Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, even if it is an illusion. John Keats’s Lamia is a poem where there are no good people or bad people, but there are clear winners and losers in the story. Samuel Coleridge’s Christabel, while containing similar elements of supernatural imagery as Lamia, is explicit on who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist. John Keats’s work is similar to Samuel Coleridge’s work, but so unlike each other at the same time.
In this respect, Keat and Coleridge have the same mentality regarding snakes, but where they differ is how they portray the serpent-like characters.
One aspect shared between Lamia and Christabel is how certain characters seem to be a foil of one another. Lamia is a main character that, just as she was a beautiful woman, was also a beautiful serpent: “She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue, Vermilion-spotted, golden, green, and blue; Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard, Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr’d” (47-50).
However, even though all she wanted to do was to marry a man named Lycious, Apollonius called Lamia “A Serpent,” near the end of the poem; consequently, “[w]ith a frightful scream she vanished” (305-306). Lamia was ousted by one character without warning, despite being provided a perfect illusion by the god Hermes. In the case of Keats, though there is a sudden preconception that anything associated with a snake is negative, Keats specifically humanizes Lamia as someone who has a simple desire to live in peace with the man she is in love with. Keats even presents positive traits in how Lamia treats Lycious with dedicated affection and loyalty. Thus, Lamia is not an evil being, but thanks to Apollonius, she and Lycious end up losing in the story by dying and/or vanishing. Lamia’s illusion of being human, though dishonest to Lycious, is otherwise harmless.
With Lamia, Keats solidifies the idea that a book cannot be judged by its cover and that it is human for an individual to cover up their self-perceived flaws in order to be best presentable to the person they have affections for. Coleridge however, has different ideas in portraying snakes with his snake-like character, Geraldine.
In Christabel, Geraldine is described as a beautiful woman by characters around her. However, Coleridge implies that she is an evil, horrific serpent disguised as a woman. Her illusion is far from perfect, with Christabel noting Geraldine’s body as a “sight to dream of, not to tell,” as though there were something grotesque about her that words could not describe (253).
Though warnings about Geraldine’s figure is present (like dogs barking), these warnings go unheeded, even after Bracy attempts to oust Geraldine in his vision of the “bright green snake [or Geraldine]” (549). Clearly throughout the story, Coleridge does not hesitate to imply that Geraldine is an evil being thanks to employing extremely negative connotations that come from biblical interpretations of snakes. Coleridge seems to make it a point that no matter a person’s appearance, their flaws cannot be hidden forever. Had Coleridge finished his Christabel story, Geraldine’s true nature would be revealed to all, further solidifying this idea.
While Keats and Coleridge utilize imagery to set appearances in their stories, they diverge when it comes to breaking illusions of beauty. In the end, these authors likely paved the way for snakes having a poor reputation in the literary community today.