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John Keats' "Lamia" Romanticism's Influence on Modern Literature

Updated on September 10, 2013
"Lamia" by John William Waterhouse 1905
"Lamia" by John William Waterhouse 1905 | Source

Romantic Poetry’s Influence on Modern Literature

The romantic period offered many extraordinary works of literature. The writing of celebrated English writers, such as John Keats, still resonates with readers today. The concepts and formatting of romanticism strongly influenced many modern authors. Keats’ representation of the epic poem offers a romantic perspective that is appreciated and re-interpreted by future generations, such as the twentieth century American author Ezra Pound. The concepts, format, and language of romanticism continue to live on in modern literature.

Comparison of Concepts

Nature

Nature was a prominent component of many works of romantic literature. Unlike the earlier representations of nature as divine or scientific mechanisms, romantic poetry presents nature from an organic and living perspective (Brooklyn College, 2009). John Keats includes nature in many of his works. In his epic poem “Lamia” Keats portrays Hermes’ endeavors in the woods “the God, dove-footed, glided silently round bush and tree, soft-brushing, in his speed the taller grasses and full-flowering weed” (Keats, 2006, p. 1853, 42-44). Keats offers the natural landscape as more than a backdrop for the action. Similar to many other romantic poets, nature is portrayed through the senses as alive and a vital part bringing meaning and depth to the poem.

Modern literature carries on the trend of incorporating nature into works as more than a backdrop. John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” is a modern example of nature in literature. Steinbeck offers the landscape of the Salinas Valley of California as a representation of a modern Garden of Eden and Biblical tie to the stories of Cain and Abel and the fall from grace (Cox, n.d.). This use of nature enhances the literature, and builds on the theme of good versus evil, much like the nature of the romantic works.

"Sleeping Nymph" 1780
"Sleeping Nymph" 1780 | Source

Myth and Romantic Heroism

Similar to early works, the romantics employed myth and symbolism in their poetry. Keats’ “Lamia” opens with references to the Greek God Hermes who falls in love with a nymph in the woods. Mythology was employed to offer allegory and symbolism within the works (Brooklyn College, 2009). Keats introduces Hermes in “Lamia” to present the comparison of the classic hero to the more realistic hero, Lycius. This comparison allows readers to understand the social importance of individualism of the period that had evolved from early literature promoting superhuman heroes.

Modern literature follows this example by presenting characters that are relatable to readers despite displaying heroic qualities. A fascinating example of modern literature tied to art is Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight” that offers a superhuman character that is widely popular in modern society, Batman (Duke University, 2013). Although the comic story does not fit the typical canonical version of literature the story follows the classic representations of the mythical and romantic hero as the realistic version of Bruce Wayne evolves into a superhuman to solve difficult problems. Ancient myth is also still included in modern works.

Ezra Pound’s “The Cantos” offers many references to the Greek gods. The work is regarded as an example of modernist poetry with nods to the past by inclusion of mythology. Pound’s “Cantos” serves as a modern rendition of Dante’s “Divine Comedy: Inferno,” as the narrator travels to the underworld, and with the shared themes of economic, political, and social evil (The Modernist Circle, 2010). John Keats’ “Lamia” offers a similar format as well as a tie to mythology and fantasy.

"The Reader" Fragonard
"The Reader" Fragonard | Source

Everyday and Exotic

The romantic poetry presented an everyday feel to the works with the use of realistic characters and period language. Despite these down-to-earth characteristics romantic poetry tied the mundane to artistic imagination through poetic diction and imaginative suggestion (Brooklyn College, 2009). Writers found the exotic in domestic life creating entrancing beauty and imagery. Keats presents the character or “Lamia” as an exotic and beautiful snake who then takes on the very meek and frail traits of a human woman. The snake could be viewed merely as symbolic of woman’s role of seductress, yet the descriptive beauty of the snake and allegory to the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden offers an exotic representation the complexities of love. Keats writes “she was a gordian shape of dazzling hue…eyed like a peacock...full of silver moons…she seem’d at once, some penance lady elf, some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self” (Keats, 2006, pps. 1853-1854, 47-59). Keats presents an exotic representation of love.

Modern literature carries on this tie of reality and fantasy. Chinua Achebe’s “Dead Men’s Path” is an example of everyday and exotic. Achebe presents the cross-cultural difficulties of colonization in his story (Achebe, 2001). Achebe relates ancient magic through discussion with the village priest “this path was here before you were born…this village depends on it, our dead relatives depart by it and our ancestors visit us by it, but most important, it is the path of children coming to be born” (Achebe, 2001, p. 328, para. 11). The realistic representations of the characters are tied to the paganism and voodoo rituals of the past creating an exotic tale of modern relationships.

Format and Language

Format

Literary concepts are not the only components of romantic literature that lives on in modern writing. The format of writing style, including poetry is also represented. John Keats’ romantic epic poem “Lamia” follows in the epic style of ages past with the addition of period language and situations. Ezra Pound offers a more modern twist on the epic poem in his work “The Cantos.” Both examples offer ties to the Greek mythology with references to the Gods and their lives. “Lamia” uses the Greek God Hermes to introduce the concept of forbidden love as he searches for the invisible nymph in the woods; “the ever smitten Hermes empty left his golden throne…to find where this sweet nymph prepar’d her secret bed” (Keats, 2006, pps. 1852-1853, 7-30). Pound presents many of the Gods in his epic, including Perimedes, Eurylochus, Proserpine, Pluto, Erebus, and Odyssues (Pound, 2008, pps. 847-848, 19-65). Pound goes further offering tribute to one of the authors of the ancient works, Homer. Both examples fit the classic epic storytelling format, but Keats uses rhyme and varied meter in his epic, and Pound’s epic is in a form of free verse without rhyme or specific meter pattern.

Language

The language of romantic and modern literature also shares similarities. Each offers language true to the period. This creates poetry and stories that the everyday person can read and enjoy. This stands as evidence of an individual society where education and sharing information has been important for generations. John Keats’ poetry is written in clear language with the addition of myth and the exotic. Keats’ language in “Ode to Melancholy” presents emotion that readers can relate to with understandable language “the melancholy fit shall fall sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud” (Keats, 20006, p. 1849, 11-12). T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” offers everyday language tied to metaphor and poetic diction “the chair she sat in, like a burnished throne” (Eliot, 2006, p. 2618, 77). Each author provides mental imagery while using language accessible to many readers.

John Keats
John Keats | Source

Romanticism Lives On

Modern literature has been shaped and influenced by the writing of the past. The literary greats of today recognized the extraordinary writing of the authors of the romantic period. John Keats’ writing inspired many and his works are still appreciated by modern readers. His ability to portray human relationships, emotions, and nature make his writing timeless. Modern writers have followed his example to create modern works that resonate with the literature of the past. The romantic concepts still are important to readers and authors. Nature is an aspect of writing that can bring the story a depth beyond landscape. The use of everyday language and characters in exciting and exotic ways brings mystery and fantasy to the mundane. Tying mythology and heroism to poetry and storytelling creates ties to the past while recognizing the importance of embracing the present. The romantic literature stands as an example of greatness still appreciated and replicated today.

References

Achebe, Chinua. (2001). Dead men’s path. Literature without borders. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc.

Brooklyn College. (2009). Romanticism. Retrieved from http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

Cox, M.H. (n.d.). East of Eden setting. Retrieved from http://as.sjsu.edu/steinbeck/teaching_steinbeck/index.jsp?val=teaching_east_of_eden_setting

Duke University. (2013). On the literary use of superheroes. Retrieved from http://americanliterature.dukejournals.org/content/83/4/831.abstract

Eliot, T.S. (2006). The waste lands. The Norton anthology of English poetry. (8th ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Keats, J. (2006). Lamia. The Norton anthology of English poetry. (8th ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Keats, J. (2006). Ode to melancholy. The Norton anthology of English poetry. (8th ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Pound, E. (2008). The cantos. The Norton anthology of American literature. (Vol. 2). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

The Academy of American Poets. (2013). Groundbreaking book: The cantos by Ezra Pound. Retrieved from http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5954

The Modernist Circle. (2010). The cantos of Ezra Pound. Retrieved from http://theworldonapage.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/the-cantos-of-ezra-pound/

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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Nancy, this was a great hub to learn about Keats's Lamia and more about his poetry. Voted up for interesting.