200 years ago Keats wrote about the fire of his latest poem ‘Lamia’

On Saturday 18 September 1819, Keats wrote to his brother George:
“I have been reading over a part of a short poem I have composed lately, called Lamia and I am certain there is that sort of fire in it that must take hold of people some way. Give them either pleasant or unpleasant sensation—what they want is a sensation of some sort.”

By her glad Lycius sitting, in chief place,
Scarce saw in all the room another face,
Till, checking his love trance, a cup he took
Full brimm’d, and opposite sent forth a look
’Cross the broad table, to beseech a glance
From his old teacher’s wrinkled countenance,
And pledge him. The bald-head philosopher
Had fix’d his eye, without a twinkle or stir
Full on the alarmed beauty of the bride,
Brow-beating her fair form, and troubling her sweet pride.
Lycius then press’d her hand, with devout touch,
As pale it lay upon the rosy couch :
’Twas icy, and the cold ran through his veins;
Then sudden it grew hot, and all the pains
Of an unnatural heat shot to his heart.
‘Lamia, what means this? Wherefore dost thou start?
Know’st thou that man?’ Poor Lamia answer’d not.
He gaz’d into her eyes, and not a jot
Own’d they the lovelorn piteous appeal:
More, more he gaz’d: his human senses reel:
Some hungry spell that loveliness absorbs;
There was no recognition in those orbs.
‘Lamia!’ he cried — and no soft-toned reply.
The many heard, and the loud revelry
Grew hush; the stately music no more breathes
The myrtle sicken’d in a thousand wreaths.
By faint degrees, voice, lute, and pleasure ceased;
A deadly silence step by step increased,
Until it seem’d a horrid presence there,
And not a man but felt the terror in his hair.
‘Lamia!’ he shriek’d; and nothing but the shriek
With its sad echo did the silence break.
‘Begone, foul dream!’ he cried, gazing again
In the bride’s face, where now no azure vein
Wander’d on fair-spaced temples; no soft bloom
Misted the cheek; no passion to illume
The deep-recessed vision:— all was blight;
Lamia, no longer fair, there sat a deadly white.
‘Shut, shut those juggling eyes, thou ruthless man!
Turn them aside, wretch! or the righteous ban
Of all the Gods, whose dreadful images
Here represent their shadowy presences,
May pierce them on the sudden with the thorn
Of painful blindness; leaving thee forlorn,
In trembling dotage to the feeblest fright
Of conscience, for their long offended might,
For all thine impious proud-heart sophistries,
Unlawful magic, and enticing lies.
Corinthians! look upon that gray-beard wretch!
Mark how, possess’d, his lashless eyelids stretch
Around his demon eyes! Corinthians, see!
My sweet bride withers at their potency.’
‘Fool !’ said the sophist, in an under-tone
Gruff with contempt; which a death-nighing moan
From Lycius answer’d, as heart-struck and lost,
He sank supine beside the aching ghost.
‘Fool! Fool!’ repeated he, while his eyes still
Relented not, nor mov’d; ‘from every ill
Of life have I preserv’d thee to this day,
And shall I see thee made a serpent’s prey?’
Then Lamia breath’d death breath; the sophist’s eye,
Like a sharp spear, went through her utterly,
Keen, cruel, perceant, stinging: she, as well
As her weak hand could any meaning tell,
Motion’d him to be silent; vainly so,
He look’d and look’d again a level — No!
‘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 of life, from 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’ ii, 239-311]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *