“La Belle Dame Sans Merci Thee Hath in Thrall” - Henry Meynell Rheam’s Painting
One of the lesser known illustrations of John Keats’ poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a 1901 painting by the British artist Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920):
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’
- John Keats, Stanza 10 of La Belle Dame sans Merci
Aside from the fact that Rheam is still a virtually unknown artist, this picture has always been overshadowed by Sir Frank Dicksee’s more ornate rendering, painted at about the same time.
Obviously, Rheam’s painting is more supernatural (mostly because it represents a different part of the poem); but at the same time it is also more realistic. Unlike Dicksee, who painted a gorgeous landscape which just happens to have a horse with the lady and the knight in the middle of it, Rheam creates the desolate setting of the poem:
….the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The knight has fallen into his enchanted slumber, brought about by the elfin femme fatale he has followed. Rheam truly shows inside the dream and shows the landscape as well as the knight’s amorous tryst stripped down to reality. He is still wearing his armor, but his sword is laid aside. Across the knight and going up the left-hand side of the painting are mysterious wisps of smoke or mist that look almost like horizontal prison bars or ropes. The mist covers only the knight and the four ghosts he is seeing. There is no mist or imprisonment on the sky (most likely representing Heaven) or on the Belle Dame sans Merci herself. The lady has her left hand raised, as if she is conjuring the mist, and on her face is a look of indifference and disdain. She is still beautiful – that seems to be the one reality of this piece: She is beautiful. That does not change when the knight falls asleep. But he realizes she is without love and without mercy (sans merci).
The mist does not touch the boulder by which the lady is standing or the pathway which seems to be the only plausible way to exit the “elfin grot”. No one, however, seems interested in even looking this way – except for the lady, whose body is turned slightly as if she is preparing to go and hunt for more victims. The others seem content to voluntarily remain in their purgatory.
It is interesting that, although Rheam portrays Keats’ poem supernaturally, he creates the lady so humanly. If she was indeed a sorceress, she would probably have used her right hand to conjure her spells. By raising her left hand instead, Rheam leaves open the possibility that she was in fact a flesh and blood woman, without any supernatural powers, but one who ruined the lives of countless men through her indifference.
Although Keats’ poem has the ghosts speaking to the knight, in the picture they are all looking at the lady – all that is except for the ghost of a knight laying on the ground in much the same position as the knight who is telling the story. It is not an exact mirror image, but it seems possible Rheam is depicting a vision of the knight seeing himself - as well as his fellow victims – trapped in limbo for all eternity.
Including both of Keats' versions of "La Belle Dame sans Merci" on pages 351-353