with which he destroys Lamia is ‘Keen, cruel, perceant, stinging’. His eyes are also described by Lycius as ‘demon eyes’ and, by the narrator, as ‘sharp’.
Images of characters seeing, looking, gazing or casting their eyes on other people abound in the poem. Keats seems particularly interested in the way in which different people have different perceptions of the world and in the way that being in someone’s sight can be the same as being in their power. The way in which a creative artist ‘sees’ the world is very different from the way in which a cold, detached philosopher or rationalist perceives it.
Investigating imagery and symbolism in Lamia
- Make a list of the images associated with each of:
- How does this imagery reveal character and motivation?
- Find examples of imagery to do with eyes and seeing. Why does Keats seem to find this particularly interesting?
- What strong contrasts can you find between the different strands of imagery in the poem?
- For instance, compare the imagery of dreams with that of cold reality.
- What ideas or values does each of the following characters seem to symbolise?
Themes in Lamia
Appearance and reality
The main theme of the poem concerns the tension between appearance and reality. Lamia’s beauty is superficial and destructive. However, Keats seems ambivalent about the coldly scientific attitude expressed by Apollonius.
Lamia withers and dies under the cold stare of the rational philosopher Apollonius, who sees through her illusion. Lycius also dies as his dream is shattered. This idea of dream/illusion versus reality is very similar to that explored in The Eve of St Agnes, but here the opposition is starker and much more public.
Keats divides the sympathies of his readers just as the characters are divided between the extremely rational and the extremely enchanted. Lamia’s immortal viewpoint is juxtaposed with Apollonius’ human one.
The power of the imagination
In one sense, the illusion created by Lamia collapses under cold scrutiny. Yet Keats demonstrates the power of the imagination by creating visions in verse which have endured. It is from Lamia’s imagination that the lavish decoration of the banqueting hall is created, which has such an impact on both guest and reader. It is her giving visual form to the nymph desired by Hermes which refreshes and satisfies his quest. Indeed, by projecting her desired image of herself to Lycias, she attains love – albeit temporarily. Keats demonstrates that illusion and the imagination are not to be disparaged as ‘fake’.
The allegorical meaning of the poem seems to be that it is disastrous to separate the sensuous and emotional life from the life of reason. Philosophy, if divorced from emotion, can be cold and destructive; on the other hand, the pleasures of the senses by themselves can be illusory and unsatisfying. The man who attempts such a sharp separation between the two parts of his nature will fail and end miserably – as did Lycius. He is compelled to face the death of his illusions and is unable to survive it.
Investigating themes in Lamia
- What view does the poem offer of how people can live a happy life?
- What sorts of behaviour and attitudes lead to unhappiness?
- Do you agree that the main theme of the poem concerns appearance and reality?
- If so, is one better than the other?
- What does the poem suggest about the advantages and disadvantages of the purely emotional or purely rational approach to life?
- What does Lamia say about the worth of dreams?
To represent a thing or idea by something else through an association of ideas.
A non-realistic genre of literature whereby characters or episodes systematically represent a certain belief system. Interpretation of allegory can involve two or more levels of meaning.
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