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La Belle Dame Sans Merci -- John Keats

It's been far too long since we did a Keats...
(Poem #182) La Belle Dame Sans Merci
O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
    Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither'd from the lake,
    And no birds sing.

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

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

I met a lady in the meads
    Full beautiful --- a faery's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
    And her eyes were wild.

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

I set her on my pacing steed,
    And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
    A faery's song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
    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 sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes
    With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
    And there I dream'd --- ah! woe betide! ---
The latest dream I ever dreamt
    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!'

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

And this is why I sojourn here,
    Alone and palely loitering;
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
    And no birds sing.
-- John Keats
from Life, Letters and Literary Remains, 1848.

... not that I'm a great fan of 19th century poetry in general, but I've
always liked Keats. And 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' is my second
favouritest poem by him (the bestest, of course, is the incomparable 'On
First Looking into Chapman's Homer', Minstrels poem #12) (yes, it's been
some time).

If I had to name one poet of sheer unadulterated natural genius (as
opposed to skill or craftsmanship it would probably be Keats. Perhaps
more than any other writer before or since [1], he had the ability to
distil in its purest form that quality called 'poetry' in his verse. He
doesn't use ornate or flowery language; his rhymes and rhythms are often
less than perfect; his themes can be ordinary. And yet his words are
just magical - pure music.


[1] always excepting Shakespeare

[Links] Of course, poem #12

30 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Audis said...

O, what can ail thee? This is more than just a poem about a lonely
Knight, who after being seduced by an enchanting faery was left alone.
The knights feelings of desolation reflect the period in John Keats'
life. His death was imminent whilst suffering from consumption. I find
it so clever ,that Keats could write about his not-so-pleasant
experiences, into a poem full of magic and enchantment. Just as the lady
enthralled the Knight, so does Keats' poetry to me.

Catherine Audis

NeoSailorjupiter said...

I find that the way the knigth falls for this seductive faery is almost
like Romeo and Juliet, how it's a love (more lust than love, really) at
first sight. I would wish for happy endings, but not find them. So too
is this story. I love it anyway.


Mike Cowie said...

Many thanks for your website. I have saved a copy of "La Belle Dame..." to enable me to help my young niece with her exam coursework.I hope that is ok.

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Anonymous said...

i need to write an essay about this and i dont even understand it?

SMNQ5D said...

I'm working with this poem right now and I think a valid argument could be made for a couple different analyses.
The main two I'm working with are that it could be another warning against chasing the ideal, which was a common Romantic theme for Keats, Percy Shelley, Byron, and ever Blake to an extent. This mirrored the cultural desire and disdain for an IDEAL woman, as voiced by Owen Meredith,
"Adam bequeath'd ... to his posterity.
Who called it THE IDEAL. And Mankind
Still cherish it, and still it cheats them all."

The undertone of scorn and danger that tints "Belle Dame" can also be seen as as firm step towards the Victorian ideals of womanhood, which portray women as evil.
These Victorian ideals bean as the thought that the 18th Century wife (as the middle class developed) was to be a bastion of purity strong enough to save both her soul and her husbands in death. Then the scale shifted until woman was "The Priestess of the Severed Head," a nymph meant to turn man's own desires against him and drag him unto Hell.
In that manner, the belle dame may be seen as a wicked seductress pulling the good knight's soul away from heavenly salvation.

The same double theme can be applied to "Lamia."

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