The poem was written in 1819, soon after "La belle dame sans merci" and his odes on Melancholy, on Indolence, to a Grecian Urn and to a Nightingale and just before "Ode to Autumn". The poem tells how the god Hermes hears of a nymph who is more beautiful than all. Hermes, searching for the nymph, instead comes across a Lamia, trapped in the form of a serpent. She reveals the previously invisible nymph to him and in return he restores her human form. She goes to seek a youth of Corinth, Lycius, while Hermes and his nymph depart together into the woods. The relationship between Lycius and Lamia, however, is destroyed when the sage Apollonius reveals Lamia's true identity at their wedding feast, whereupon she seemingly disappears and Lycius dies of grief.
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person'd Lamia melt into a shade.
Poe's closing lines also echo several lines near the middle of "Lamia". The book Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins takes its title from the above-quoted passage: it is an explicit attempt to demonstrate that this view of "cold philosophy" is incorrect and that science reveals, rather than destroys, the true beauty of the natural world. The poem also influenced Edward MacDowell's work, Lamia, Opus 29.
The poem was dramatized on BBC Radio 4 on 1 January 2010 on the Afternoon Play series (later re-broadcast on 5 January 2012). The production was directed by Susan Roberts with original music composed and performed by John Harle. The cast included:
- Paterson Joseph ...... Narrator
- Charloe Emmerson ...... Lamia
- Tom Ferguson ...... Lycius
- Jonathan Keeble ...... Hermes/Apollonius
- Sarah Leonard ...... Singer