"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" – a fatal attraction to a beautiful lady without pity
John Keats and the ambivalence of life
I first read Keats as a callow boy of 15 and was struck by the lines quoted above. The words just hit me with great power, and they evoked in me a feeling of utter desolation, as I guess they were meant to.
I was at the time just getting into science fiction and developing an understanding of the fragility of life. Since then I have also developed an understanding of the power of life. I once, a few years ago, saw a sunflower growing out of the tarmac on a highway bridge. The contrast between the austere, seemingly lifeless concrete and tar of the bridge and the beauty of the sunflower just amazed me.
Both views of life are valid and meaningful. Like love, life will always find a way. And at the same time life is precious and brittle, always in danger of being snuffed out in a moment. And, of course, we are all subject to entropy, so the sedge will wither from the lake and birds will cease their singing.
Beauty and obsession
So what is Keats's poem all about, though, really? Why has it had such a powerful influence on my imagination ever since I first read it? I think there are two main reasons which I will explore here.
The first reason is the utterly bleak picture it paints of the result of an obsession. The lesson from the poem has to do with that, I think. The palely loitering knight has become obsessed with the “lady in the meads, / Full beautiful”, “And nothing else saw all day long”, although she doesn't speak to him, but he believes she, in “language strange”, said 'I love thee true'.
The “Full beautiful” lady lures the knight to “her elfin grot” and lulls him to sleep there, where he dreams a horrible dream of “Pale warriors, death-pale were they all,” and he sees “their starved lips in the gloam, / With horrid warning gaped wide.” The “horrid warning” was that the beautiful lady would “enthrall” the knight, which means that she would have complete power over him. He would be her slave. The implication is that this state would be eternal.
The knight then woke “On the cold hill's side,” and that was why he was still on the hillside “palely loitering” and all alone. He is loitering unto death on the cold hill's side, driven by his obsession.
The second reason this poem has so powerful a hold on me is the rich world of the imagination so well described by the poet. The poem is written in the form of a literary ballad, which makes it easy to read, with a familiar feel to the rhythm of the words, while they actually describe something quite literally “out of this world!”
Who can resist the image of the woman: “a faery's child, / Her hair was long, her foot was light, / And her eyes were wild.” Certainly many men would find such a woman irresistible, subject of an erotic dream, perhaps.
The whole poem has this dreamy, otherworldly feel to it, what with lilies, and “roots of relish sweet, / And honey wild, and manna-dew.” A woman indeed who can weave a spell with “her wild wild eyes.”
The Pre-Raphaelites and the Belle Dame
the male painters of the Pre-Raphaelite school found “La Belle Dame
Sans Merci” very difficult to resist and many of them painted
beautiful works depicting aspects of the story. The poem was painted
by Pre-Raphaelites Sir Arthur Hughes, Sir Frank Dicksee, Walter Crane, Frank Cadogan Cowper, Henry Maynell Rheam, and John William Waterhouse.
Sir Arthur Hughes, Sir Frank Dicksee and Walter Crane all showed verse VI: “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.” They show the knight's absorption in the woman's beauty. For him there is no reality but her.
Frank Cadogan Cowper and Henry Maynell Rheam illustrated verse IX: “And there she lulled me asleep / And there I dreamed - Ah! woe betide! - / The latest dream I ever dreamt / On the cold hill side.”
For me the most effective Pre-Raphaelite version of this story is the one by John William Waterhouse, painted in 1893. The woman is shown as having a fragile beauty, delicate and vulnerable, yet she clearly has power over the knight, holding him down with her hair around his neck. He is in full armour with weapons, and yet is powerless against her attraction. She has him in thrall, indeed.
Are we too ingenious for our own good?
The power of the words that I quoted at the start of this Hub also inspired, though not directly, the title of one of the most influential books of the 20th Century, Rachel Carson's seminal Silent Spring . She used the two lines as an epigraph to the book, augmented by a paragraph from E.B. White (the author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little ):
“I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially.”
Perhaps we should heed the warning of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, take White's advice to view our planet with appreciation and and let go of our obsession with “progress” and “winning”, seeing nothing but our own gain. Otherwise we might wake up “on the cold hill's side” on the barren banks of a lake where no birds sing.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010