Lamia is about a god falling in love with a mortal. So is, as we’ll soon see, the Ode to Psyche. The story of Lamia’s love for Lycius, on the one hand, and that of Cupid’s for Psyche (and Psyche’s for the poet), on the other, reach opposite conclusions: instead of the mortal Lycius getting elevated to immortality like Psyche, both he and Lamia die. But this distinction is arguably beside the key point: for Keats’s main aim in both cases is to show the interdependence between our images of death and of immortality. For instance, as we saw, it is precisely the deadness of the urn, its resistance to our attempts to attach living meaning and purpose to it, that makes it a vehicle of temporal transcendence. For Keats immortality is in essence an impossible phantom-dream (e.g., of an unhearable melody) projected from the context of time and mortality.
Love and Death
Lamia is a romance narrative – i.e., a narrative of a quest for love. Anticipating the title of the Woody Allen movie though, the poem suggests that love is defined by the same paradox that defines death, since it is both incompatible with and requires time: it is only from within a time-bound perspective that the dream of timeless love (or death) can appear as such. What Lamia falls in love with is precisely the spectacle of a mortal striving to be god-like, something gods themselves cannot do. There’s something wonderful about Lycius at the races appearing “like Jove” which Jove himself could never manifest. Time is the condition of Lycius’s god-likeness, of his seeming timelessness, a point which is especially underscored by the fact that Lycius appears “like Jove” precisely while racing, as worldly and temporal an activity as there is.
Time is also the precondition of narrative, the medium in which alone narrative can take place. So although Lamia is a romance narrative, insofar as it recounts a quest for unnarratable, timeless love, it is importantly also a self-deconstructing narrative, exposing the formal incapacity of narrative to contain its own story. The love that would be narrated both presupposes and explodes the bounds of narrative time.
In Lamia, self-deconstruction is performed not only by the narrative upon itself but also by characters within the narrative upon themselves. Quite apart from the truth of Lamia and her god-love for Lycius’s god-likeness, we also see how the mortals Lycius, Lycius’s friends and Apollonius view Lamia. In a way that recalls Blake’s Songs, Keats shows us how mortals’ distorted views of the supernatural become self-fulfilling prophecies. By not respecting the constitutive dreaminess of the dream – that it can’t be temporally realized but only imagined as the opposite of time – Lycius and his peers variously pretend to take ownership of the divine and are consequently hollowed out like the knight in La Belle Dame and the poet of the Nightingale ode. First of all Lycius, in his all-too-human vanity, becomes dissatisfied with the divine bliss he and Lamia share ensconced in their love shack (the very paradox of temporally ‘becoming’ dissatisfied with timeless bliss underscores Lycius’s constitutive time-boundedness). Lycius must convert that bliss into social currency to win the esteem of his peers: “in thee I should rejoice / Amid the hoarse alarm of Corinth’s voice” (II, 60-1). Likewise his friends at the banquet become intoxicated to the point that Lamia is “no more so strange,” about which Keats comments that “wine will make Elysian shades not too fair, too divine” (II, 211-2). Lycius’s vanity and his friends’ self-indulgence foreshadow and are continuous with the ultimate heresy against the “strangeness” of the divine dream (“the Elysian shade”): Apollonius’s “unweaving of the rainbow,” reducing what was a source of “awe” to one among the “dull catalog of common things.” “Lamia” is commonly read as a more or less straightforward critique of “cold philosophy” which “clips angels’ wings.” This critique is doubtless central to the poem, but we can’t let it eclipse Keats’s larger point that respecting the strangeness and awesomeness of the divine means respecting its status as a dream. So just as St. Agnes’s concluding scene of mortal decay functions to preserve the “phantom”-form of the lovers’ rapture, so too there in a sense in which by “clipping the angels’ wings” Apollonius also implicitly (and unwittingly) sets them free to fly again. He releases Lamia back to the realm of fantasy. Thus by making Lamia “melt into a shade” (II, 229-239) Apollonius despite himself arguably restores her to her properly divine place outside time.