Tuesday, April 06, 2010

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

Yesterday's post about Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky", which used a form of hymn metre (three lines of more-or-less iambic tetrameter followed by a line of trimeter). Although it is indeed a nonsense poem, "Jabberwocky" is also a narrative poem, meaning one that tells a story. And all that talk of slaying monsters made me think of knights, making today's choice obvious (at least for me).

Today, one of my favorite short narrative poems, by the incomparable John Keats. It's called "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", by which Keats meant "the beautiful woman without pity/mercy" and not "the beautiful woman without thanks" - the title comes from a medieval French court poem by Alain Chartier. This lyric narrative poems 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. I absolutely, flat-out adore this poem, which was part of the impetus for my own poem, "La Belle Dame Sans Regrets", which was written in response to a picture prompt posted by The Merry Sisters of Fate, based on a painting inspired by . . . well, by this Keats poem. I begin to tire of my circular digression, and will move straight to the poem:

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
by John Keats

O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
  Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered 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 cheeks 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 looked 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 gazed and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
  With kisses four.

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

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

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

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

Form: Each stanza contains four lines. Were you to number the lines 1-4, lines 2 & 4 rhyme. The first three lines in each stanza are roughly in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM), although sometimes Keats adds an extra syllable here or there, usually meaning that one of the feet has a third syllable, as in the third line of the final stanza: "Though the sedge has withered from the lake", which still has four poetic feet in the line: an anapest (tadaDUM) followed by three iambs (taDUM taDUM taDUM). In any case, each of the first three lines in a stanza has four stressed syllables. Each of the fourth lines is shorter. Technically, they may have only two stressed syllables, but I read them as having three - Keats really wants you to slow down on that fourth line when reading the poem aloud, I think, so he is a bit emphatic in his feet. So instead of two iambs (and NO birds SING) or an iamb and a trochee (and NO BIRDS sing), I think he went with an iamb and a spondee (two accented syllables): "and NO BIRDS SING"; or, in the case of a few other stanzas, with an anapest (tadaDUM) followed by a trochee (DUM DUM), as in "on the COLD HILL SIDE". Mind you, I could be wrong about that.

Discussion: 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 both a muse and a source of vexation for him. Also noteworthy is Keats's fascination with Edmund Spenser's epic narrative poem that is a tribute to Queen Elizabeth, The Faery Queene, which is what drew him to write poetry in the first place.

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