The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IV. Keats

§ 7. Lamia

Lamia, last of the tales in verse, followed after an interval of some months and under widely different intellectual conditions. The summer of 1819 found Keats adventuring in regions more than ever remote from the dream-world of Endymion. Shakespeare draws him to the historic drama; to these months belong his experiments, Otho the Great and Stephen; a little later came The Cap and Bells. And now it was the supple and sinewy narrative, the sensuous splendour, the ringing, metallic rimes of Dryden’s verse-tales that attracted his emulation. The story of Lamia (June-September) which he found in Burton resembled those of Isabella and of The Eve of St. Agnes in representing two lovers united by a secret and mysterious bond; but, here, the mystery becomes sheer witchcraft. The witch-maiden Lamia, in the hands of the author of La Belle Dame, might well have yielded a counterpart of Coleridge’s Geraldine. The influence of Dryden’s robust and positive genius has almost banished the delicate reticences of the earlier poems. Lamia’s transformations have the hard brilliance of mosaics; the “volcanian yellow” invades her silver mail “as the lava ravishes the mead.” The same influence told more happily in the brilliant precision of the picture of the city festival, each half-line a distinct and living vignette. There are not wanting—there could not be—touches of descriptive magic, but the charm of Lamia is rather described than felt; whether woman be her true nature (1,118) or her disguise (11,306) (and this is not made clear), she has not the defined character of either; as a psychological portrait, she cannot stand beside Isabel or Madeline. And the cynical tone of restoration gallantry has, here and there, betrayed Keats into lapses of taste elsewhere overcome, as in the terrible line 1,330 (“there is not such a treat among them all.… As a real woman”), and the opening of part 11. Keats felt intensely the contrast between the romance of passion and the outer world of cold reflection. In The Eve of St. Agnes, the flame-like glow of light colour which surrounds the lovers is symbolically contrasted with the frozen world without. In Lamia, this symbolism is less telling. But it is helped out by an explicit comment on the climax of the story. The sophist’s eye transfixes the serpent-lady, and dissolves the pageant of her love. So, “cold philosophy” destroys romance. The “moral” expressed an antagonism dear to Keat’s passionately intuitive mind; but its introduction implied just such an obtrusion of reflection upon poetry as it purported to condemn.

It is easy, in tracing the growth of an artist who studied so intently the genius of others, to lay too much stress on his artistic seriousness. His famous counsel to Shelley, too, might suggest that he himself was, above all, a curious and elaborate artificer. Some of his manuscripts, no doubt, support this impression. Yet, Keats was not only extraordinarily spontaneous: he could play lightly with the passing mood. His quick sensitiveness of eye and ear and fancy tempted him along many poetic byways beside the way he deliberately chose. He did not write only in his singing-robes, but delighted to weave pleasant rimes in familiar undress. The brother and sister-in-law in America, and his friend Reynolds, received many such rimed interludes in his letters—lively fountains of verse springing up unbidden in the garden of his prose. Such are the four poems, Robin Hood, Lines on the Mermaid Tavern, Fancy and The Bards of Passion and of Mirth, all written in the short couplet of L’Allegro, with a delicacy of music of which Milton had helped him to the secret, and a daintiness and playfulness of fancy akin to Beaumont and Fletcher, and other haunters of the Mermaid, bards of “mirth” even more than of “passion.”