Monday, March 22, 2010

Beauty, Reason, and "Lamia"

I was both fascinated and confused about the assertion Keats makes about beauty and truth in his poem, "Lamia." At the end of the work, it becomes clear that the philosopher Apollonius, though described as a "trusty guide and good instructor" by Lycius, acts as the antagonist of the poem. As a representative of cold reason and human rationale, he vanquishes the mystical beauty of Lamia. The justification of this act is that Lamia is not really a woman, but a serpent. Apollonius, then represents for Keats the philosophy of the Enlightenment - that truth and what you can prove are what really matter. But by portraying Lamia as a faithful, kind, and loving partner of Lycius, the revelation performed by Apollonius appears a sinister and cruel act. Indeed, it seems to me that anyone who reads this poem must wish that Apollonius had never come to the wedding. So what does all this signify towards the notions of beauty, truth, and reason? I would say that, using this poem, Keats sends the message that imagination and reality are not incompatible, and that reason alone is not enough to make something true. The love between Lamia and Lycius is depicted as true and right by Keats, even if it does lack "reality" or reason. There are some powerful elements of human life that transcend the material world of what can be tested scientifically. This was my interpretation, anyway, but what do others think?


  1. The transformation at the words of Apollonius also points to the powerful effect that the external can have on what one might consider to be the internal self-creation of identity. It does seem cruel that the philosopher's imposed and external work of the rational is able to destroy the creation of internal conceptions of self. Because this work is effective, it might seem that this external work is the stronger of the two forces, breaking down the binaries between internal and external. It seems that this binary was already complicated, however, by the assumption of the mantle of a beautiful woman by Lamia. My next question would then revolve around how we could untangle the strange machinations and layers of "truth" and "uncovering." Can we use reason to reach the truth in this construction and deconstruction of identity? At which level do we stop?

  2. Perhaps these questions are caught up in the poem's ambiguous representation of what you call the internal conception of self: as Celina points out, Lamia begins the poem as a "gordain shape" that "Seem'd at once, some penanced lady elf, / Some demon's mistress, or the demon's self" (55-6). Her identity is inherently unstable, containing within it mutually exclusive opposites, the victim and the victimizer. The relationship she creates with Lycius replicates this unstable identity: their "love" is constituted by cruelty from the outset (I.290), which Lycius replays in the beginning of Part II: "Besides, for all his love, in self despite / Against his better self, he took delight / Luxurious in her sorrow, soft and new. / His passion, cruel grown, took on a hue / Fierce and sanguineous as 'twas possible" (II.72-6). Again, identity is not unitary but split--just as the white light is split into a spectrum, Lycius' is into multiple selves, one of which seeks the violent death of his beloved. This might suggest to us a parallel in the poem between the central love relationship and Apolonius' cold philosophy, since Keats is using Newton's science to allegorize the inherent instability and always already fractured "essence" of human identity and thus relationships.