Henry Meynell Rheam
A poem needs understanding through the senses.
Sir Frank Dicksee
Volume two of Le Canon Graphique (editions Télémaque)
La Belle Dame sans Merci
"La Belle Dame sans Merci" by Henry Meynell Rheam, 1901
John Melhuish Strudwick
La Belle Dame sans Merci (French: "The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy" ) is a ballad written by the English poet John Keats. It exists in two versions, with minor differences between them. The original was written by Keats in 1819. He used the title of the 15th century La Belle Dame sans Mercy by Alain Chartier, though the plots of the two poems are different. The poem is considered an English classic, stereotypical to other of Keats' works. It avoids simplicity of interpretation despite simplicity of structure. At only a short twelve stanzas, of only four lines each, with a simple ABCB rhyme scheme, the poem is nonetheless full of enigmas, and has been the subject of numerous interpretations.
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 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 lullèd 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 gapèd 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.
Arthur Hughes ~ Arthur Hughes’s La Belle Dame sans merci
is a little known pre-Raphaelite painting.
(Lamia and the Soldier)
John William Waterhouse
Rose Cecil O'Neill
Keats’s ballad tells the story of a knight’s enthralment by a ‘faery child’ which condemns him to wander forever, lost to the world. First published in 1820 the poem is an early example of the 19th century fascination with the femme fatale which was to culminate in a veritable invasion of European culture by fatal women in the last two decades of the 19th century – in literature, the visual arts, painting, fashion, design and advertising. There were evil women from history, the Bible, mythology, folklore and literature – such as Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia, Lilith, Salome and Lamia. There were witches and sorceresses, like the Medusa, Circe, Nimüe and Morgan-le-Fay. And there were demonic creatures, half-human, half-animal, like the sphinx, sirens, mermaids, harpies and vampires. Cruel, lustful and evil these femmes fatales lured men to their doom and destruction through their beauty, enchantments and erotic power.
F C Cowper 1946
Arthur Hughes’s La Belle Dame sans merci was painted five years before Lady Lilith, and therefore just precedes the emergence of the fully-fledged fatal woman.
Hughes’s image refers to the first line in particular. At the same time the painting attempts to go beyond this single moment by the suggestion of the aftermath of the knight’s encounter with the lady. Like all Victorian narrative paintings La Belle Dame sans merci aspires to the condition of cinema, seeking to extend the temporal dimensions of the single image. Thus the picture introduces the pale kings, princes and warriors who subsequently visit the knight in a dream and warn him of this thraldom to the belle dame.
In the poem the knight meets the lady in the ‘mead’, and their activities suggest that this took place in summer. But at the end he awakens to find himself on ‘the cold hill’s side’, and is discovered by the narrator loitering by a lake from which ‘the sedge has wither’d’. In the painting however, instead of the mead we find the cold hill-side (blown by a gale-like wind not mentioned in the poem) and the lake – referring to moments that come after the meeting with the lady. There are further signs of autumn, the season in which these later events occur, in the dead oak leaves and the scantily-clad tree behind the knight. On the other hand, there is an overall impression of summer lushness and fertility in the blooming briar roses, the red and white poppies and the dense green mat of grasses and reeds.
His use of natural symbolism. The pre-Raphaelites made particular use of natural symbols both as a means of gaining temporality and as a way of investing the material objects they so patiently recorded with a significance beyond what was merely visible. Thus the presence of briar roses and poppies brings together symbols of love, sleep and death. The belle dame holds a red poppy in her hand, doubly symbolic because it is withered, associating her with the sleep she lulls the knight into and the living death to which he awakens.
About the figures themselves are signs and symbols not found in the poem, referring to the story and the knight’s fate. His surcoat bears the heraldic arms of a hand crushing a serpent; yet he is oblivious of the serpents entwined around the neck of the belle dame, referring back ultimately to Eve and her temptation. The knight is removing his shield, and his sword lies across the lap of the belle dame. He has made himself vulnerable by these actions. The placement of the sword, the symbol of his manhood, refers also to his sexual enslavement and loss of virility.
But there is a further significance to the knight’s taking off his shield and giving up his sword, to be understood within the context of the Victorian interest in Arthurian legend and chivalric ideals.
In Keats’s poem there is no mention of snakes, a sword or shield. What these additions indicate is the carry over of Hughes’s Arthurian interests into the poem, which is thus passed through the filter of Victorian ideas about medieval chivalry. As a consequence Hughes’s knight is ‘fallen’ as well as enthralled, and the sword across the belle dame’s lap symbolises both his fall from grace and his sexual enslavement. The painting is thus a site for the meeting of discourses on chivalry and the femme fatale. But the meeting is an ambiguous one and allows an alternative reading of the painting which inverts the relationship between the femme fatale and the knight.
The spectator’s reading of the painting as a representation of a fallen and enthralled knight is dependent on a knowledge of Keats’s poem and a correct decoding of the signs and symbols in the painting. Without these aids the painting lends itself to a very different reading.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Robert Anning Bell
Most of us, lacking Keats' Black Letter Chaucer, fail to realize that "La Belle Dame sans Merci" is in Thynne's and Speght's canon and included in their Black Letter Chaucer editions. Though eventually excluded in 1896's Kelmscott Black Letter by its editor, F. S. Ellis, on the basis of W. W. Skeat's advice,6 it had originally apocryphally been in the Chaucerian canon. I shared with my gentle reader the 1532 and 1542 opening verses.
Then Chaucer, or pseudo-Chaucer, the love-lorn poet, enters the poem landscape, dialoguing, as Amant, with the Dame. While Keats, as reader, in his poem, written in May of 1819 and published in May of 1820, the year before his death, describes himself with a Knight which whom he dialogues, the Knight having been bewitched by a Faerie Queene.7 Thus he imitates the Chaucer of the Book of the Duchess and of the "Sir Thopas," and the Spenser of The Faerie Queene. He is writing about writing, its enchantment of the act of reading, and I quote here from the "Ode to the Nightingale,"
. . . the same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century it had been John Keats and Walter Savage Landor, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning who responded as poets to Chaucer.
Loreena McKennitt - The English Ladye and the Knight
Bright Star (2009) - La Belle Dame sans Merci - Ben Whishaw recites Keats
Bright Star (detailing the gorgeous love story of John Keats for Fanny Brawne)
Wish we were butterflies
From a letter to his love, Fanny Brawne ~ 5th Nov' 1820
Bright Star - A Room Of Butterflies
love and light