Sunday, 8 April 2012

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy)

LBDSM was written by Keats in 1819, and published in 1820. He wrote one version but an altered version was published. Critics agree the original was the best. Anyway it was largely dismissed by Keats, possibly because it was too melodramatic and romantic (like Isabella and the Pot of Basil, his earliest narrative poem.) Like The Eve of St Agnes it is set in the mediaeval era, a time of nostalgia worshipped by the Regency and Victorians, the way some of us worship the Regency era as a time of opulence and splendour and romance. This is a key aspect of Romantic poetry, and you can find elements of the past (some of them Greek) in the more imaginative poets.
by Sir Frank Dicksee
by Frank Cadogan Cowper
by Waterhouse
Arthur Hughes
by WJ Neatby
by Henry Meynell Rheam

O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms! 5
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, 10
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, 15
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan. 20

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, 25
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 sigh’d fill sore, 30
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d 35
On the cold hill’s 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!” 40

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, 45
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Though this is not a great production, nothing like Lamia or the Odes, the fantasy air disguises a deeper realistic meaning. Keats wrote this poem when he was about 24, at a time when he was in love with Fanny Brawne I think, and this poem reflects a young man's experience of love for a woman. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is depicted as a tempting seductress of knightly men.  But it is ambiguous: it is she who deceives him, or does he delude himself? How does she deceive him? She has him in thrall, in love with her, but what is so dangerous about that? What truly cruel or wicked thing did she do to him? She hasn't killed him or stolen his money. No, the meaning lies deeper than that. Keats is lamenting a young man's unhappy love.  This theme is universal: a young man tempted by a beautiful woman who tells him she loves him truly, until he believes it (though she may not love him as much, and may only be flattered by his attention). He is drawn into a web of passion and deceit till he can't get out of it, though her heart may not be in it. And I doubt the fairy woman's heart was in it, if she lured so many men. The fairy's song she sings is a mere metaphor for the words a man finds sweet in a beautiful woman, like a siren that sings horribly but men are attracted to it. It is fairy-like, and therefore alien, because he doesn't understand it, and Keats doesn't understand the subtleties of feminine wiles. He felt that Fanny was a flirt and yet she intrigued him so. He couldn't understand it fully himself. Indeed Keats wrote to his friends he sees women either as angels or horrible people. For bluestockings he had no sympathy (awww, I feel sad at this). LBDSM is Keats' attempt to characterise a woman who tempts him, a woman with no mercy for his feelings of great passion and hopes for innocence and fidelity. The fairylike woman could be seen as nearly childlike, making you think of innocence, but she is not, she has deceived other knights apparently.

What could the garland be? I have really no idea, but giving flowers to your beloved then was a romantic thing. In Ruth by Mrs Gaskell, the seducer Bellingham weaves garlands for Ruth's head. I read somewhere that apparently roses are a symbol for female genitalia(!!!) and that flowers are sexual symbols.

Talking about the mediaeval chivalric idea of love, knights were supposed to be loyal, faithful worshippers of unattainable women who were married or above him. The fairy could then be above the knight, being mystical and singing sweetly, and being immortal. But the other men she has deceived had, like him cherished a Romantic ideal of a sweet, immortal woman who loved them and were disillusioned. They are pale, their ideal being dead. Keats did not take the poem very seriously, so it might have been the result of youthful anguish over a girl, but it is possible he saw it satirically, and made it a parody of the wretched romantic individual (think Sorrows of Young Werther.) After all Sorrows of Young Werther had been published decades ago and it is likely Keats would have heard of the contemporary culture surrounding it, including young men committing suicide after reading the book, after being rejected. This also symbolises the death of the chivalric ideal of love, lamented centuries after the mediaeval era. But I sense Keats' biting satire at fools who believe they are sincerely beloved. LBDSM could be a flirtatious girl who breaks men's hearts.
The fairy is wild, with long flowing hair - not the image of a traditionally good woman. The fact he wove flowers round her, and if flowers are really symbols of female genitals, or at least, erotic, it is very significant of what they might have done. She feeds him and takes him to her cave and lulls him to sleep. Feeding is rather like tempting someone, or satisfying his appetite for love, and her elfin grot symbolises a strange world far away - the world of emotions. Lulling him to sleep is akin to giving him dreams, he is not awake or conscious. Her love for him is nothing more than a dream. Interesting he talks about her wild wild eyes though I think it was for rhyme and rhythm. Someone has argued wild has a more sexual meaning. Well, it does make you think of animals. And the sleeping and the kissing and the cavern ... I'm no Freudian, but supposing Keats had thought of a uterus symbol as a cavern? An unexplored dark region of excitement? The 19th century was full of censorship and it is possible they had to resort to symbols to depict all the bawdy stuff. 

I don't know anything about the Bible, but it's possible there was a Biblical reference here. Roots and honey and manna are familiar (I got my vague Biblical symbols from Victorian novels in case you're wondering). I think some people were hungry and desired food, and they got what they wanted in the form of manna and honey. I don't know about roots, but Keats may have put that in out of lack of things to say. Not every line is significant in poems - they have to rhyme and fill it scenes you know. But even though she fed the knight the earlier victims were starved. The food then was unsubstantial and unreal.
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Who is that ghostly dog in the background? Why is he there? A dog is a domestic thing and real, so it doesn't make sense. But could be be a monster? It is interesting the knight puts his arm round the fairy as if he is protecting her, though she is in charge. It bears a resemblance to real life when men think they are holding the reins and end up being betrayed by an unloving treacherous woman.

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