The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

A Tale of Two Lamias: The Representation of Lamia's Passions and Transformation in John Keats and J. W. Waterhouse

Chiung-Ying Huang


The second half of the nineteenth century sees the blooming of English Aestheticism, of which the principle of 'art for art's sake' foregrounds the significance of the autonomy of art. The promotion of 'art for art's sake' is specifically pointed out by Walter Pater. In his conclusion to The Renaissance, Pater advocates 'the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake', for 'art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake'.1 Calling for a passionate pursuit of beauty as well as a zealous response to beauty, Pater emphasizes the importance of art, which shall be self-sufficient in itself, whose value is complete in its own form of artistic creativity, not tied to any didactic imperative, moral purpose and social expectation. Pater writes in 'The School of Giorgione':

Art…is…always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception, to get rid of its responsibilities to its subject or material; the ideal examples of poetry and painting being those in which the constituent elements of the composition are so welded together, that the material or subject no longer strikes the intellect only; nor the form, the eye or the ear only; but form and matter, in their union of identity, present one single effect to the 'imaginative reason,' that complex faculty for which every thought and feeling is twin-born with its sensible analogue or symbol. (p. 88)

Pater's consideration of 'art for art's sake', the sense of art as an autonomous 'pure perception' of beauty, freed from any finished or destined state of interpretation and explanation influenced many artists of the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers. The Pre-Raphaelites imbue their work inspired from the textual source with pictorial qualities, inviting the mingling of senses in the experience of art. Also, instead of targeting the literal meaning of a work of art, in their seek for artistic autonomy, artists at that time transform fine poetry into visual art and show no difficulty melding the two media, providing a broader range of artistic imagination beyond textual space. Although most of the forms for artistic articulation are dressed up in the costume of myths, legends, allegory and fine poetry, frequently derived from Shakespeare's, Keats's, and Tennyson's, visual artists of the nineteenth century tend to identify their art as the embodiment of supreme beauty, complete in itself.

Most notably, in using the classic or literary past to highlight Britain's new vision of visual arts, the Pre-Raphaelites tend to turn women into visuality for the expression of beauty in their artistic creativity. Devoted themselves to the beauty of flesh-and-blood in art, the Pre-Raphaelites create a heavily eroticized aura of beauty in work, in which the image of femininity becomes the vision of beauty itself. Many paintings of sensuous women are produced by basing on particular female personages such as The Lady of Shalott, Ophelia, and many other female figures of Greek mythology. Moving these literary women away from the textual space to the Victorian visual world, the Pre-Raphaelites make the depiction of beautiful women one dominant subject in their painting, creating idealized images of beauty with erotic sensuality.

One vision of art being self-sufficient itself through the image of woman is well developed by J. W. Waterhouse in his painting of Lamia (1909). Though not a member of the Pre-Raphaelites, Waterhouse shares the Pre-Raphaelites' interest in myth and Romantic poetry, depicting his ideal vision of female beauty in his composition of Lamia. Understood as an attractive, seductive and disastrous woman in Greek mythology and Keats's Romantic text, Lamia constitutes an important part of Waterhouse's painting. In addition to serving as the vehicle for the articulation of female beauty, sexuality and erotic power, the presence of Lamia in Waterhouse's painting reveals to the perceiving eye an unique metaphorical vision of art going away from the simply textual representational, enough for itself.

Appearing through the image of serpentine woman, in ancient Greek mythology, Lamia is the name for a female demon, who sucks children's blood; nevertheless, Waterhouse's Lamia appears less of a threatening and monstrous presence than a more lovely and desirable creature. In this painting, Waterhouse demonstrates his passion for depicting distinctive female beauty, creating the image of a serpentine-woman on the pond raising her hair and staring at her reflection in the water, examining her new born body, with an aura of narcissism:

Lamia, 1909, Oil on canvas, 36 x 22.5 cm

In depicting the serpent-woman turning away from the viewer and looking at her own body reflected in the pond, Waterhouse creates a self-conscious world of female narcissism in which Lamia is detached from the outer world. Immersing herself in the world of self-reflection, Lamia holds and contemplates her own image, enjoying her self-admiration and taking pleasure outside heterosexual desire. In short, she is for herself only. Apparently, Waterhouse reveals a fully auto-erotic woman who finds herself self-complete in a world detached from heterosexual desire.

A fully self-sufficient woman of independence, Waterhouse's Lamia brings to mind Keats's poetic description of Lamia, whose transformation implies a degree of self-agency and a facet of individualism as well, though in an entirely different fashion. In 1819, the Romantic poet John Keats made Lamia the focus of his poetic narrative, relating the legend of the serpent woman whose passions2 to win Lycius's love impels her to transform into a beauty in true human form. Apparently, different from Waterhouse's Lamia who is detached from the realm of heterosexual exchange, Keats's Lamia is a woman hungry for heterosexual love. Realizing her inward passions but bound in a serpent form, Lamia's desire results in an act of exchange with Hermes, in attempting to transform from the serpent-girl to a real woman's shape, to satisfy her desires for 'love' and 'pleasure'. Yearning to be liberated from her miserable 'wreathed tomb', Lamia cries out in anguish:

'When from this wreathed tomb shall I awake!
When move in a sweet body fit for life,
And love, and pleasure, and the ruddy strife
Of hearts and lips! Ah, miserable me!'(I. 38-41) 3

As Keats puts it, Lamia is a 'virgin purest lipp'd, yet in the lore / Of love deep learned to the red heart's core' (I. 189-90). Love alone is her strength to live. Also, Jeffrey N. Cox suggests, Keats's Lamia is 'a kind of erotic Athena born from the desirer's mind into the art of love.'4 In her attempt to enjoy human love with Lycius, Lamia is compelled to transform; she 'threw the goddess off, and won his heart / More pleasantly by playing woman's part' (I. 336-7). As Karla Alwes points out, '[Lamia] is, after all, the one who is infatuated with [Lycius], pursues him, and is willing to transform herself for him'. 5

Longing to be released from her imprisoned serpentine state and to transform from an immortal to a mortal, Lamia is willing to experience the 'scarlet pain' (I. 54) to obtain a human form. Accompanied by pain and suffering, the change which Lamia undergoes from a snake into a 'lady bright' (I. 171) is torturous and dreadful, filled with fierce transformative violence. Lamia's transformation takes place in tumult and madness, with the currents of excruciating contortions overwhelming her. Struck down by the violence of transformation, Lamia is galvanized from this torment, with her body writhing and squirming in agony: 'her elfin blood in madness ran, / Her mouth foam'd, and the grass, therewith besprent, Wither'd at dew so sweet and virulent' (I. 47-49). What Lamia suffers is like grisly torture, intense and sharp, acute and convulsive. With pain dominating her, her body is as of on fire, wherein emanates a heat not felt before: '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' (I. 50-52). In the process of transformation, there is nothing but a distorted and deformed body in pain: 'Nothing but pain and ugliness were left' (I. 164).

Lamia's violent response to pain in her writhing not only suggests that the price for submitting to passions is dearly paid, but also signifies the great intensity of her desires. In a cruel fashion, the meanings behind Lamia's terribly painful transformation are her desperate need for individualism and her violent urge towards the liberation of desires. Lamia's transformation can be understood as her pursuit of passions, and her desperate endeavors to achieve union with Lycius. In other words, Lamia's transformation accompanying a sensual tremor of pain significantly incorporates a response to the strength of her inner desires.

Yet, what Lamia desires to achieve through the anguish of pain can be understood as an attempt to replace 'the bad blood' with 'new blood', to saturate 'the channels created by pain with a renewed capacity for passions',6 as Anita Phillips writes in A Defence of Masochism:

Finally, there is the moment of sublime joy that compensates for everything the masochist has suffered. You have gone through the valley of death and emerged relatively unscathed. Your aching body longs for nothing as much as the release of erotic contact, the sublime… Release into the sublime is rebirth. (pp. 163-164)

Pain, as Keats tells us through the transformation of Lamia, is not always as deadly as poison. Somehow, it can serve as something that brings forth the feeling of new-born delight. To put it differently, the pain Lamia suffers has its vital overtone, involving the anticipation of renewed pleasure and beauty. In a sense, Lamia's passions for love are kindled on the desire for the sublimity of beauty, coming to life as 'a transfiguring force, something beyond delight and pain, an ardent beatitude'.7

From the general discussion of the significance between passions and pain in Keatsian Lamia's metamorphosis, I want to drive an important point for the following discussion on Waterhouse's creative decision of representing Lamia in metamorphosis in painting. Although it is possible that Waterhouse consults Keats's poem before setting his ideas to the canvas, it is also clear that the presentation of passions imbued with the meanings of pain in Keats's narrative becomes problematic in the painter's representation of Lamia. Apparently, in developing a textual material visually through the figure of serpentine woman, Waterhouse dilutes the elements of suffering, pain and torture in Keatsian Lamia's transformation. If Keats's depiction of Lamia's transformation accompanying a sensual tremor of pain is understood as Lamia's response to her strong desires to unite with Lycius, Waterhouse's portrayal of the same serpentine woman seems more self-contained and auto-erotic in comparison. Viewers of Waterhouse are thus offered a more pleasant graphic portrayal of female erotic power which, compared to Keats's narrative of Lamia's terribly violent transformation, defuses the sexually aggressive image in the pursuit of passions, as well as the destructive effect – in the process of transformation.

In other words, in painting a different version of Lamia's transformative body, Waterhouse offers a different vision for the demonstration of passions in women. Waterhouse seems to tell us that the representation of female passions can be modeled in an entirely different way. To some extent, Keats's poetic sketch of Lamia's painful transformation for the fancy of feverish love suggestively unveils the poet's personality, reflecting Keats's inherent morbid and violent sensitivity to the very idea of passions. In comparison, as Anthony Hobson puts it, Waterhouse has 'the Northerner's love of legend and mystery', however, 'his Italian birth [lends] a warm personality to his rendering of the classical myths', creating in his artistic imagination 'the perennially attractive image of the young innocent girl'.8

In addition, in pointing out that '[t]here are no monsters in Waterhouse's story-telling' (p. 9), studying Waterhouse's painting, Hobson also suggests the unstable nature in Waterhouse's translating a legendary story into a visual image. Hobson writes:

The Victorian compulsion to tell a story was inescapable, but although Waterhouse was clearly developing the ability to compose a satisfying picture, he had not yet acquired that combination of an appropriate setting with the pose and gesture of the figure. (p. 19)

Hobson's remark on Waterhouse's painting suggests the problematic elements in translating a textual work into a visual image, involving questions such as the artist's departure from poetic work, the gaps between textual and visual representations, the discrepancy in meaning or the divergence of aesthetic effect when texts are used as an inspiration for artistic expression and are represented as an aesthetic visual mode.

In fact, if we contemplate the term of translation seriously, this word does denote the sense of transformation or metamorphosis. As the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, in addition to demonstrating text or words that have been changed into a different language in a linguistic sense, to 'translate' something can also mean to 'convert' something 'into another form or medium', in an act similar to transformation. Obviously, the theme of transformation is easily perceivable in Waterhouse's Lamia. However, Waterhouse demonstrates that his work is more than an imitative copy of a story of female metamorphosis. Instead, his art is itself an incarnation of transformation, going away from the textual past and reaching to a metamorphosed vision of visual art, in which the artist's ideal vision of self-sufficient art is symbolically realized through the image of transformative Lamia. To put it differently, the theme of Lamia in transformation represented in Waterhouse's work is not merely a manifestation of female physical change, but rather a demonstration of the transformative powers of pigments and paints carried out by the artist's passions, driven by the Paterian spirit of aestheticism in the pursuit of supreme beauty in artistic creativity.

Nevertheless, as the question of translation brings to mind the meaning of departure, the importance of changing from one state to another in a transformative sense, what is the significance of articulating the vision of transformation by means of placing a female figure into the state of metamorphosis? As the image of Lamia is pictured as being autonomous and self-contained, however, what Waterhouse demonstrates in Lamia is a female body in a form of incomplete or unfinished metamorphosis. Obviously, in this painting, we see Lamia raising her hair while burying herself in human clothes, with her shining serpentine skin falling about her legs in blue-black which looks like part of her garment. Frankly speaking, Lamia is not yet entirely 'undrest' from her serpentine form as she is in Keats's text.

Accordingly, all themes and forms are always purposeful. Although mythological subjects in Romantic texts are often used by the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers as vehicles to express their ambition to replace old materials with new life in a transformative sense, I argue that one pivotal effect of Waterhouse's representing Lamia bound in serpentine form is to produce a meaning intelligible in terms of women's place at the turn of the century. Almost one-hundred-year later than Keats's time, in the painter's attempt to reconstruct a visual space of the past by fitting female imagery into an old text, this manner of translation is itself a transcription of the present.

Waterhouse's Lamia reflects women's struggling for power through the image of female body in metamorphosis, marking out a vision of precariousness in the transitional period when Victorian Britain is caught between two worlds, the old Victorian and the new modern. This period is characterized as a time of instability when British aestheticism sees its influence extended to a broader cultural movement. The notion of aestheticism itself has gone through a process of transformation: from aestheticism as art for art's sake to the question related to gender politics, which is perhaps the most destabilizing issue in this period. Though the female image is prevalently deployed and fixed by male painters in the name of female portraits in Victorian visual culture, the crisis in gender relations along with the rise of New Woman in the late nineteenth century signals an ongoing challenge to the stabilization of gender hierarchy.

Most importantly, Waterhouse's Lamia is pictured as being autonomous and yet at the same time defined as the idealized image of beauty which appeals to male sexuality and erotic fantasy, in that Lamia's gaze is turned away from the viewer, but her body is not. Specifically, the visual existence of Waterhouse's Lamia poses a vision of public display that invites the act of voyeurism. What unveils to the viewer is not a disfigured body in transformation, but a voyeuristic portrayal of female beauty. However, ambiguously, Waterhouse's Lamia is shown as more than a passive spectacle for men's voyeurism, but an auto-erotic creature with a will of her own, empowering herself by attracting the male viewer to her visual realm and yet refuses to involve in the interaction of heterosexual passions. Symbolically, Waterhouse's painting of Lamia in metamorphosis serves as a crossing-line, which signifies the transformation of female body demanded by patriarchal control into a powerful vehicle for self-expression and female assertiveness. She is for no man.

In conclusion, setting up a paradigm for comparison through the question of passions and transformation in the bestial woman of Lamia, in examining Keats's poem and Waterhouse's painting respectively, how far can we make a connection between the two representations of Lamia? Michel Foucault suggests, the gap derived from all attempts of representation exists in an infinite space, be it the mode of 'images', 'metaphors', or 'similes'. Foucault writes:

But the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation. It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other's terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. And it is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or similes, what we are saying; the space where they achieve their splendor is not that deployed by our eyes but that defined by the sequential elements of syntax. And the proper name, in this particular context, is merely an artifice: it gives us a finger to point with, in other words, to pass surreptitiously from the space where one speaks to the space where one looks; in other words, to fold one over the other as though they were equivalents. 9

In other words, understood as texts written and preoccupied by a certain specific position, the image developed from language makes itself inscribed with meanings and equipped with its own elements of visual syntax. Both Keats and Waterhouse shape the image of female metamorphosis, positing a serpentine woman called 'Lamia' making her way for authority. In his poem, Keats demonstrates Lamia trapped in an oppressive condition from which she is powerless to escape, except undergoing a painful ordeal of transformation. In comparison, with the name of Lamia as his 'artifice', Waterhouse in his painting unveils a different image of Lamia from Keats's. Waterhouse makes his painting a performance of speech in which he addresses a more pleasant view of female transformation, also presenting a more promising vision for women's assertion of passions and power. A painter at the period of late Victorianism and early Modernism, in his association of female image with half-serpent and half-woman in transformation, arguably Waterhouse is representing women's increasing power in late-Victorian Britain – freer, less constrained, and the struggle for safe and solid subjectivity remains a work in progress.



1 Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, ed. by Adam Phillips (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 153. Further references are cited by page in the text.

2 Pointing to 'the vicissitudes of plenitude' of 'passions', David Punter in Writing the Passions notes, it is important to draw distinctions between 'passion' and 'passions', 'because everything else is a matter of “the passions” and here we come into a world, the world of separation, where the passions can be and are separated out synchronically so that we can identify lust, anger, pain…'(p. 21). Also, 'The Oxford English essays a representative list of passions which runs: “ambition, avarice, desire, hope, fear, love, hared, joy, grief, anger, revenge”' (p. 19). Following Punter's words, what I should like to question here is the idea of pain inherent in the presence of Keatian Lamia's 'passions', which I intend to restrictively define as strong emotions related to female sexuality and desires.

3Keats's poem of 'Lamia' in this paper is derived from Earl Reeves Wasserman, The Finer Tone: Keats' Major Poems (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1953), pp. 138-157. All further quotations are cited by line in the text.

 4Jeffrey N. Cox, 'Lamia, Isabella, and The Eve of St. Agnes: Eros and “Romance”', in The Cambridge Companion to Keats, ed. by Susan J. Wolfson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 59.

 5Karla Alwes, Imagination Transformed: The Evolution of the Female Character in Keats's Poetry (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), p. 150.

6 Anita Phillips, A Defence of Masochism (London: Faber, 1998), p. 162. Further references are cited by page in the text.

7Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), p. 51.

8Anthony Hobson, J. W. Waterhouse (Oxford: Phaidon, 1989), p. 9. Further references are cited by page in the text.

9 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 1970), pp. 9-10.

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