Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Quote of the Day: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

 

She’s the ultimate femme fatale. And it’s one of the oldest stories in the world. The Beautiful Lady Without Pity. The subject of my second-favorite poem by John Keats, which was written 200 years ago, when Keats was just 23.

It’s his reworking of a 15th-century French poem of 800 lines, telling a complex story of love and loss. Keats throws out all the extraneous characters and globetrotting excesses of the original, boiling it down to a 48-line tale of one bewitched Knight, one beautiful Lady (without pity) and one withery, sedgy marsh where our bewildered hero is dumped by the Lady, after a night (one hopes) of ecstasy in her “Elfin grot.”

There’s also a neutral observer who kicks things off in the first three stanzas by asking the poor guy why he’s wandering around, alone and in such a funk, wearing a (probably metaphorical) bunch of flowers on his head. The rest of the poem is taken up by the Knight’s response. (The lily and the rose, by the way, represent the two complementary aspects of femininity–the lily representing the pure and virginal aspects of the Lady, and the red rose representing the earthy, passionate aspects of her character. They’re also used here as metaphors for the Knight’s pale, sweaty forehead, and the fast-fading flush of passion in his cheeks.)

It’s a poem about becoming caught up in obsessions of one kind or another, and a warning of the unpleasant end that will come from giving in to them and only realizing it much too late–in our Knight’s case, Winter is on its way (“the squirrel’s granary is full”), and, inside and outside, he’s lost and alone in the dreary and cold weeds. Oh, dear. It’s probably not going to end well for him. Just as it didn’t end well for all the other “pale kings and princes” who’d been enthralled by the Lady. “Tale as old as time.” As they say.

As with all of Keats’ poetry, so much of which focused on love and death, La Belle Dame Sans Merci quickly became a favorite subject of the Pre-Raphaelites. The paintings, although very beautiful, are much of a sameness (or so it seems to me), and anyway, I’m kind of partial to the 1920 Punch cartoon at the start of this post. (Click to embiggen the image if you can’t see the detail; the Lady is applying her war paint while admiring her reflection in the Knight’s shiny plackart. I love the bemused expression on Sir’s face, as well as his Don Quixote-like aspect, broken-down steed and all.)

As for the poem itself, it’s pure Keats. And so, it’s just lovely.

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.

John Keats died 198 years ago, in Rome, at the age of 25, on February 23, 1821. His legacy is some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She: “Tale as old as time.” As they say.

    Indeed.

    The Temptation of Sir Percival, Arthur Hacker, 1894

    In one of the several Arthurian versions*, the woman is actually the Devil. (Ain’t they all, though?) Percival is questing for the Grail, and “she” is attempting to divert him by getting him drunk. He notices that his sword hilt is in the shape of a cross. He reflexively crosses himself, causing the Devil to abandon the effort and vanish with a shriek.


    * “But if there are multiple versions, how do you know which is right?”
    “They all are. Now hush.”

    • #1
    • February 23, 2019, at 8:02 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  2. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    She: “Tale as old as time.” As they say.

    Indeed.

    The Temptation of Sir Percival, Arthur Hacker, 1894

    In one of the several Arthurian versions*, the woman is actually the Devil. (Ain’t they all, though?) Percival is questing for the Grail, and “she” is attempting to divert him by getting him drunk. He notices that his sword hilt is in the shape of a cross. He reflexively crosses himself, causing the Devil to abandon the effort and vanish with a shriek.


    * “But if there are multiple versions, how do you know which is right?”
    They all are. Now hush.”

    Yes they all are. Just as with all great literature and all great Western (and some other) traditions, there is much truth in them.

    • #2
    • February 23, 2019, at 8:08 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  3. Rodin Member

    She:

    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.

    Now there’s a metaphor!

    • #3
    • February 23, 2019, at 8:30 AM PST
    • 1 like
  4. Vectorman Thatcher

    For a Humanities requirement, I took two semesters of “Art History” in college, but I don’t remember the term “Pre-Raphaelite.” Maybe the teacher didn’t like these painters, as the two courses went from pre-renaissance to early 20th century modern.


    The Quote of the Day series is the easiest way to start a fun conversation on Ricochet. We have many open dates on the March Schedule. We’ve even include tips for finding great quotes, so choose your favorite quote and sign up today!

    • #4
    • February 23, 2019, at 8:48 AM PST
    • 1 like
  5. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    For a Humanities requirement, I took two semesters of “Art History” in college, but I don’t remember the term “Pre-Raphaelite.” Maybe the teacher didn’t like these painters, as the two courses went from pre-renaissance to early 20th century modern.

    They were an odd bunch. My home town of Birmingham, boasts, in its museum, the “most important collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world.” And it is truly impressive, as are the Burne-Jones windows at the otherwise rather unmemorable Birmingham Cathedral. Here’s a full-length shot of one of them.

    • #5
    • February 23, 2019, at 9:49 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  6. Vectorman Thatcher

    She (View Comment):
    My home town of Birmingham, boasts, in its museum, the “most important collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world.”

    Isn’t calling Birmingham your home town an oxymoron? (J/K)

    Something to ponder: When a major town has a significant growth spurt, its arts growth tends to focus on a narrow window. For the Chicago Art Museum, it was the (mostly French) Impressionists. 

    • #6
    • February 23, 2019, at 10:10 AM PST
    • Like
  7. Arahant Member

    And then there is the opposite tale:

    • #7
    • February 23, 2019, at 10:28 AM PST
    • 1 like
  8. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Keats was one of the best. He had a wonderful economy of language, conveying much in short spaces. Much better than most of contemporaries. It was a tragedy he died so young.

    • #8
    • February 23, 2019, at 10:40 AM PST
    • 1 like
  9. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    And then there is the opposite tale:

    Indeed there is. And that’s true too. As are stories after the Beauty and the Beast myth. And others.

    What a terrible disservice “we” do to our youth when we do not expose them to all our traditions and the archetypes that go with them.

    Because, as @percival says above, “they’re all right.”

    • #9
    • February 23, 2019, at 10:41 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  10. Andrew Klavan Contributor

    Wonderful poem, one of many favorites. Keats is the greatest – literally. In the olden days, I used to be very fond of dames who took me to their elfin grots… 

    • #10
    • March 1, 2019, at 6:42 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  11. Old Bathos Moderator

    I always took the poem to mean that naive dorks should not try to run with bad girls. I mean, alone in the meads making flower headgear for the first guy who gets off his horse. Hel-lo! How did you think this would end, big fellah?

     

     

    • #11
    • March 1, 2019, at 7:02 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  12. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I always took the poem to mean that naive dorks should not try to run with bad girls. I mean, alone in the meads making flower headgear for the first guy who gets off his horse. Hel-lo! How did you think this would end, big fellah?

    I expect, like most men (YMMV, of course), he imagined himself to be well in control of the situation. Until, one day, he wasn’t.

    • #12
    • March 1, 2019, at 7:08 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  13. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    I always took the poem to mean that naive dorks should not try to run with bad girls. I mean, alone in the meads making flower headgear for the first guy who gets off his horse. Hel-lo! How did you think this would end, big fellah?

    I expect, like most men (YMMV, of course), he imagined himself to be well in control of the situation. Until, one day, he wasn’t.

    Which is pretty well how most flings go.

    • #13
    • March 1, 2019, at 7:22 AM PST
    • 1 like
  14. Eugene Kriegsmann Member

    About 25 years ago, I was assigned to a teaching position in Juvenile Hall in Seattle. My students were convicted offenders running from age 14 to 18 years old. On one particular day I was going to have my evaluation by the program director. He and I had not gotten off to a good start. When I took the assignment he tried to block me from getting it because he wanted a black teacher in that position. I was the senior special education teacher without a current assignment, so he wasn’t allowed to block me. It wasn’t a great way to start a new assignment.

    Anyway, I walked in that day without a lesson plan. It was very hard to plan since my population changed daily based on kids entering and leaving the facility. When I saw the kids who the correction officers brought to the classroom that morning I rapidly developed a plan. These were mostly older kids, all young men.

    I had memorize La Belle Dame San Merci many years before. I loved that poem, and up until that moment had pretty much taken it for granted as exactly what it said, love found and lost. In first telling the students what I had in mind, and then reciting it to them followed by a discussion, I suddenly realized that the poem wasn’t so much about what I had originally believed, but was, in fact, a description of life. Life in its spring is like a lovely maiden who fills our hearts with joy as the elfin maiden does to the knight. It brings us sweet treats, and love and lulls us into a sense of immortality. However, when the fall arrives it takes those things away and leaves us as on a barren hillside wondering where it all went.

    That, in brief, is what evolved in our discussion. The kids being, as kids are, incurable romantics. loved the poem. My supervisor told me afterwards that it was the finest teaching he had ever witnessed. He said he felt as though it was in a college classroom. Coming from him, I took that as the greatest compliment I had ever received in my career. I will admit it was an inspired moment. Like the kids I taught, I was, and probably still am, an incurable romantic. The image of knighthood and the fairy queen and love of that intensity is a combination that is hard to not long for. At 74 that has not changed, even though I look out and see only the barren wastes of winter.

    • #14
    • March 1, 2019, at 8:08 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  15. Rodin Member

    She (View Comment):
    [H]e imagined himself to be well in control of the situation. Until, one day, he wasn’t.

    Eugene Kriegsmann (View Comment):
    I suddenly realized that the poem wasn’t so much about what I had originally believed, but was, in fact, a description of life. Life in its spring is like a lovely maiden who fills our hearts with joy as the elfin maiden does to the knight. It brings us sweet treats, and love and lulls us into a sense of immortality. However, when the fall arrives it takes those things away and leaves us as on a barren hillside wondering where it all went.

    Self control (autonomy) is the essence of life, liberty, (property), and the pursuit of happiness.

     

    • #15
    • March 1, 2019, at 8:22 AM PST
    • 1 like
  16. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Eugene Kriegsmann (View Comment):

    About 25 years ago, I was assigned to a teaching position in Juvenile Hall in Seattle. My students were convicted offenders running from age 14 to 18 years old. On one particular day I was going to have my evaluation by the program director. He and I had not gotten off to a good start. When I took the assignment he tried to block me from getting it because he wanted a black teacher in that position. I was the senior special education teacher without a current assignment, so he wasn’t allowed to block me. It wasn’t a great way to start a new assignment.

    Anyway, I walked in that day without a lesson plan. It was very hard to plan since my population changed daily based on kids entering and leaving the facility. When I saw the kids who the correction officers brought to the classroom that morning I rapidly developed a plan. These were mostly older kids, all young men.

    I had memorize La Belle Dame San Merci many years before. I loved that poem, and up until that moment had pretty much taken it for granted as exactly what it said, love found and lost. In first telling the students what I had in mind, and then reciting it to them followed by a discussion, I suddenly realized that the poem wasn’t so much about what I had originally believed, but was, in fact, a description of life. Life in its spring is like a lovely maiden who fills our hearts with joy as the elfin maiden does to the knight. It brings us sweet treats, and love and lulls us into a sense of immortality. However, when the fall arrives it takes those things away and leaves us as on a barren hillside wondering where it all went.

    That, in brief, is what evolved in our discussion. The kids being, as kids are, incurable romantics. loved the poem. My supervisor told me afterwards that it was the finest teaching he had ever witnessed. He said he felt as though it was in a college classroom. Coming from him, I took that as the greatest compliment I had ever received in my career. I will admit it was an inspired moment. Like the kids I taught, I was, and probably still am, an incurable romantic. The image of knighthood and the fairy queen and love of that intensity is a combination that is hard to not long for. At 74 that has not changed, even though I look out and see only the barren wastes of winter.

    Absolutely wonderful. Thanks for this comment. And what a lovely reminder that the poetry of dead white men can speak across the years to a generation and a group that one might not think is its natural constituency.

    “We” do upcoming generations such a disservice by pandering and talking down to them, by not challenging them, by pretending that their members are so narrow-minded and/or stupid, and/or aggrieved that they cannot be reached by anyone other than an equally narrow minded, or stupid, or aggrieved voice (as with most of these sorts of things, projection is in the mind of the projector). Thanks for fighting the good fight with these kids, and I’m sure, many others over the years.

    I’ll say it again: The best thing about the great literature of the West (and some other traditions, too) is that it’s true, and that it speaks to us at a deeply human level.

    And thanks again, for this comment.

    • #16
    • March 1, 2019, at 8:23 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  17. Manny Member

    I agree this is a great poem, and Keats is my favorite of the Romantics. I would say there are couple of his odes I would pick above this, but that’s because they are all among the best lyric poems in English. I had not realized (or do not remember) this was based on a French poem. What is that French poem called and is there an English translation?

    • #17
    • March 1, 2019, at 8:44 AM PST
    • 1 like
  18. Arahant Member

    Manny (View Comment):
    What is that French poem called

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Belle_Dame_sans_Mercy

    Manny (View Comment):
    and is there an English translation?

    Not sure, maybe several. Would have to look around.

    • #18
    • March 1, 2019, at 8:51 AM PST
    • 1 like
  19. Arahant Member

    Here is Sir Richard Ros’ translation.

    • #19
    • March 1, 2019, at 8:54 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  20. Manny Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Manny (View Comment):
    What is that French poem called

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Belle_Dame_sans_Mercy

    Manny (View Comment):
    and is there an English translation?

    Not sure, maybe several. Would have to look around.

    Thanks. I found one on the internet:

    http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/litsubs/love_vision/labell.html

     

    • #20
    • March 1, 2019, at 8:59 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  21. Manny Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Here is Sir Richard Ros’ translation.

    I had found the same before I saw your comment. Thanks.

    • #21
    • March 1, 2019, at 9:00 AM PST
    • 1 like
  22. Joshua Bissey Coolidge

    She: her Elfin grot

    Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

     

    • #22
    • March 1, 2019, at 11:05 AM PST
    • 2 likes

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