The Serpent, the Philosopher, and the Lover: Moral Ambiguity in “Lamia”
Romantic ideas were certainly influential in the inception of the Gothic, and many issues that the authors were passionate about quickly became thematic concepts in this new genre of Gothic poetry, such as the idea that notions of absolute good and evil do not necessarily exist. In his poem “Lamia,” Keats attempts to create multiple moral ambiguities within his characters in order to convey the artificiality of the conventional moral dichotomy.
Richard Benvenuto wrote an article published in 1972 regarding the muddying of strict ethical categories in “Lamia,” focusing specifically on the ways in which the characters themselves exhibit a sort of moral duality and are difficult to classify as either inherently good or evil. Early in the text, “Lamia” achieves this confusion by complicating the traditional separation of concepts of beauty and the grotesque, one associated with good and the other evil. When the story begins, Lamia is a serpent woman, a figure typically associated with evil notions of temptation and deceit. However, Keats describes this serpent Lamia as “…a Gordian shape of dazzling hue,/ Vermillion-spotted, golden, green, and blue;/ Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard,/ Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d” (47-50). This imagery may seem absurd or unnatural when applied to a woman, but at the same time it is undoubtedly beautiful, filled with vivid colors and exotic animals. The image of serpent Lamia as representative of both the grotesque and also intense beauty places her in a sort of moral middle ground. She is neither entirely good nor wholly evil; as Benvenuto says, “in being both, she is exclusively neither” (Benvenuto 8).
Additionally, it is critical to note how Lamia’s true form is revealed and how she reacts. When Apollonius begins to stare at her, Lamia’s skin goes “icy” (251) and “deadly white” (276) and she is too paralyzed with fear to even respond to Lycius’ cries of concern. Apollonius’ verbal accusations tear through her like “a sharp spear” (300), and though she attempts to stop him with a “weak hand” (302) she quickly vanishes with a “frightful scream” (306). Lamia’s reaction to such an attack seems ill-fitting of an evil serpent temptress, or what Apollonius thinks she is. She is terrified, helpless, and in that moment, innocent, none of which indicate malevolence or trickery. Though Lamia may not have been entirely honest and open with Lycius, the moment of her demise suggests she is far from pure evil.
Similarly, the portrayal of wisdom and philosophy in “Lamia” deviates from its standard definition as the source of moral goodness and truth. The character of Apollonius holds a certain complexity perhaps unexpected of the archetypal philosopher, a sage old man who possesses the knowledge and wisdom of philosophy needed to recognize evil and prevent it. Apollonius perhaps begins this way, entering the wedding uninvited in order to rescue his student Lycius from Lamia’s true form, which he considers evil. In the context of “Lamia,” however, Apollonius’ help is not necessarily seen as wise or heroic. Keats first questions the nature of philosophy as an inherently good force meant to protect and enlighten, claiming:
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade. (234-238)
In these lines Keats undermines philosophy as the ultimate moral authority, noting its ability to stifle creativity and destroy beauty through excessive scrutiny and categorizing.
In doing this, he also shifts Apollonius from the role of savior into something much more ambiguous; if philosophy contains these faults, then the philosopher must embody them. Despite Lamia’s earlier description placing her outside the realm of inherently good or evil, Apollonius views her only as a “serpent using her beauty as a lure” and “denounces Lamia with inquisitorial fervor” (Benvenuto 6). His accusation is unwavering and as cruel to his former student as it is to Lamia: “‘Fool!’ said the sophist, in an under-tone/ Gruff with contempt … ‘Fool! Fool!’ repeated he, while his eyes still /Relented not, nor mov’d” (291-295). Apollonius is unmoved by Lycius’ grief, focused only on his own moral conviction rather than the pain caused to the person he is supposedly saving. Apollonius’ actions are not evil or even necessarily ill-intentioned; he is, after all, technically correct in assuming Lamia’s identity. Even so, he assumes the worst of Lamia and launches an intense assault on her regardless of the consequences to Lycius, events which shift his character into an enigmatic space of morality atypical of the traditional old, wise philosopher.
Just as his mentor Apollonius sees Lamia as purely serpent temptress, Lycius refuses to see her as anything but a beautiful woman. He is so unwilling to believe Apollonius’ allegations that he inverts them back onto his former mentor, denouncing the old man’s “unlawful magic and enticing lies” (286) and his “demon eyes” (289). This vehement need to classify Apollonius as a type of demon suggests that Lycius also equates Lamia’s serpent form with an inherent evilness. He would rather label the old man as evil than accept the idea that his gorgeous lover may not be entirely what she appears on the surface. Though the Lamia is for Lycius what she is for Apollonius: “as a mental construct, an embodied desire or aversion,” and Lycius’ rage against Apollonius occurs as a result of his inability to “sustain the loss of the image which his mind has made” (Benvenuto 7). In this limited view, Lycius too succumbs to the dichotomy of absolute good and evil, and what each of the two should look like.
Keats succeeds in presenting a narrative in which ideas of good and evil are not inextricably separated from one another but are instead constantly engaging. Each character in “Lamia” enacts both good and evil attributes, exemplifying the sort of moral ambiguity the Romantics were so fascinated and impassioned by.
Keats, John. “Lamia.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. 2012. 1014-1031. Print.
Benvenuto, Richard. “”The Ballance of Good and Evil” in Keats’ Letters and “Lamia”.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 71.1 (1972): 1-11. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27706151 .>.
“Good and Evil,” by Isabel Castaño. Retrieved from http://www.isabelcastano.com. 2009.