Lamia Revisited

Left to herself, the serpent now began
To change; her elfin blood in madness ran,
Her mouth foam’d, and the grass, therewith besprent,
Wither’d at dew so sweet and virulent;  — Excerpt from Lamia, John Keats


I’ve shared John William Waterhouse’s first depiction of Lamia (1905) on this site at least twice, but I’ve realized that I have been remiss in never sharing his 1909 painting of the same subject.  Note the colorful snakeskin resting on her lap. It has been recently shed in her transformation.

Waterhouse's earlier version of Lamia. Her snakeskin is still draped around her body.
Waterhouse’s earlier version of Lamia. Her snakeskin is still draped around her body.

Waterhouse painted several variations of femme fatales, Circe, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Lamia, to name a few.  Each is captivating mixture of beauty and danger.  Waterhouse’s Lamia may look like a perfect example of the weaker sex, but her serpentine strength is unmatched by any male and she devours those that love her.  The artist focuses on her aesthetic appeal instead of her monstrous qualities.

Keats writes of Lamia in vivid colorful imagery.

“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 -“

Her transformation is also written about using color. She writhes about in scarlet pain.  And ‘A deep volcanian yellow took the place/Of all her milder-mooned body’s grace;”.  As she changes her form, “she was undrest/Of all her sapphires, greens, and amethyst,”.  Is it any wonder that Keats’ works lend themselves well to artistic adaptations?  He makes color seem alive.  I read his words and the colors swirl in the jeweled tones of my mind’s eye, undulating before me and drawing me in to the fatal beauty of Lamia.

Keats wrote to his brother in 1819 ‘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.’  (via online-literature)

Waterhouse study for Lamia
Waterhouse study for Lamia

Also see:

Waterhouse and Transformations

The Winds of Waterhouse

The Persistence of Myth

Other Keats Posts:

Love, Death, and Potted Plants

La Belle Dame sans Merci

Keats and the Pre-Raphaelites

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