September 14, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

John William Waterhouse, La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893)
Henry Meynell Rheam, La Belle Dame sans Merci (1901)
La Belle Dame Sans Merci[1]
By: John Keats (1819)

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing![2]

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, 5
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.[3]

I see a lily on thy brow,
     With anguish moist and fever-dew, 10
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,[4]
Fun, beautiful, a fairy’s child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light, 15
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
          And made sweet moan. 20

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A fairy’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet, 25
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
“I love thee true.”

She took me to her elfin grot,
     And there she wept and sigh’d full sore, 30
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woo betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d 35
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La belle dame sans merci
          Hath thee in thrall!” 40

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here, 45
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d[5] from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Notes & Commentary

  1. Written in 1819, this ballad tells the story of haggard knight and his beloved: a fairy maiden who bewitches him then abandons him to a desolate landscape. The title is taken from a medieval poem by Alain Chartier and means “the lovely lady without pity.” It’s a classic tale of tragic, unrequited love, of not getting that which one most desires and being left with that that knowledge. This deceptively simple ballad conveys an air of mystery and barrenness in its four-line stanzas and shortened last line (Inglis 1969, p. 116). Ballads are usually set in gloomy, atmospheric environments, but are concerned less with the milieu than the drama to affect the emotions of the listeners (Bloom 2001, p. 102). “Dame” is influenced by the gothic romance and mimics the traditional folk ballad’s dialogue form: the first three stanzas have the speaker asking the knight what ails him, and the remainder of the poem is his response (Greenblatt 2018, p. 497).
         Here is a retelling of the myth of the femme fatale who destroys the life of the man who loves her (Greenblatt 2018, p. 497). Influenced by the medieval tradition of unrequited love that was a standard feature of the courtly love tradition, wherein the chivalrous knight was committed to the service of his lady. Often this relationship was one-way, keeping the lady unattainable and pure and condemning the knight to an unending devotion (Bloom 2001, p. 102). To me, this also relates to Odysseus and Circe, as the latter seduces and keeps Odysseus and his crew on her island for a year, unable to continue their journey home, but also “in thrall”—keeping the men isolated and passive—unable to pursue their masculine aggression and violence world at large. Like Circe, the woman here has a power—whether it’s supernatural or just a product of her beauty and men’s lust is uncertain—and seems to represent the archetype of the fatal woman (Inglis 1969, p. 117).
         The elusive woman might also signify the Muse for Keats, or poets in general. Perhaps in youth, the poet is able, for a time, to capture inspiration and set her on my pacing steed, but only to later have the vision fade and leave him bereft of his abilities on the cold hill’s side where no birds sing—or no inspiration speaks to him anymore (Garrett 1987, p. 36). Similarly, this could be a poem about the fading vitality and strength that accompanies age, a tragedy that will affect all men.
  2. Each stanza ends with a short, punctuated line that “augments the poem's air of inevitability . . . by substituting assertion for explanation: this is so because it has always been so, and no other cause need be sought” (Garrett 1987, p. 35).
  3. The description and time of year, late-fall or early winter, suggests that the knight is past his youth, perhaps old. He is haggard—gray, gaunt, emaciated—and likely looking wraith-like—unlike the knights in the images to the right. The next stanza continues with images that also suggest age, decay, and death.
  4. The knight’s dream begins with a tangible meeting, a beauty that he can see and feel, but which will be come ever more intangible the more he chases it. She is the siren that seduces him with her magic song, luring him into a nightmare of death by the end. Garrett reads this as a spiritual, not physical reality—a vision, as Keats described, of “a shadow of reality to come” (Template:Harvtnb). I don’t know: it seems rather more grim to me, but perhaps this is the ambiguity that Keats was going for—perhaps that love was somehow linked with death, or something beyond what we can grasp in this life (Garrett 1987, p. 36).
  5. The tense is wither’d replaces has wither’d from the first stanza, suggesting a timelessness and universality to the poem. This is but one example of the fluid use of tense in the ballad (Garrett 1987, p. 35).

Bibliography

  • Battenhouse, Henry M. (1958). English Romantic Writers. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
  • Bloom, Harold (2001). John Keats. Bloom’s Major Poets. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House.
  • Garrett, John (1987). Selected Poems of John Keats. MacMillan Master Guides. London: MacMillan.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Inglis, Fred (1969). Keats. Arco Literary Critiques. New York: Arco.

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