“All You Need Is Love (Love Is All You Need)"
By: Monica Burch
John Keats consistently discusses the real versus the ideal. Many of his works contain characters who transcend human reality to explore an ideal world. Keats’ poem “Lamia” focuses heavily on these themes. Characters within this poem constantly search for happiness while navigating the different ways of being. Another of Keats’ works, “Eve of St. Agnes,” also plays into this theme by including two characters existing in reality and finding their own ideal. Characters within these poems follow similar paths, but ultimately suffer different fates because of this theme of existence. Both of these works question whether it is better to exist in reality or in one’s own dream-like state of the ideal. Unfortunately, neither reality nor the typical notion of the ideal seems to be the right place to exist. These works both include situations within the ideal and reality that present obstacles to one’s happiness. However, “Lamia” and “Eve of St. Agnes” do suggest one form of living that allows individuals to ultimately find true happiness: a life fully devoted to a specific type of romantic love. Keats references this notion of thriving in love through the many couples found within these poems. These couples only find their ideal happiness once completely enthralled with their new lover. While many contemplate what state of being outshines the rest, Keats clearly presents unburdened, sexually-driven romantic love as the truest form of existence.
“Lamia,” one of Keats more interesting works, references his views on flourishing in life through love. Within this poem, Keats uses certain aspects of Gothic writing within a non-Gothic piece of literature, to present human struggles. These struggles are found within characters living both in the ideal and in reality. With this difference in existence, Keats contemplates the theme of transcending reality and finding the truest form of living. This poem includes multiple characters living in an ideal state of being, as well as many in complete human reality. Many of these characters leave their idea of reality to enter a state of being they interpret as the better way of living. Keats includes themes of Greek myth as this heavenly world is a form of the ideal. The inclusion of classic Greek gods further allows Keats to present similar issues across multiple different realms. Unfortunately, whether in reality or the ideal, imminent suffering still awaits everyone. Often, reality brings sadness and death to those stuck in this world. The death of Lycius and disappearance of Lamia both occur while experiencing reality.
Most would assume those in the ideal never have to worry about any kind of turmoil or misery, but that is false. While living as a snake, Lamia technically resides amongst the gods and spirts, leaving her within the ideal; yet she is excruciatingly unhappy. Lamia practically begs Hermes to free her from her “wreathed tomb,” so she can live a real life again (38). Lamia’s urgency to reenter reality shows this dream is actually a nightmare she needs to wake up from. The beautiful nymph suffers similarly within the ideal as she can never live peacefully without unsolicited attention. She receives so much unwanted and uncomfortable attention, she willingly veils herself from the “love glances of unlovely eyes” (102). In veiling herself she attempts to find what she believes is true happiness without distress, but still remains too close to her unhappy form of reality. Lamia’s ease in unveiling the nymph to Hermes shows just how quickly she can reenter this unpleasant world. This realization of being uncovered causes her to feel overcome with “fearful sobs” as she now understands her happiness was only temporary (138). Even the god Hermes falls victim to unhappiness while supposedly living in the ultimate ideal. He felt “pensive, and full of painful jealousies” because he could not locate the beautiful nymph (33). A god is usually considered the ultimate ideal and should normally never feel anything but perfect, yet he suffers and pines for love just like a mortal would in human reality.
All of the main characters within “Lamia” know pain at some point in the poem, whether a part of reality or the so-called ideal. The only time true happiness is known comes when both couples find and maintain a passionate love. This idea of love is a romantic and sexual kind that ignores all other obligations. Keats includes two sets of couples to make this claim of finding true happiness through intense, romantic love. By having these couples parallel each other in many ways, but have contrasting outcomes, Keats exemplifies the difference between life with love and life without love. As mentioned, both the beautiful nymph and Hermes experience moments of unhappiness even though they forever reside within the ideal. However, this unhappiness appears prior to their eventual meeting. Once Hermes takes the hand of the “cower[ing]” nymph, she “bloomed, and gave her honey to the lees” (137, 143). The nymph’s reaction to Hermes’ touch shows the moment love takes over her fears of being seen. These lines also portray sexual undertones that first show which form of love Keats finds superior. By having the pair run off together “into the green-recessèd woods,” Keats essentially describes the couple as running away to their own happily-ever-after (144). Ending the story of Hermes and the nymph here forces one to assume the pair remain forever in this state of happiness and bliss, especially when they are described as “never [growing] pale, as mortal lovers do” (145). These last lines show they have left behind all unhappiness to focus eternally on their immense love. These two will always remain within their own perfect life, different to what they originally thought was ideal.
To escape their original unhappiness, the two also ignore any other obligations they might have. Hermes completely leaves his godly “golden throne” to find his beloved (8). This departure shows that in order to find her, he must ignore his duties of being a god. Their new ideal state could only be found thanks to the love they now share. Keats explains this by showing Hermes, who should already be within the highest form of ideal as a literal god, feeling the moment he enters this new state of being. His unveiling of the nymph leads to a questioning of his reality and whether he is actually within a dream. But even if he were in a dream, “real are the dreams of Gods” (127). This line shows that even someone living in the ideal can transcend this state of being to enter an even better truth because of love. Hermes and the nymph will live for eternity in that truest form of life: in passionate love and away from all evils of reality.
The final outcome of Hermes and the nymph stands in stark contrast with that of Lamia and Lycius. While the former couple lives happily ever after, the latter suffers a cruel fate. This difference in ending stems from the latter couple’s divergence in maintaining their loving connection. The couple tries to introduce the obligations and realities of marriage to their already romantic love, causing their world to crumble. Lamia leaves the ideal in order to find the love she so desperately needs. Her main reasoning for joining reality is to find “a youth in Corinth” (119). Her desperate desire to leave the ideal for love implies that passionate human love surpasses living alone in the realm of gods. Lamia only cares about finding the beautiful Lycius. Once together, the pair live in complete bliss. At their initial meeting, Lycius proclaims “even as thou vanished so I shall die” (290). This line shows Lycius’ already overwhelming devotion to Lamia that places him within the dream-like state of finding love. Similar to Hermes and the nymph, the poem describes their love using sexual undertones. By having Lamia “put her new lips to his” in their initial encounter, Keats shows that the love must be some form of sexual love (294).
By having the two “shut [themselves] from the busy world,” Keats places them separate from reality, in their own perfect ideal world (397). This separation from reality allows them to ignore any outward responsibilities. Unfortunately, they do not stay shut away from reality forever. The poem foreshadows this unsuccessful fate while also reiterating the superiority of staying within the truthful state of love. By saying “’Twould humour many a heart to leave them thus,” the poem hints at how better off the pair would be if they had stayed in their ideal seclusion (396). This line clearly states the two should stay exactly where they are, just like Hermes and the nymph. The pair’s detachment from the ideal world of love pinpoints the moment the two meet an untimely fate.
During a momentary lapse from the realm of love, reality immediately sets in. Lycius’ “spirit passed beyond its golden bourne, / Into the noisy world” (32-33). These descriptions alone allude to which life is the greatest state of being. Lycius’ proposal of a marriage obviously destresses Lamia. This distress stems from her understanding that a marriage would pull the two out of their happiness and place them forever in reality. This marriage leads to the confrontation between Lamia and Apollonius that permanently ruins the couple’s dream life. The reality-seeing eye of the old sage causes Lamia to grow “pale” and Lycius felt from her a heat so unsettling it contained “all the pains / Of an unnatural heat shot to his heart” (250, 252-253). This moment indicates when reality overcomes love and damages his soul. Although this reality stems from love, it is platonic friendship instead of sexual love. Apollonius’ care for Lycius emerges through his urgency to stop Lamia from harming his friend. Apollonius assumes his “severe” gaze is helping his friend, but it actually destroys him (157). Keats’ uses Apollonius’s platonic friendship to pull Lycius out of his love, showing platonic love is not the love needed to live ideal. In the end, Lamia vanishes and Lycius drops dead. Having such a harsh ending to the couple shows the dangers of leaving the life of total passionate love. Reality ultimately ruined and killed the once blissful lovers.
Comparing the couple who never left their lives of love to the couple destroyed by reality shows the ultimate life comes when one is fully devoted in love. If Lycius had never left the trance of love, even for a moment, the pair most likely would have lived blissfully happy within their version of an ideal world. Keats uses Lycius’ marriage proposal to show love should be felt without any other responsibilities or attachments to reality. These two paralleled stories give a clear distinction to which life is the truest way to live. Keats exemplifies with these contrasting stories the ultimate true way of living can only be achieved through sexual love, untouched by reality. Humans can reach a perfect ideal and escape the wretched reality, while a god can transcend to a more powerful ideal world dream-like even for a god.
Many would argue Lycius’ situation is less a choice of love and more an unwanted spell by Lamia. It could easily seem that Lamia forced him to feel this way as he constantly seemed under some sort of trance. However, whatever the case, there is no denying the life he lived in love outweighed his sad death. While it seems Lycius is under an unconsented trance and not choosing to love out of free will, it is undeniable that he feels pure happiness while in this bond. Not to mention, his death only occurs once the bond is broken and Lamia disappears. Keats is showing that no matter what, it is far better to be in love than not at all.
This idea of unburdened, sexual love being the truest way to live presents itself with in another of Keats’ poems. “Eve of St. Agnes” follows a similar theme as the love between Hermes and the nymph. The couple within this poem more obviously represents a sexual, and ignorant of responsibility, form of love. The young, beautiful Madeline avoids the gaze of all other men, so she can see visions of her one true love, Porphyro. She would rather dream of love than focus on her reality. This unhappiness extends to Porphyro, whose “pained heart” yearns for the chance to look at his love, Madeline (137). The pair both suffer within reality and want nothing more than to have their beloved. Like Lycius, Madeline questions how she could survive reality without her love Porphyro by saying “For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go” (315). These lines show there is no point in living if not spent with the person one loves romantically. Questioning reality appears as a reoccurring theme to show that death is better than being in reality without this form of love. As proven with Lycius, life without love does in fact lead to the very fate both fear. By having the couple chose to run away, Keats shows how far one should be willing to go to escape reality and live whole heartedly in love. The couple’s last description as “lovers flee[ing] into the storm” parallels the ending for Hermes and the nymph (371). Just like that couple, it must be assumed this happiness expands on into the rest of their lives.
Interestingly, since this couple chose to run off into their new reality of devoted love, they receive the happy ending robbed from Lamia and Lycius. This couple’s avoidance of responsibility and clear sexual connection lead them to a presumed happier life. Sexual undertones can be found throughout the entire poem, but appear most within the scene of Madeline’s awakening from the dream. Once Porphyro finishes playing “her hollow lute,” Madeline awakes “pant[ing] quick – and suddenly / her … eyes wide open shown” (289, 295-296). This reference of sexual love reiterates the importance of this form of love as the ideal state of being. This sexual relationship also connects to their lack of care for obligation as the two should actually avoid each other while she should remain virginal. In order to be together, the couple leaves behind their families and lives for good; ignoring their responsibilities to their loved ones and the reality of their situation. By having the pair run away happy, Keats again displays his idea that the truest way to live is with unburdened, passionate love.
This poem also highlights the consequences of remaining in reality. Two characters, Angela and the Beadsman, are found dead the morning after the lovers’ departure from reality. These two stayed trapped within human reality and thus suffer a sadder fate than those who chose to focus on love instead of reality. By showing these consequences, the poem further supports the thematic difference between reality versus love. Again, some might claim that the couple made the wrong choice. The powerful storm and death of the two characters could represent a bad omen. These elements paired alongside the couple’s union plagued by trickery, could be used to argue that their choice will lead to an unwanted fate. However, speculation on what everything could mean does not take away the fact that they now exist happily. Ignoring these signs will actually allow them to forever remain in a sexual and passionate love, unaware of the harsh truths of reality outside of their new world.
Love is the only way to transcend reality and live in an actual ideal world. This love cannot be any type of love, but instead passionate, sexual love that engulfs those involved. This love needs to avoid any and all obligations to reality. “Lamia” compares two couples to highlight the difference between life in love and life in reality. Looking at the two couples, it becomes apparent that life can only be lived correctly through Hermes and the nymph’s form of love. “Eve of St. Agnes” also presents a couple similar to Hermes and the nymph to show this ideal life is possible for humans if done correctly. All three couples experienced love in a sexual, passionate way. Any character outside of this love experiences either dissatisfaction or death. To stray from this passion means to stray from the true ideal life. By getting distracted with the outside world, Lycius causes the fate of the couple to differ from those who remained in their state of oblivious, sexual love. With these couples, Keats shows that the truest form of existence can only occur through finding and maintaining a love full of sexual passion and disregard for all other obligations.
Keats, John. The Complete Poems. 3rded., Edited by John Barnard, Penguin Classics, 1988.