John Keats’ “Lamia” was the last of his four grand poetic romances. The poem tells the story of the tragic woman Lamia, who in Greek mythology had been transformed into a serpent-like creature who devours children after the goddess Hera—oh those trouble-making Greek gods again—destroyed her children. Hera punished Lamia further by making her sleepless and, therefore, in a state of perpetual angst.
The poem begins by contrasting the dead present with the flush and abundant past, “Upon a time, before the faery broods/Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods” (I.1-2). We are introduced to the god Hermes who has fallen in love with the stories of “A nymph, to whom all hoofed Satyrs knelt,/At whose white feet the languid Tritons poured/Pearls, while on land they withered and adored” (I.14-16). So Hermes ventures off to find this mystical and enchanted nymph.
Searching in the woods, Hermes comes across the anguished cries of the serpent-woman Lamia. Hermes burning and fiery passion for the nymph is tamed by the weeping tears of Lamia, whose “mournful voice” in “pain” cries out, “When from this wreathed tomb shall I awake!” (I.38) Captured by her cries, and her pleas, Hermes becomes like Christ, bending over her and raising her from her tomb. Her formerly “chilled hand” (I.140) becomes alive with “warmth” and “her eyelids opened” (I.141) at Hermes’ healing touch. While in transformation she “convulsed with scarlet pain” (I.154)—in imagery blending violent and erotic transfiguration, a new birth, in more than just a poetic way—Lamia is transformed like a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly of new life; Lamia has taken on human form and is depicted by Keats as exuded a sublime splendor.
In her transformation she cries out “Lycius! gentle Lycius!” (I.168), a young man who lives in Corinth and being educated by the philosopher Apollonius. In Lamia’s bodily and sexual resurrection from the dead, Keats begins to invoke the names of the old gods of love, passion, and fertility: Cupid, Jove, Bacchus, and Venus are all subsequently named as Lamia’s world has been transformed. She subsequently lures the heart of Lycius to her and they live in passionate seclusion for some time.
“Love in a hut, with water and a crust,/Is – Love, forgive us! – cinder, ashes, dust;/Love in a palace is perhaps at last/More grievous torment than a hermit’s fast” (II.1-4). Keats’ opening lines for the second part of the poem stand in stark contrast to the first. Love is the first word he uses, and Love is a word and theme repeatedly used and wrestled with as the poem runs to its climactic and tragic conclusion. Yet, the reality of death was already prefigured by Keats when Lycius, hearing the song and tears of life of Lamia (whose singing and crying represent the word and water of life), cried out to her in mad love, “For pity do not this sad heart belie –/Even as thou vanishes so I shall die” (I.259-260).
Lycius grows tired of living a secluded life of love with Lamia. Instead, he proposes his hand to her in marriage. Lamia is distraught by this proposal and accosts him. Lycius pleads with her that he is not betraying her and wants to love her correctly. Lamia concedes under the condition that Lycius doesn’t invite Apollonius to the wedding.
The poem tragically ends with Apollonius arriving to the wedding uninvited. Before the marriage vows can be exchanged, Apollonius sees through Lamia’s false form and claims, in exposing Lamia, that he is saving Lycius. “From every ill/Of life have I preserved thee to this day,/And shall I see thee made a serpent’s prey?” (II.296-299)
Exposed to the world, Lamia vanishes. “Lycius’ arms were empty of delight,/As were his limbs of life, from that same night” (II.307-308). What Lycius prophesied back when they first met, “Even as thou vanishes so I shall die” (I.260), is now made a reality. Lycius dies on his couch, love stripped from him, by the very man who claimed to be protecting him.
Keats was a poet and not a philosopher. But Keats, like many poets, knew of philosophy (and theology) to a certain degree. And like many poets of his generation and era, Keats was engaged in a reactive struggle against the encroachments of dead-body materialism and utilitarianism that had come to define the so-called Enlightenment. Against this passionless and soulless, lifeless, world, he rebelled.
As a poet Keats saw himself as part of the vanguard of re-enchantment. While other English literati had recognized the dangers of lifeless materialism creeping into the mind of moderns, including John Milton and Jonathan Swift, the danger of lifeless utilitarianism was more readily visible and widespread in Keats’ time than in the days of Milton and Swift. Thus, there was a more combative fervor to Keats in his poetry than in Milton and Swift. After all, almost all of Keats’ poetry has love, women, and sex as their theme. Lamia being the culminated manifestation of his short life’s work.
The villain of the poem is the philosopher Apollonius. There are no heroes of the poem, but the reader does sympathize with Lamia and feels aggrieved for Lycius by poem’s end. A reader knowledgeable in the classics will sympathize with Lamia even more with the understanding of her tragic fate at the hands of the violent and jealous gods who punished her so harshly. Lamia simply wants to love again. Hermes grants her this chance. She lives happily with Lycius. Though worried she will be exposed in marriage, she still concedes to live a life with Lycius under the stipulation that Apollonius is not present.
“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-personed Lamia melt into a shade” (II.234-238). Keats insightful words, here, on the eve of the wedding attended by “[t]he bald-head philosopher” (II.245), reveals to us the battle lines between sterile mechanical philosophy (represented by Apollonius) and the enchanted and life-giving world of higher spirits, God, or the gods, symbolically represented by Hermes’ resurrection of Lamia, Lamia’s union with Lycius, and the happy life they have with “Bacchus [dancing] at meridian height” (II.213). Philosophy chases away wonder and majesty, “Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” (II.229-230), but Love inculcates wonder and majesty in the world and life.
The battle between poetry and philosophy is far older than Keats. It goes back to the birth of philosophy itself. It goes back to the contest between Aristophanes and Socrates in ancient Athens. And while Socrates was no atheist in the sense of contemporary and dullish New Atheists, Socrates did wage a war against the Athenian pantheon which was the principal cause of the Athenian government to charge him with corrupting the youth and public peace. If poetry defends the enchanted world, then philosophy threatens to banish the enchanted world for its sterile world of rigid lines and empty matter.
Keats may have overplayed the negativity of philosophy, for there are many philosophies and philosophers who would be on Keats’ side, but Keats’ depiction of cold philosophy is understandable in the context of the ascendency of materialism and utilitarianism in the early nineteenth century. This cold materialism was banished in the ancient world with the triumph of Platonic Christianity. The empty world of Epicurus and Lucretius was defeated by the mystifying world of angels, demons, miracles, the saints, and sacramentality offered by Christianity. While Keats was no friend to Christianity in his works, this historical fact remains. But that enchanted world of Christianity came under threat with the Reformation. The Reformation stripped the world of images, of enchantment, and of sacramentality—something that Shakespeare esoterically rebelled against in many of his plays. As William Barrett said, “With Protestantism begins that long modern struggle, which reaches its culmination in the twentieth century, to strip man naked. To be sure, in all of this the aim was progress.”
By the rise of the new science of Francis Bacon and his heirs: principally Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and the empiricists, the world of enchantment was dying. The Cambridge Platonists offered a last ditched defense of the world of enchantment, but by the 1810s and 1820s, when Keats was most active, the world of the Industrial Revolution and the “dark Satanic mills” had triumphed. People were just mere bodies of mass in motion as Thomas Hobbes and the French materialists maintained.
So it isn’t a surprise that the villain of Keats’ poem is not the sympathetic femme fatale who we identify with, but the cold philosopher who thinks he is saving the world but is actually destroying it. Apollonius even declares, in bold voice to his pupil, that he will not allow Lycius to fall prey to the serpent. Yet, in banishing the world of enchantment he brings about the death of his pupil.
Death rides a pale horse, and in their moment of crisis Lycius holds tight to Lamia, his love, but that “devout touch” (II.249) loses its luster of love. “Lycius then pressed her hand, with devout touch,/As pale it lay upon the rosy couch:/’Twas icy, and the cold ran through his veins” (II.249-251). The tragedy of Lamia, indeed, the tragedy of John Keats, was that those crying for the world of love to be resurrected, were, and remain, crushed by the handmaidens of the empty rainbow.
 William Barrett, Irrational Man (New York: Anchor Books, 1990 reprint; 1958), 27.