In Keats’s narrative poem Lamia, a half-serpent phantom appears to a young Corinthian charioteer, named Lycius, in the form of an ethereal maiden. Their romance takes place in seclusion until Lycius resolves that they should marry. The plot unravels at the wedding feast, where Lycius’s mentor, the sage Apollonius, recognizes her as a monster who feeds upon the flesh of young men. Exposed to his scrutiny, Lamia’s glamour fades and she melts into a shade, for “Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?”
For Keats, logic and reason serve to dispel romantic illusions; in this case, a new couple’s infatuation. Waterhouse’s painting depicts the moment of Lamia and Lycius’s first meeting, when her spell is in full effect and the stricken young knight, begging Lamia to remain, addresses her as “Goddess,” “Pleiad,” and “Naiad of the rivers.” The only indication of Lamia’s true nature is the beautiful snakeskin garment that hangs loosely from her shoulders. If their love is an illusion, Waterhouse invites to us to consider whether that illusion may, nonetheless, be worthy of our admiration.