And so he rested, on the lonely ground,
Pensive, and full of painful jealousies
Of the Wood-Gods, and even the very trees.
There as he stood, he heard a mournful voice,
Such as once heard, in gentle heart, destroys
All pain but pity: thus the lone voice spake:
“When from this wreathed tomb shall I awake!
When move in a sweet body fit for life,
And love, and pleasure, and the ruddy strife
Of hearts and lips! Ah, miserable me!”
The God, dove-footed, glided silently
Round bush and tree, soft-brushing, in his speed,
The taller grasses and full-flowering weed,
Until he found a palpitating snake,
Bright, and cirque-couchant in a dusky brake.
She was a gordian shape of dazzling hue,
Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;
Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,
Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d;
And full of silver moons, that, as she breathed,
Dissolv’d, or brighter shone, or interwreathed
Their lustres with the gloomier tapestries –
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self.
Upon her crest she wore a wannish fire
Sprinkled with stars, like Ariadne’s tiar:
Her head was serpent, but ah, bitter-sweet!
She had a woman’s mouth with all its pearls complete:
And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there
But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?
As Proserpine still weeps for her Sicilian air.
Her throat was serpent, but the words she spake
Came, as through bubbling honey, for Love’s sake…
This remarkable meeting operates as a prequel to the main narrative in Keats’ Lamia poem and gives us as readers, a real sense of the ‘dazzling’ effects of Lamia’s enchanting presence, even whilst she is in her serpent form.
Here we are almost drenched in the lusciousness of the description. Seeing the Lamia is like a sensory overwhelm and we need sunglasses to gaze upon her! Imaginatively the Lamia seems to evade us as the details are too much; too excessive to our mind’s ability to construct her, so we abandon our need to ‘see’ her logically and we just allow her to appear in her shape shifter form all colors and contrast.
The intensity of her visual presence is interestingly balanced with the aural; with the sound of her description and then our anticipation of her voice,’ as through bubbling honey for Love’s sake..’ Rampant sensuality reigns here! We are called upon to imagine the Lamia’s extraordinary powers as enchantress, as we are gifted with the sensory overload.
Hermes’ encounter with the ‘palpitating’ snake mirrors his own desire for erotic release and frames the long narrative with its contextualization of the relationship between those who are immortal and those who are mortal.
Watching the Lizard woman on Dr Who the other week I was reminded of Keats‘ Lamia and the way in which meaning is scripted upon the extraordinary creatures through a fixation with reptilian ‘otherness’ . I wanted to read the lines of Vestra in Dr Who and see what she knew through her reptilian texture.
Likewise in Lamia, we feel that the colours of the Lamia are part of her message, yet, like Keats himself in this famously complex and contradictory poem, the message remains elusive and compelling a matter for the imagination and heart to debate.
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