If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

During my first reading of this poem, I was primarily focused on the concept of “unweaving the rainbow” and how the figure of Lamia fits in to this notion. What I expected for the direction of this poem dealing with disillusionment in the face of science was for it to operate through the perspective of Lycius in order to demonstrate the shattering of his illusions about Lamia just as someone’s view of a rainbow could be ruined by fully understanding its true contents.

Instead, the poem mainly focuses on Lamia and her own destruction in the face of the philosopher. This is shown when Keats discusses “unweaving the rainbow”: “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,/ Conquer all mysteries by rule and line/ Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine–/ Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made/ The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade” (234-8). The power of philosophy here is described in physical terms: it makes Lamia “melt” and “[clips] an Angel’s wings.” For me, it did not appear immediately analogous to philosophy’s actual ability to change someone internally and their perceptions and ideals. On the one hand, this sort of description could be emphasizing the destructive power of philosophy by taking it to the extreme that the object itself is actually destroyed, in addition to the perception of it. However, the fact that Lycius is not even mentioned in this passage or focused on throughout the whole of the poem makes me feel like this description is indicative of something larger. (As a side note, I was particularly struck by the mechanism of philosophy characterized as “rule and line” since that immediately sounded like the structure of a poem to me, especially the use of the word “line.”)

The notion that the philosopher perceiving Lamia as a monster can actually affect her rather than simply others’ perceptions of her reminded me of the excerpts from Berkeley that the outside world only truly exists through our perceptions of it. As Keats seems to do in this poem, Berkeley challenges the distinction between perception and reality when he asks, “what do we perceive besides our own Ideas or Sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any Combination of them should exist unperceived?” If we follow this line of logic, perceiving the rainbow as merely colored parts literally breaks it apart in a way since reality is only our perception of it.

Something else that perplexed me about the connection between Lamia and the rainbow was the reason that Keats chose Lamia to represent this. She’s a very loaded choice since most of his readers would already have opinions on her and perhaps view her as this evil seductress type. On the one hand, his choice tempts me to read the unmasking of her disguise and destruction of her as a potentially positive thing, since she is this evil creature that is trying to trick Lycius. However, it’s difficult for me to read it this way when she is the main character of this work and is described quite sympathetically, with descriptors such as “tender-person’d.” The ending of the poem read as quite tragic for me, especially since she is painted as powerless in the face of this philosopher, whose stare is described as “keen, cruel, perceant, stinging” (301). So, what do you make of this? Why do you think Keats chose to make Lamia the subject of his poem?

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One Response to If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

  1. writinginmy says:

    I’m not sure I can answer why Keats chose to make Lamia the subject of his poem (like we discussed in class, perhaps her mythic, wondrous impossibility makes her the best figure to stand in for nature) but I still don’t completely understand why people are inclined to view Lamia as “evil.” But along with what you were saying about how “reality is our perception of it” and how the philosopher’s gaze actually affects the subject/object rather than simply affecting the others’ perceptions of it… I recall the fact that Lamia, when she was a snake, had the ability to transport herself spiritually and explore worlds outside of herself freely. There is something very metaphysical about her that suggests, at least to me, that perhaps her “melt[ing] into a shade” is not so much a death but a return to her essence. Her death is more apparent to us as the philosopher closes the doors of perception on her literally.

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