It’s been awhile since I’ve read my collected writings of John Keats. I admit many of his earlier poems are mediocre, but this only adds to the joy of seeing the development of his prose through the short time that he wrote. By far Keats’s masterpiece is his poem “Lamia”, where he demonstrates his growth as a poet by taking his time to let the characters breath and roam free through well-paced narrative.
The title character, Lamia, appears to be beyond any consistent description: “She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue, Vermilion-shaped, golden, green, and blue; Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard, Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d”(Keats, John. “Lamia,” lines 47-50). Her appearance, both as serpent and woman, is filled with allegorical affirmations of her beauty, but it is a surreal beauty that lacks any real substance. Akin to a pleasant dream, where the dreamer is engulfed by the euphoria overtaking his sleep, but cannot grasp the images around him because no matter how vivid and enticing they are, they are still simply imaginary. This is the reality in which Lamia exists, completely dependent on a dreamer’s slumber to give her substance, which in essence is not much of a reality at all. Even after being turned human by the god Hermes, Lamia’s entire existence rests on having others, namely her lover Lycius, unquestionably recognize her as the human being she is pretending to be. And she knows that once the spell is broken, so is any claim she has to the material world:
His spirit pass’d beyond its golden bourn
Into a noisy world almost forlorn.
The lady, ever watchful, penetrant,
Saw this with pain, so arguing a want
Of something more, more than her empery
Of joys; and she began to moan and sigh
Because he mused beyond her, knowing well
That but a moment’s thought is passion’s passing bell (lines 32-39).