La Belle Dame sans Merci
"La Belle Dame sans Merci" ("The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy") is a ballad produced by the English poet John Keats in 1819. The title was derived from the title of a 15th-century poem by Alain Chartier called La Belle Dame sans Mercy.
Considered an English classic, the poem is an example of Keats' poetic preoccupation with love and death. The poem is about a fairy who condemns a knight to an unpleasant fate after she seduces him with her eyes and singing. The fairy inspired several artists to paint images that became early examples of 19th-century femme fatale iconography. The poem continues to be referenced in many works of literature, music, art, and film.
The poem is simple in structure with twelve stanzas of four lines each in an ABCB rhyme scheme. It employs a brachycatalectic metric, shortening the end of each verse by two syllables. An excerpt from the revised version follows:
Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.
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.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gaz'd and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes—
So kiss'd to sleep.
And there we slumber'd on the moss
And there I dream'd, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd—"La belle Dame sans mercy
Hath thee in thrall!"
I saw their starv'd lips in the gloom
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.— Stanzas 1, 4, 8-12
In 2019 literary scholars Richard Marggraf Turley and Jennifer Squire proposed that the ballad may have been inspired by the tomb effigy of Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel (d. 1376) in Chichester Cathedral. At the time of Keats' visit in 1819, the effigy stood mutilated and separated from that of Arundel's second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster (d. 1372), in the northern outer aisle. The figures were reunited and restored by Edward Richardson in 1843, and later inspired Philip Larkin's 1956 poem "An Arundel Tomb".
In other media
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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 1 December 1920 edition of Punch magazine.
Around 1910, Charles Villiers Stanford produced a musical setting for the poem. It is a dramatic interpretation requiring a skilled (male) vocalist and equally skilled accompanist. In the 21st century it remains popular and is included on many anthologies of English song or British Art Music recorded by famous artists.
The 2009 stop-action animated fantasy film Coraline directed by Henry Selick refers to the malevolent Other Mother as "beldam". The film includes a similar theme of entrapment by a seemingly beautiful loving woman.
The poem is mentioned in the story entitled "The case of Three Gables" from the 1893 book The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it Holmes compares and matches the character sketch of Isadora Klein with La Belle Dame sans Merci.
In Agatha Christie's 1936 mystery novel Murder in Mesopotamia, the plot is centered upon an unusual woman named Louise Leidner who is described multiple times as "a kind of Belle Dame sin Merci". One character describes her as possessing a "calamitous magic that plays the devil with things".
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 book Silent Spring (1962), 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.
In Chapter 32 of Kristine Smith's novel Law Of Survival (2001) the protagonist, Jani, reveals her true hybrid eyes to the general public for the first time, then she asks another character, Niall, what she looks like. Niall smiles and quotes a snippet of La Belle Dame sans Merci and gives Keats credit for his words.
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 fairy's lair.
L. A. Meyer's Bloody Jack series (2002-2014) features a take on La Belle Dame sans Merci, adapted to reflect the protagonists age. Mary "Jacky" Faber became known as "La belle jeune fille sans merci".
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.
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (November 2018)
In the popular trading card game, Magic the Gathering, the card 'Merieke Ri Berit' is modeled after this poem.
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But Mrs. Leidner was something out of the ordinary in that line. She'd got just that sort of calamitous magic that plays the deuce with things - a kind of Belle Dame sans Merci.
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