John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 47|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
Seekers after parallel passages may like to compare this with the lines in Byron's "Don Juan," published while Keats was writing:—
PAGE 47 OF 81.
I've seen much finer women, ripe and real,
Than all their nonsense of the stone ideal.
Love, in "Lamia," is more complex than in "Isabella." Virgin innocence gives place to artifice and sex distinctions. In the matter of characteristic feeling, Isabella might have been Lorenzo, or vice versa. "Lamia" deals with the masculine and the feminine in human nature. Outwardly the lady is a virgin purest-lipped. But inwardly her being is dyed in the red heart's core. She is a graduate in the lore of love; she can practice the art of disentangling bliss from pain. At first, on meeting Lycius, she assumes the goddess, coyly demanding inducements. When he recovers from her enchantment, she sings a Circean song to retain her power. Then she reveals herself as a mortal woman and fabricates a past of content in vestal seclusion. Her motive is purely selfish. Later, when Lycius dominates her in the palace of delight, his ardor becomes selfish, tyrannous. He is luxurious in her sorrows. In turn she displays the feminine trait of a woman subdued, by her relish of the masculine tyranny. The charge so often made that Keats' lovers are insipid is certainly unwarrantable for this pair.
Much has been made of the conflict between philosophy and the illusions of the imagination. The passage about Newton and the destruction of the glory of the rainbow has been cited as evidence of Keats' definitive scorn of science. If that scorn were all-inclusive, it would be a sign of intellectual deficiency. If, however, it was only a deprecation of the undue invasion of poetry by science, such as Wordsworth uttered about a man who would peep and botanize upon his mother's grave, then it is no more than a reassertion of Keats' principle of "Negative Capability," of "resting in uncertainties, mysteries and doubts." This is a privilege of the poet; one which is sometimes menaced by an aggressive scornful science. Too much intellectualism often suffocates the poet in Browning. If poetry be divine illusion, the poet must take an attitude like that of the scholastic theologians who affirmed that a thing might be false in philosophy yet true in religion.
"Lamia" is not to be regarded as any profound criticism of life. There was no issue of domestic morals. If there had been, the guardian Apollonius would scarcely have frustrated a marriage. The philosopher cared nothing about the ethics of the sexual relations; he was concerned about the general welfare of his ward. The tale is frankly pagan; therein lies part of its local color. Lycius wants to marry Lamia, but not for propriety's sake. He desires to exhibit such a beautiful bride to his townsfolk and make them envious. The motive is vanity.
The poem is the product of art almost mature. Even so sensitive a man as Mr. Swinburne would expunge only a few lines. Seed-pecking criticism has discovered a number of flaws in diction, rhyme and metre. The positive merits make such trivial objections seem ungracious. Nothing in this world is perfect. Ariel's song in "The Tempest," under the microscope, shows an undeniable blemish.
"Lamia" is a fine poem. Nevertheless it does not exhibit Keats at his best. It is inferior in tone to "The Eve of St. Agnes," the odes and "Hyperion." It has magnificence but not grandeur. It is the story of a Tannhäuser in the Venusberg without the spiritual triumph. "Lamia" is neither gross nor passionate, yet it clings to the ground. The greatest poetry must lift. This poem is only a well-nigh perfect picture of the blandishments of sensuous love; and as such—Mr. Swinburne's enthusiasm suggests the thought—it might be regarded as leading on to the flaunting passion of "Laus Veneris."
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