La Belle Dame sans Merci
"La Belle Dame sans Merci" (French for "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 of 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 fairy’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.
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"La Belle Dame sans Merci" is a popular form given an artistic by the Romantic poets. Keats uses a stanza of three iambic tetrameter lines with the fourth dimetric line which makes the stanza seem a self-contained unit, giving the ballad a deliberate and slow movement, and is pleasing to the ear. Keats uses a number of the stylistic characteristics of the ballad, such as the simplicity of the language, repetition, and absence of details; like some of the old ballads, it deals with the supernatural. Keats's economical manner of telling a story in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" is the direct opposite of his lavish manner in "The Eve of St. Agnes". Part of the fascination exerted by the poem comes from Keats' use of understatement.
Keats sets his simple story of love and death in a bleak wintry landscape that is appropriate to it: "The sedge has wither'd from the lake / And no birds sing!" The repetition of these two lines, with minor variations, as the concluding lines of the poem emphasizes the fate of the unfortunate knight and neatly encloses the poem in a frame by bringing it back to its beginning. Keats relates the condition of the trees and surroundings with condition of the knight who is also broken.
In keeping with the ballad tradition, Keats does not identify his questioner, or the knight, or the destructively beautiful lady. What Keats does not include in his poem contributes as much to it in arousing the reader's imagination as what he puts into it. La belle dame sans merci, the beautiful lady without pity, is a femme fatale, a Circe-like figure who attracts lovers only to destroy them by her supernatural powers. She destroys because it is her nature to destroy. Keats could have found patterns for his "faery's child" in folk mythology, classical literature, Renaissance poetry, or the medieval ballad. With a few skillful touches, he creates a woman who is at once beautiful, erotically attractive, fascinating, and deadly.
Some readers see the poem as Keats' personal rebellion against the pains of love. In his letters and in some of his poems, he reveals that he did experience the pains, as well as the pleasures, of love and that he resented the pains, particularly the loss of freedom that came with falling in love. However, the ballad is a very objective form, and it may be best to read "La Belle Dame sans Merci" as pure story and no more.
In other media
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Californication - Season 1, Episode 5
Rosemary & Thyme - Season 1, Episode 1
Downton Abbey - Season 6, Episode 5
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"La Belle Dame sans Merci" was a popular subject for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It was depicted by Frank Dicksee, Frank Cadogan Cowper, John William Waterhouse, Arthur Hughes, Walter Crane, and Henry Maynell Rheam. It was also satirized in the December 1, 1920 edition of Punch magazine.
The best-known musical setting is that by Charles Villiers Stanford. It is a dramatic interpretation requiring a skilled (male) vocalist and equally skilled accompanist. It has remained popular and is included on many anthologies of English song or British Art Music recorded by famous artists. Patrick Hadley also wrote a version for tenor, four-part chorus, and orchestra.
The 1915 American film The Poet of the Peaks was based upon the poem. The main antagonist of the 2009 stop-motion animated dark fantasy film Coraline references the Belle Dame in the poem (see Books).
The stop-action animated fantasy film Coraline (2009, directed by Henry Selick) refers to the malevolent Other Mother as "beldam", and includes a similar theme of entrapment by a seemingly beautiful loving woman.
The last two lines of the 11th verse are used as the title of a science fiction short story, "And I awoke and found me here on the cold hill's side", which is the Hugo and Nebula Award nominated short story by James Tiptree, Jr. (1973).
The last two lines of the first verse ("The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing") were used as an epigraph for Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring, about the environmental damage caused by the irresponsible use of pesticides. The second line was repeated later in the book, as the title of a chapter about their specific effects on birds.
The line is also featured on page 27 of Phillip Roth's The Human Stain in reaction to Coleman describing his new, far younger love interest.
The Beldam in Neil Gaiman's 2002 horror-fantasy novel Coraline references the mysterious woman who is also known as Belle Dame. Both share many similarities as both lure their protagonists into their lair by showing their love towards them and giving them treats to enjoy. The protagonists in both stories also encounter the ghosts who have previously met both women and warn the protagonist about their true colours and at the end of the story, the protagonist is stuck in their lair, with the exception of Coraline who managed to escape while the unnamed knight in this poem is still stuck in the mysterious woman's lair.
In Hunting Ground by Patricia Briggs, La Belle Dame sans Merci is identified as The Lady of the Lake and is a hidden antagonist.
David Foster Wallace's 2011 novel The Pale King alludes to the poem in its title.
Cassandra Clare's 2016 collection of novellas Tales From the Shadowhunter Academy includes a novella titled Pale Kings and Princes, named after the line "I saw pale kings and princes too/Pale warriors, death-pale were they all". Three of the poem's stanzas are also excerpted in the story.
- "The power of myth - Joseph Campbell, Bill D. Moyers, Betty S. Flowers - Google Books". Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-05-11.
- Dana M. Symons (2004), "La Belle Dame sans Mercy – Introduction", Chaucerian Dream Visions and Complaints, Medieval Institute Publications
- "The Quietus". www.facebook.com. Retrieved 2017-03-21.
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