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"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" – a fatal attraction to a beautiful lady without pity

Updated on March 26, 2011
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John William Waterhouse, 1893
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John William Waterhouse, 1893

John Keats and the ambivalence of life

The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing. - from “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, by John Keats

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.

Portrain of Keats in 1819, around the time this poem was written. Image from English History Net
Portrain of Keats in 1819, around the time this poem was written. Image from English History Net

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.”

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The painting by Sir Arthur HughesThe painting by Sir Frank DickseeThe painting by Walter CraneThe painting by Frank Cadogan CowperThe painting by Henry Maynell Rheam The painting by John William Waterhouse (1893)
The painting by Sir Arthur Hughes
The painting by Sir Arthur Hughes
The painting by Sir Frank Dicksee
The painting by Sir Frank Dicksee
The painting by Walter Crane
The painting by Walter Crane
The painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper
The painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper
The painting by Henry Maynell Rheam
The painting by Henry Maynell Rheam
The painting by John William Waterhouse (1893)
The painting by John William Waterhouse (1893)

The Pre-Raphaelites and the Belle Dame

Certainly 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.

Photo Tony McGregor
Photo Tony McGregor

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.

Copyright Notice

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

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    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 7 years ago from Great Britain

      Loved the poem at school but had completely forgotten about it .

      This was an excellent hub to read. Thank you.x

    • tantrum profile image

      tantrum 7 years ago from Tropic of Capricorn

      I love Pre-raphaelites ! It's one of my fav kind of paintings, along with Surrealism. Great hub ! Cheers !

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Dim, Tantrum - thanks for the visit and the comments. I appreciate it very much that you took the time!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • profile image

      A.M. Gwynn 7 years ago

      Tony.. excellent article!

      I love your style here in going over Keats' tapestry.

      It is a beauty isn't it.

      You quoted White: "I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good."

      HA! Indeed.

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      Great statement here Tony. Thank you sir.

    • tonymac04 profile image
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      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      AM - thanks for visiting and reading. I appreciate it.

      Mickey - thanks to you too.

      I appreciate all the comments and the fact that you took the time to read. Wonderful.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 7 years ago from UK

      Pleasantly thoughtful Thank you :-)

    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Excellent Tony

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      De Greek, Ethel - thanks very much. I appreciate your comments.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 7 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      I have no idea how I missed Keats' works in my studies, but I will be sure to attend to them after reading the stark poem at the beginning of your Hub.

      Thanks so much, Tony-and by the way, your photo is incredibly sensual!

      Laurel

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks Laurel, I appreciate your comments. Did you notice the snake on the rocks in my photo, by the way? The photo was taken in the early 1970s, LOL!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Moulik Mistry profile image

      Moulik Mistry 7 years ago from Burdwan, West Bengal, India

      Wonderful hub from you, loved your great words, very well done...

    • vox vocis profile image

      Jasmine 7 years ago

      Great paintings in this hub!

    • DREAM ON profile image

      DREAM ON 7 years ago

      I am learning more about people I never heard of before.

    • myownworld profile image

      myownworld 7 years ago from uk

      I loved this hub, more so because I've done my Masters in Literature and Keats and his poetry was one of my favorite parts. ('When I have Fears' and 'ode to Grecian Urn' are so beautiful too). Anyway, thank you for sharing it....that bit at the end (relevance to modern times) was great too! :)

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      sophs 7 years ago

      Love this hub and Keats and his poetry. Great writing Tony :)

    • tonymac04 profile image
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      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you Moulik, Vox, DO, MOW and Sophs. I appreciate your coming by and commenting.

      The poem is a powerful one and the paintings are also.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • kirstein.peter53 profile image

      kirstein.peter53 7 years ago from Maseru

      A wonderfully evocative hub, thank you Tony!

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you Pete for reading and commenting. Much appreciated!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Rose West profile image

      Rose West 7 years ago from Michigan

      I enjoyed reading this - I love John Keats, and John Willam Waterhouse is one of my favorite painters!

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Rose - thanks for the visit and the comment. I appreciate it.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • obsexed profile image

      obsexed 7 years ago from Sensual, USA

      I really enjoyed how you wove the poem, the paintings and the apathy some have for our planet into a whole. I agree we must curb our obsessions or we may well wake to a barren lake where birds do not sing...a bleakness I would not like to live with.

    • rebekahELLE profile image

      rebekahELLE 7 years ago from Tampa Bay

      well tony, I found your hub while browsing through the poetry hubs, and what a gem I found! the photo by JWW caught my attention first and then Keats famous poem. how beautifully, you have taken this verse and written it so easily to understand. sometimes I think poetry is better understood when written out in long hand on paper. Keats is complex, he was so wrapped up in his characters, possibly too wrapped up in his poetic world. I want to do some hubs on pre-raphaelites as I think they were some of the most talented, passionate artists in history and are often overlooked. so happy to have found this wonderful hub tonight. thank you.

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Keats is one of my favorite poets, and my fave of the English romantics. He was obsessed with the emasculating power of beautiful women. What a short tragic life he had! Imagine what he could have created had he lived longer!

      Great discussion, Tony!

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Obsexed - the bleakness is scary and I wouldn't like to live with it either.

      Rebekah - Keats and the Pre-Raphaelites were both pasionate and obsessed, and both produced wonderful works of art that enrich our lives constantly.

      Habee - the emasculating power of beautiful women indeed! Ah, but how I love them anyway! Live dangerously is my motto! LOL.

      Thank you good people for your much-appreciated visits and comments.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • gramarye profile image

      gramarye 7 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      Great hub - brings back old memories

    • tonymac04 profile image
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      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Gramarye - thanks for stopping by and commenting - and I hope the memories are good ones!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • ALL4JESUS profile image

      ALL4JESUS 7 years ago from USA

      Wise words worth remembering! And the art work was wonderful too! Excellent!

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Thanks, All, appreciate your coming by and commenting.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • pammjschaar profile image

      Pamela Michele 7 years ago from Mississippi Gulf Coast

      WOW..Great Hub! It is funny how life works sometimes. I find myself, at this time in my life and in our world, thinking exactly about what you stated in your last paragraph...Thank you for reminding us all. It needs to be said!

    • tonymac04 profile image
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      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you very much indeed Pam. I deeply appreciate your visit and comment.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Mystique1957 profile image

      Mystique1957 7 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

      Tony...

      Excellent hub! Not only the paintings are quite beautiful but the story imbricates with the paintings themselves. I enjoyed it very much so. Thanks for sharing!

      Thumbs up!

      Warmest regards and infinite blessings,

      Al

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Al - thanks for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate very much that you did so and especially for the insight yo have shown.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • deepanjana profile image

      deepanjana 7 years ago

      This Hub reminded me of my University days .. was an English literature student. Thanks for sharing your hub

    • tonymac04 profile image
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      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Deepanjana - I am heartened by your words, thanks. Hope the reminder was a good one!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • a.l. laurice profile image

      a.l. laurice 7 years ago from United States

      Incredible hub. I think the last four lines of La Belle Dame Sans Merci make one of the most haunting endings in poetry.

      I like what you wrote about the power of the "rich world of imagination" in the poem--I remember the first time I read it the description of the death-pale warriors gave me the chills.

      I never knew that the poem had been the subject of paintings. Thanks for including those in the hub. I think the first one is especially gorgeous.

    • tonymac04 profile image
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      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      a.1. - thanks for the kind words and the insightful comment. Glad yo enjoyed the paintings. The Waterhouse is amazing, isn't it?

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Neelima Nair profile image

      Neelima Nair 7 years ago from Kerala

      i enjoyed tis hub:) & i love the poem! lovely paintings

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Neelima - thanks so much. I appreciate your visit.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Steele Fields profile image

      susan beck 6 years ago from drexel hill,pa

      I teach this poem to freshman each year and your interpretation is spot on with my own. The Waterhouse is my favorite painting on the subject. Thanks for a well-written and knowledgable hub.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 6 years ago

      ...frankly I'm obsessed with the beauty of your hubs - and there certainly ain't no pity in that - just elation!

    • Loves To Read profile image

      Loves To Read 6 years ago

      tonymac04 i really enjoyed this hub. Although i have never really been into the poetry of old, it is very deep in substance. I love the pics. There is something eerily haunting about them. Great work.

      Peace and Blessings

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Steele - thanks so much for your kind words. From an English lit teacher theymean a lot to me!

      Epigramman - your words lifted my spirit, thank you!

      LTR - glad you found this Hub interesting and I hope you find more to enjoy in the "poetry of old"!

      Thanks again for the visits and the comments.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • sameerk profile image

      sameerk 6 years ago from India

      awesome hub , i loved it

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Sameerk - thank you. I appreciate your comment.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • mulberry1 profile image

      mulberry1 6 years ago

      Beautiful art, both poetry and paintings. And, yes, I think we need to see the earth as our place to treasure and accept, not conquer.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Christine - thanks for the comment and apologies for taking so long to respond!

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      The beautiful paintings certainly match the words of the poem and your interpretation was a delight to read. You wrapped it up nicely at the end with respect to how we should be treating our planet and every living thing on it.

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Peggy - thanks for your kind words. I really appreciate that you took the time and especially that you enjoyed the read.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 6 years ago

      “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.” I love that quote brotherman. God bless you Tony!

    • tonymac04 profile image
      Author

      Tony McGregor 6 years ago from South Africa

      Micky - it is indeed a brilliant quote. Glad you liked this one.

      Love and peace

      Tony

    • profile image

      Gretchen 5 years ago

      Well done, Tony. The people that touch our lives and our hearts are part of us, good and bad. Maybe jewelry for ashes http://www.jewelrykeepsakes.com/Jewelry-For-Ashes-... would be a better way to keep them close then fatal attraction???

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