3

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

"Shut, shut those juggling eyes, thou ruthless man!
Turn them aside, wretch! or the righteous ban
Of all the Gods, whose dreadful images
Here represent their shadowy presences,
May pierce them on the sudden with the thorn
Of painful blindness; leaving thee forlorn,
In trembling dotage to the feeblest fright
Of conscience, for their long offended might,
For all thine impious proud-heart sophistries,
Unlawful magic, and enticing lies.

I have several questions regarding the above passage:

  • Lamia asks Lycius to stop watching her because she cannot bear his reproaching eyes. If I am not mistaken, Lamia seems to call the gods for a banishment on Lycius... Am I right? Now, how a banishment would blind Lycius (figuratively or else)?
  • What does Keat mean by "dotage to the feeblest fright of conscience"?
  • What does "for" mean in "For all thine impious proud-heart sophistries", / "Unlawful magic, and enticing lies."?

1 Answer 1

3

Keats was fond of rare and archaic senses of words, so if you find yourself struggling with a word that does not seem to have the right meaning in context, it’s worth looking in a comprehensive dictionary to see if there’s another sense of the word.

In the case of “ban”, the usual senses of “prohibition” or “sentence of banishment” don’t seem apposite to the context. But looking in the dictionary, I find:

ban, n. III.6. A curse, having, or supposed to have, supernatural sanction, and baleful influence.

Oxford English Dictionary.

In Wiktionary, this is sense 4, “a curse or anathema”. The more usual form is “bane”, but of course that would not rhyme with “man”.

In “dotage to the feeblest fright of conscience”, “dotage” means “instability or incapacity of the mind” (OED). Lamia says that once the gods have blinded Lycius, he will be incapacitated by fear of being further punished for his impiety, and his conscience will continually bring his sins to his mind.

“For” means “because of, on account of” (OED). Lamia says that the gods will punish Lycius because of his “impious proud-heart sophistries” and so on.

In this passage, Keats builds an allegory between the dispelling of Lamia’s enchantments by the philosopher Apollonius, and the dissolution of religious wonder by science. The revelation of Lamia’s true form leaves Lycius blind to her charms, which “fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy”. Just as Apollonius makes “the tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade”, so philosophers “empty the haunted air” of its gods and spirits, and “unweave a rainbow” from the goddess Iris to sunlight refracted in Newton’s prism.

Many commentators have taken this to be a sincere complaint by the poet, for example:

What Apollonius had done to Lycius through the destruction of the Lamia, discursive thought in general would do to the rainbow, to mythology, and to experiences of a qualitative kind in general. Science denudes the woods of all life, and despairing man remains in a dead universe.

James D. Boulger (1961). ‘Keats’ Symbolism’. ELH [English Literary History] 28:3, page 253.

But in observing Keats’s allegory, we have to take into account that Lamia is some kind of serpent, and her love for Lycius is baleful and possessive. The imprecation of Lycius for “impious proud-heart sophistries, unlawful magic, and enticing lies” is in Lamia’s voice, not the poet’s. So the allegory is not entirely one-sided.

Lamia sees in Lycius a ‘life she had so tangled in her mesh’ (I, l. 295), but she is the one eventually ensnared by the youth’s need for public recognition and renown, leading to the ill-fated wedding, and by extension, entangled in the web of a cunning sage who proves to be her undoing. What emerges clearly from all of this, however, is that Keats considers scientific innovation to be neither the scalpel which murders as it dissects, nor the spool wielded to ‘unweave’ or ‘unperplex’ the rich complexity of impassioned, embodied experience which poetry so vividly conjures. Instead, scientific discourse, particularly as it pertains to matters of sensation, is perceived as a unifying thread that ties and ‘interwreathe[s]’ (I, l. 52) the faculties of perception and ideation together into a textual mesh that is as intellectually ‘rainbow-sided’ as it is sensuously arresting.

Philip Lindholm (2018). ‘“At the mere touch of cold philosophy”: science, sensation and synaesthesia in John Keats’s “Lamia”’. European Journal of English Studies 22:3, page 271.

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.