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I am trying to understand the meaning to the following couplets from John Keats's Lamia (full poem here):

Ah, happy Lycius!—for she was a maid
More beautiful than ever twisted braid,
Or sigh'd, or blush'd, or on spring-flowered lea
Spread a green kirtle to the minstrelsy:

  • Does "braid" mean "braided hair" or "ribbon" above?
  • Is "braid" the subject of the following verbs: "sigh'd", "blush'd" and "spread"?
  • Does "kirtle" mean "long dress" above?
  • What does "minstrelsy" mean above?
  • What is the overall meaning of these two couplets?

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The way to understand this passage is to suppose that the object of the comparison has been omitted as it can be easily inferred from the context:

she was a maid more beautiful than [any maid who] ever twisted braid [etc.]

The “braid” could be made of hair, ribbons, threads, or plant-stems; the poet does not say. Here’s a poem with a “twisted braid” of hair:

And her hair, in twisted braid
Knotted, like a Spartan maid?

Charles Abraham Elton (1814). ‘To Quinctus’. In Specimens of the Classic Poets, volume 2, page 187. London: Robert Baldwin.

And here’s a poem with “twisted braids” made of plant-stems, used to tie up hair:

In twisted braids of lillies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair

John Milton (1634). Comus. In Poems (1645), page 113. London: Humphrey Moseley.

The poem says that the (hypothetical) maid’s “kirtle” is “spread on the lea [meadow]” while she sits and listens to the “minstrelsy”, so we need to understand it in the sense “A skirt or outer petticoat” (OED).

There are a couple of senses of “minstrelsy” that could work here:

minstrelsy, n. 1.a. The art or occupation of a minstrel; the practice of singing and playing music; musical entertainment. Now archaic and historical.

1.c. poetic and literary. In extended use, applied to birdsong, the humming of insects, etc.

Oxford English Dictionary.

Of these, I think sense 1a is more strongly indicated by “sigh’d, or blush’d”. The image is of a maid sitting on the grass, braiding her hair (or braiding flower-stems to bind her hair) and sighing or blushing at the tragic or romantic songs of the minstrel. The overall meaning of the lines is that “Lycius” should be pleased, because Lamia is even more beautiful than the hypothetical maid in the image. At this point in the poem “Lycius” is just a name, but we are soon told that he is a “young Corinthian”, and that Lamia “fell into a swooning love of him.”

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