Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When a Snake Loves a Human

We finished with Romantic Poets yesterday by looking at John Keats, who I'd been reading for five days beforehand. I was surprised to find I really like him--for some reason I expected him to be another Wordsworth, maybe because Lord Byron didn't like his work. But I like his belief in an aesthetic concept of pleasure and pain being necessary as opposing forces within art, again recalling Coleridge's idea of good poetry being composed of opposite forces. I'm not sure I can defend the "More happy love! more happy, happy love!" line from "Ode on a Grecian Urn", but that poem is otherwise a lovely rumination on the immortality of art and the beauty of the space between wanting something and the disappointment or satisfaction of getting it.

As one might predict, though, I was most drawn to "Lamia". I do have a thing for tragic snake women. Keats intriguingly refrains from siding with Lamia or Apollonius, presenting instead pure sensation and character, allowing the readers to make up their own minds, I suppose, though I don't see how anyone couldn't love Lamia. This may be the sexiest and most bad ass bit of poetry I've ever read;

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;
Her eyes in torture fix'd, and anguish drear,
Hot, glaz'd, and wide, with lid-lashes all sear,
Flash'd phosphor and sharp sparks, without one cooling tear.
The colours all inflam'd throughout her train,
She writh'd about, convuls'd with scarlet pain:
A deep volcanian yellow took the place
Of all her milder-mooned body's grace;
And, as the lava ravishes the mead,
Spoilt all her silver mail, and golden brede;
Made gloom of all her frecklings, streaks and bars,
Eclips'd her crescents, and lick'd up her stars:
So that, in moments few, she was undrest
Of all her sapphires, greens, and amethyst,
And rubious-argent: of all these bereft,
Nothing but pain and ugliness were left.
Still shone her crown; that vanish'd, also she
Melted and disappear'd as suddenly;
And in the air, her new voice luting soft,
Cried, "Lycius! gentle Lycius!"—Borne aloft
With the bright mists about the mountains hoar
These words dissolv'd: Crete's forests heard no more.

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