Friday, June 08, 2007

La Belle Dame Sans Merci -- a Poetry Friday post

La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a lyric narrative poem that tells a seemingly simple story in the form of a stylized folk ballad. In the first three stanzas, a speaker asks a woeful knight what's wrong, and the remainder of the poem is the knight's answer. The poem's title is from a medieval poem by Alan Cartier, and is translated as "The beautiful woman without pity/mercy".

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
by John Keats

O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
&emsp Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
&emsp And no birds sing.

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

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

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

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

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

She found me roots of relish sweet,
&emsp And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said--
&emsp 'I love thee true.'

She took me to her elfin grot,
&emsp And there she gazed and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
&emsp With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep
&emsp And there I dreamed---Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dreamed
&emsp On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
&emsp Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried--'La Belle Dame sans Merci
&emsp Hath thee in thrall!'

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

And that is why I sojourn here,
&emsp Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge has withered from the lake,
&emsp And no birds sing.


While it's clear that the knight is the speaker from the fourth stanza through the end, the identity of the speaker for the first three stanzas is left unclear. Usually the speaker is presumed to be a passerby, concerned about the knight's appearance. I posit that it may be the knight himself, talking to his reflection in the lake. If I'm correct, then the knight is trying to shake himself out of his melancholy, but drifts back into his recollection of the faery woman, and finds he cannot.

The description of the knight's appearance in the third stanza -- with a "lily on [his] brow, an anguished, fevered appearance, and fading cheek color -- is that of a dying man. We sense that he will join the ranks of the other men, all pale, who appeared to him in his dream. The knight prefers to stay where he is, in hopes of again finding the faery woman, rather than returning to the real world.

The history of the poem is interesting. The text version I've used is the original, as written by Keats in a letter to his brother George in the year 1819. A second version of the text exists, which is the poem's first published form, although it's unclear who did the alteration.

Keats had a turbulent relationship with a neighboring woman, Fanny Brawne, and it is possible that some of the poem reflects his relationship with her, since, while he loved her passionately, she was source of vexation for him. Also noteworthy is Keats's fascination with Edmund Spenser's poem, The Faery Queene, which is what drew him to write poetry in the first place.

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