Lamia: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone in Lamia

Different viewpoints

The fact that Keats has used (rhyming) heroic couplets rather than blank verse (as in Hyperion) or the intricate stanza forms of poems such as Isabella or The Eve of St Agnes gives Lamia a brighter, more buoyant feel. The verse form also allows Keats to introduce a cynical, world-weary voice into the poem, frequently reminding his readers how often and how seriously human experience falls short of moral perfection. This tone is often at odds with the violent and magical events of the narrative. Indeed, readers who prefer poems to have a consistent point of view have sometimes complained that the tone shifts rather too often and too abruptly.

Sensuous detail

Keats seems to revel in the richly sensuous descriptive detail required by this story of myth and magic. Take for example, the description of Lamia as a serpent:
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; 
(Part 1 l. 47-50)    
And the description continues with references to ‘silver moons’, rainbows and stars. The colours, patterns and textures are all recreated through Keats’ spectacular verbal palette.
When Lamia transforms herself into human shape, Keats’ language again suggests his relish for the spectacular and the grotesque:
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, 
(Part 1 l.155-60)     
The language not only captures the physical transformation but also underscores Lamia’s destructive potential, just as molten lava destroys all life that lies in its path.


There is a wide range of linguistic variety in the poem. As well as the richness and multi-sensory appeal of much of the descriptive writing, Keats can also use language of notable simplicity and dramatic impact. For instance, the words spoken by Apollonius at the end of the poem:
      from every ill
Of life have I preserv’d thee to this day,
And shall I see thee made a serpent’s prey? 
(Part 2 l.296-8)     
cut into the truth with the sharpness of a series of short monosyllables, only three of the words containing more than one syllable.

Investigating language and tone in Lamia

  • Do you agree that the tone of the poem is sometimes at odds with its subject matter?
  • Select three 8-10 line sections of Lamia and demonstrate how Keats creates descriptive vividness in the poem.
    • For each example explain what Keats is trying to achieve.
  • How does Keats’ use of language give Lamia ‘a lighter feel’ than poems such as Isabella or The Eve of St Agnes? Select a range of examples to validate your comments.
  • Analyse three examples to prove/disprove whether Keats relishes the spectacular and the grotesque in Lamia.
  • How does Keats use language in Lamia to appeal to the senses? Select a range of examples to validate your comments.
  • Keats creates a distinctive voice for the characters within Lamia. Analyse how the following ‘voices’ reflect the characters’ different personalities:
    • Hermes
    • Lycias
    • Lamia
    • Apollonius.

Structure and versification in Lamia

The poem is written in iambic pentameter rhyming couplets with frequent use of the Alexandrine. Line 26 is the first Alexandrine in the poem: ‘Fallen in jealous curls about his shoulders bare’ (i.e. the curls clung jealously to his bare shoulders). Keats learned this device from the seventeenth century poet John Dryden. Keats also breaks the routine of couplets by making use of the triplet, a sequence of three lines ending with the same rhyme, as in Part 1 l.61-3 (‘there’ / ‘fair’ / ‘air’) and Part 2 l.13-15 (‘roar’ / ‘door’ / ‘floor’). 
There is a feeling of balance and control in the poem, demonstrated by the number of end-stopped, self-contained couplets, such as: 
Love in a palace is perhaps at last
More grievous torment than a hermit’s fast. (Part 2 l.3-4)     
Despite this, there are occasions when Keats allows the sense to run over from one couplet to another. This enjambement creates a sense of fluidity as well as imparting variety to the rhythm. It can also create a sense of tension and of events gathering speed as in this extract near the beginning of Part 2:
For all this came a ruin: side by side
They were enthroned, in the eventide,
Upon a couch, near to a curtaining
Whose airy texture, from a golden string,
Floated into the room, and let appear
Unveiled the summer heaven, blue and clear,
Betwixt two marble shafts: -
(Part 2 l.16-22)     
Coming after a series of end-stopped couplets, the effect here is notable for its sense of unstoppable momentum.

Investigating structure and versification in Lamia

  • Many readers feel that there is a feeling of balance and control in the poem. Select three examples demonstrating how Keats creates this feeling.
  • How does Keats create a sense of tension in Lamia? Select three examples demonstrating Keats’ technique.
  • Find four examples of enjambement and explain the effect of each.
  • How does Keats create variety of movement in his handling of the verse? 
    • For instance, in Part 2 l.16-22 look at the punctuation and consider where the pauses come and the effect they create.
    • Select and analyse two other 8-10 line examples 
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