It isn’t all roses & chocolates: the love of ‘La Belle Dame…’

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)

John William Waterhouse – La Belle Dame sans Merci 1893

I have written a number of posts highlighting some of the world’s most beautiful love poetry.  Many are under the banner of ‘Love Songs you wish you had written…’, a meme I took from the wonderful Dad Poet, David J Beauman. Some of the poems I have chosen in the past are full of longing, or are wistful. Some are simply dedicated to a chosen one, or highlight the very simplicity and ordinariness of life in a comfortable, loving relationship. I am in one such, so it has been, I suppose, more natural to choose poems that praise something most of us search for, more or less successfully, throughout our lives. A few have been more cynical, or tempered with the sense of an ending, but I don’t think any have focused on the unhappy or even destructive consequences of a disastrous affair and I thought it might be time to redress the balance a little. After all, St Valentine’s Day is not for everyone. The poem I have chosen today might convert many to the joys of singledom, for example……

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats  (published version, 1820)

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
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 cheek 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,
And her eyes were wild.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery’s song.

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.

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 gaz’d and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes–
So kiss’d to sleep.

And there we slumber’d on the moss,
And there I dream’d, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry’d–“La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starv’d lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

This is one of John Keats’s most famous poems, subject to a myriad interpretations, linked to his love for Fanny Brawne, his fears about the destructive nature of passion (particularly on his poetic ambitions) and his incipient decline into the latter stages of the tuberculosis that was to kill him in 1821. It can be read as full of ‘double entendres’ – sitting a woman on his ‘pacing steed’, garlanding a ‘fragrant zone’ and enjoying much sighing and moaning, suggestive of a night of passion. Or you can read it as a gothic tale of a cruel “beautiful lady without mercy” as the French translation of the title suggests. In any event, it is, in my opinion, a brilliant, tightly structured ballad that creates intense atmosphere and offers a clear warning to those beguiled by passion and romance –  if only our nameless knight had seen the kings and princes already abandoned by their cruel lover- ‘I saw their starved lips in the gloam,/With horrid warning gapèd wide,’.

I have written about how Keats has influenced artists through the ages – from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , through to graphic novelists, comic-book  writers and contemporary film-makers, but to day it may be seen as one for those who are rather sick of the hearts, flowers and sickly sentimental commercialism that often seems to accompany St Valentine’s Day. Have a good day anyway……

 

 

 

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This entry was posted in Art, Books, Keats, Literature, love the universe and everything, Poetry, Reading, Romanticism, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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