John Keats – “Lamia”

by J.W. Waterhouse

“Lamia” by J.W. Waterhouse

In his narrative poem in two parts, “Lamia,”  John Keats offers a  retelling of the Greek myth of Lamia, a snake-like woman who devours children, and, in some tellings of the myth, seduces young men, only to then feed on their blood. Keats, however, describes Lamia as a woman released from the body of a snake by Hermes. Lamia then seduces and becomes engaged to a young man, Lycius, but at their wedding feast a sage reveals Lamia’s true nature. Following this, she disappears and Lycius dies of grief:

“‘A serpent!’ echoed he—no sooner said,/ Than with a frightful scream she vanished,/ And Lycius’ arms were empty of delight,/ As were his limbs from life that same night./ On the high couch he lay—his friends came round,/ Supported him; no pulse or breath they  found,/ And, in its marriage robe, the heavy body wound.”

"Lamia (Second Version)" by John W. Waterhouse

“Lamia (Second Version)” by John W. Waterhouse

Peter Trippi writes about J.W. Waterhouse’s paintings of this Keats poem and the poem itself, stating, “Keats never explicitly brands this animal woman as evil, celebrating instead her beauty and the sensual exhilaration she offers. Ultimately, Lamia is defeated by the stare of Lycius’s wise old tutor; his interference epitomizes the triumph of science over beauty and imagination, regretted by Keats and other Romantics, and surely by Waterhouse.” Trippi’s interpretation brings to the foreground of this poem its Romantic aspects, in particular the admiration for beauty and how pursuit of Truth can blind the seeker to natural beauty.

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