When Words Do Not Suffice

As we discussed in class, the content of Lamia seems to be encapsulated in a moment from Rime of the Ancient Mariner: 

Beyond the shadow of the ship,/ I watch’d the water-snakes:/ … O happy living things! no tongue/ Their beauty might declare:/ A spring of love gush’d from my heart,/ And I bless’d them unaware. (273-286)

It is after this point that the albatross falls from the mariner’s neck, that the spell begins to break and that he is blessed with the fall of rain. I suppose I want to focus on the line “no tongue/ Their beauty might declare” and try to draw some parallels between that and the final line the philosopher says to Lamia that prompts her death:

He look’d and look’d again a level – No!/ “A Serpent!” echoed he; no sooner said,/ Than with a frightful scream she vanished… (part 2, 304-306)

We talked about how the mariner goes from describing the eels in disdain in disgust, that “yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon the slimy sea” (125-126), to refiguring monstrosity into beauty. And we ended class with the question of whether or not Lamia is to blame in the end, and whether or not she is simply just a cruel seductress/temptress. I want to argue that she is not to blame at the end and that the problem of the poem points to something else, namely the reductive nature found perhaps in the medium of language itself, rather than in any tension between nature VS science, monstrosity VS beauty, etc.

When the albatross falls from the mariner’s neck, it is after he exclaims how ineffably beautiful the eels are, that he could never conjure up any words that would befit the sight before him. The albatross’ fall comes from his appreciate of nature and the things around him not simply through mere appreciation and thoughtfulness (the poem builds from a description of the eels and reaches the breaking point with his exclamation) but an acceptance of the fact that these things are beyond his comprehension. Simply, words do them no justice, and no words in the human language would suffice.

So it might be that the reification of the intangible brings about downfall. The performative utterance by the philosopher in declaring the Lamia as a serpent is what destroys her, reduces her essence by compounding all her facets into two little words: “a serpent.” This utterance seems to be even criticized by the poem’s speaker itself (that casual insertion of the “No!”). Tracking the Lamia herself tells a similar story – she goes from being a snake (with crazy metaphysical abilities) to being a woman. It is at that solidification of being a material woman occupying a very solid space in the world that she is pushed into disappearing. Conversely, the mariner’s perception of the eels from very material words (slimy snake) into progressively expansive descriptions (colors to ineffableness) grants him redemption.

So I don’t think that dissecting something murders that something – dissecting and understanding expands one’s perception of the thing perceived. New information just shouldn’t compact the thing itself into death. And that’s my sad ending to a review because I’m not sure how to end this!

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