John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 46|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
Keats, we are wont to say, expressed the simplicity of Greek life in an ornate style. His art is therefore hybrid. The opposition may be satisfied by regarding him as a belated poet of the Renaissance. The Greek ideal had the wisdom of philosophy for the soul, the free natural play of the senses for the body, a code of ethics epitomized in temperance. The Renaissance gave to starved ecclesiastical Europe the lightness, the joyousness of ancient Greece, while it retained some of the mediæval forms. At the time when the scholars of Italy were absorbing Greek culture and the Christian and pagan forces were finding in Raphæl the poise of a perfect humanism, "Lamia" might have been read in the court of the Medicis by some poet of the day as a revived pagan romance. The tale is actually told by the Greek Philostratus. Keats had retold it, with the fine local color, in the rich style of the Renaissance.
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"Lamia" has directness of narrative. The incidents are clearly defined. The movement, though slow and graceful, has moments of outbreaking energy. It ends in almost spectacular climax. Keats had fused details into concentrated impressions. The quest of Hermes, at the beginning, translates the reader to the days when myth was ever present in the Greek consciousness. The release of Lamia from the serpent spell is a gorgeous festival of colors. The wooing of Lycius in the valley displays the wiles of a woman in subtle action. The magic palace of delight has the fascination of a perfect elysium of love. With the wedding feast the poet surpasses all his other pictures of epicurean magnificence. Finally the psychologic duel between the philosopher and the serpent-lady,—amid the music, the hush, the sense of some dreadful presence,—this duel, with the contemptuous cry of "Fool!" resolves the action into sudden dramatic catastrophe. Keats felt that at last he had produced a poem of force. "I am certain," he said, "there is that sort of fire in it that must take hold of people some way."
The theme is the opposition of wisdom and witchery. In the haunting suggestiveness of mystery Keats cannot compete with Coleridge. It was not his forte. He does not dwell upon the weird in obscurity. [An exception must be made of La Belle Dame sans Merci, which is unique among his poems.] Lamia inspires none of the uncanny fear so powerfully divined in Lady Geraldine.
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell!
O shield her! Shield sweet Christabel!
The element of witchery may add something of sensational effect in "Lamia"; the real poetic value lies almost wholly in the pictorial art which visualizes the delights of lovers in Greece.
The poem is one of Keats' triumphs in æsthetic realism. There is fine contrast between the sacred woodland and the purple-hung palace of marble; between Hermes, "pensive and full of painful jealousies," and the mortal lover, bending over his lady's eyes, "mirror'd small in paradise." The nymph of the god dwells among springs and coverts of flowers. The lady of Lycius leads him into a court of luxury. There are silken couches, palms, odorous censers, rows of lamps. The guests are washed with sponges, anointed with fragrant oils. There is revelry of wine, music, and fluent Greek; while around this isolated enjoyment moves the pedestrian populace of Corinth, with its white pavements, markets and lewd temples. The quality of amorousness is lower here than is usual with Keats. He has made no interfusion of the ethereal and the earthly. He has brought the interest down to the dead level of the senses.
Let the mad poets say whate'er they please
Of sweets of Færies, Peris, Goddesses,
There is not such a treat among them all,
Haunters of cavern, lake and waterfall.
As a real woman, lineal indeed
From Pyrrha's pebbles or old Adam's seed.
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