2

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

Thoughtless at first, but ere eve's star appeared
His phantasy was lost, where reason fades,
In the calm'd twilight of Platonic shades.

I understand the verses above as follows: Lycius is careless or heedless at first as he walks and then before the Venus star appears, his imagination lessens in intensity ("His phantasy was lost"). Am I right?

However I don't understand: "where reason fades", which seems contradictory as Lycius seems to be regaining reason. Can someone please explain?

Also, what is meant by "Platonic shades"?

1 Answer 1

1

The interpretation in the question has the sense backwards. This is probably easiest if we start with “Platonic shades”.

The realm of Forms

Plato was a Greek philosopher of the 4th century BCE who propounded the “theory of Forms”, which claims that objects take their form (shape, quality) in imitation of an ideal, eternal, unchanging, Idea (ἰδέα) or Form (εἶδος), that exists in the realm of Forms (ὑπερουράνιον τόπον, literally “place beyond the sky”). For example, we can see that many objects are coloured blue, and according to Plato, this means that in the realm of Forms there is a Form of Blueness of which all blue objects are (imperfect) imitations.

With this idea in mind, it seems that the “calm’d twilight of Platonic shades” refers to Plato’s realm of Forms—it is a “calm’d twilight” because it is perfect and unchanging. This is the realm where Lycius’s “phantasy” (imagination) is “lost” (wandering, astray).

Working backwards, we must take “thoughtless” in a constrasting sense, so not “careless or heedless” as in the question, but rather in the sense, “not taking thought, unreflecting” (OED). That is, initially Lycius’s thoughts were only concerned with the practical matters involved in walking “over the solitary hills”, but then this “reason” faded and he began to day-dream.

Difficulty

There is, however, a difficulty with this interpretation, which is that if we take the “calm’d twilight of Platonic shades” to be Plato’s realm of Forms, then the Forms themselves must be the “shades” (shadows, images, phantoms). But this doesn’t correspond to how Plato thought about it—he considered real objects to be the imperfect shadows of the perfect Forms. In the Republic he presented this idea in the form of the allegory of the cave:

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened:—Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

I see.

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

Plato (c. 375 BCE). The Republic, book 7. Translated by Benjamin Jowett (1888). Project Gutenberg.

In this allegory, the “vessels, and statues and figures of animals” carried between the fire and the cave wall represent the Forms, and the shadows on the wall, which are all that the prisoners can see, represent real objects, which are all that we can see.

So Keats’ use of “Platonic shades” in Lamia seems, at first sight, to be the wrong way round. This difficulty was discussed by Joseph Sitterson, who suggested that we take the paradox seriously as indicating the poet’s skeptical attitude to Plato’s theory:

The word “Platonic” is rare in Keats’s poetry: it, or a variant, occurs only twice elsewhere, neither one in a significant context. On the other hand “shades,” or “shade,” occurs frequently, five times in Lamia alone, and is used in four of those five instances with reference to a change in state of being, mental (I, 236; II, 104) or physical (I, 270; II, 238).† In no other poem is it used in this way. The frequency of this particular use of “shades” in Lamia suggests the second, peculiar oddity of the phrase “Platonic shades”: it is paradoxical, since the basic Platonic distinction is between mutable appearance, “shades,” and unchanging “Platonic” reality. It can be resolved here, in the context of Lycius’ behavior, only if we conclude that Lamia mocks such a distinction by suggesting that such a realm of permanence is a product of human “phantasy” or desire.

Joseph C. Sitterson, Jr. (1984). ‘“Platonic Shades” in Keats’s Lamia’. Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82:2, page 201.

† I make it six, not five. 1.236 “In the calm’d twilight of Platonic shades” 1.270 “Thy memory will waste me to a shade”; 1.360 “Or found them cluster’d in the corniced shade”; 2.104 “Feigning a sleep; and he to the dull shade”; 2.212 “Will make Elysian shades not too fair, too divine”; 2.238 “The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade”.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.