Thursday, 23 August 2012

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci", by John Keats

Hi I wanted to share with you a beautiful poem in a short post by Keats.

'This pursued through volumes might take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.'
-- Keats (Dec. 21, 1817)

Keats wrote a tremendous amount of great poetry during 1819,
 including "La Belle Dame Sans Merci".

The Story

The poet meets a knight by a woodland lake in late autumn.
The man has been there for a long time, and is evidently dying.

The knight says he met a beautiful, wild-looking woman in a meadow.
He visited with her, and decked her with flowers.
She did not speak, but looked and sighed as if she loved him.
He gave her his horse to ride, and he walked beside them.
He saw nothing but her, because she leaned over in his face and sang a mysterious song.
She spoke a language he could not understand, but he was confident she said she loved him.
He kissed her to sleep, and fell asleep himself.

He dreamed of a host of kings, princes, and warriors, all pale as death.
They shouted a terrible warning -- they were the woman's slaves.
And now he was her slave, too.
Awakening, the woman was gone, and the knight was left on the cold hillside.


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

Oh 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 sidelong would she bend, 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 wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed - 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's side.

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

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" means "the beautiful woman without mercy." It's the title of an old French court poem by Alain Chartier. ("Merci" in today's French is of course "thank you".) Keats probably knew a current translation which was supposed to be by Chaucer. In Keats's "Eve of Saint Agnes", the lover sings this old song as he is awakening his beloved.

"Wight" is an archaic name for a person. Like most people, I prefer "knight at arms"
to "wretched wight", and obviously the illustrators of the poem did, too.
("Until I met her, I was a man of action!")

"Sedge" is any of several grassy marsh plants which can dominate a wet meadow.

"Fever dew" is the sweat (diaphoresis) of sickness.
Keats originally wrote "death's lily" and "death's rose",
and he refers to the flush and the pallor of illness.
If the poet can actually see the normal red color leaving the cheeks of the knight,
 then the knight must be going rapidly into shock, i.e.,
the poet has come across the knight right as he is dying, and is recording his last words.
(The knight is too enwrapped in his own experience to notice.)

Medieval fairies (dwellers in the realm of faerie) were usually human-sized,
though Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream allowed them
(by negative capability)
to be sometimes-diminutive.

"Sidelong" means sideways. A "fragrant zone" is a flower belt.
"Elfin" means "pertaining to the elves", or the fairy world.
A "grot" is of course a grotto. "Betide" means "happen", and "woe betide"
 is a more romantical version of the contemporary expression "----
 happens". "Gloam" means gloom. A "thrall" is an abject slave.

love & light

No comments: