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La Belle Dame Sans Merci
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La Belle Dame sans Merci was written by the English Romantic poet John Keats in 1920. It describes the meeting between an unnamed knight and a mysterious woman who, after deceiving the knight, leaves him alone and desperate. The poem was inspired by an old legend and its title taken from a poem by a medieval French poet, Alain Chartier.
It opens with the poet who asks the knight what afflicts him and describes the knight who is "haggard" (l. 6) and "woe-begone" (l. 6) in a barren landscape, “the squirrel‘s granary is full, and the harvest’ s done” (ll. 7-8) so it’s the beginning of autumn. The knight tells how he met a beautiful lady who seemed "a fairy’s child" (l. 14) and whose "eyes were wild" (l. 16). The setting and the season change, in fact the knight tells of grassy fields with flowers: so it’s spring, the season of love and happiness. He sets her on his horse while she sings a fairy song, then she tells that she loves him in a strange language and takes him to her "elfin grot" (l. 29), where she "wept, and sigh'd full sore" (l. 30), as if “tormented by a wounded consciousness, a mysterious inner hell” i. Falling asleep, the knight has a vision of "pale kings and princes" (l. 37), who cry, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci hath thee in thrall!" (ll. 39-40). He awakes to find himself on the same "cold hill's side" (l. 44) after which he continues to wait, "palely loitering" (l. 46). So the poems ends with the same image of the first stanza a structural choice which gives it a cyclical form and reaffirms the knight’s endless desire for the woman, bound to remain constantly unfulfilled, a lack, in the wasteland of his life.
The poem is written in the form of a ballad: each stanza is made up of four lines, of which only the second and the fourth rhyme. It is structured as a dialogue, marked by alliterations and repetitions which are formal elements typical of ballads. The style is very simple and the language contains some archaic words to increase the sense of magic and mystery which are central themes of folk ballads, but also to create “the perfect harmonious strangeness of a dream”.ii The theme is frequently found in the medieval ballad, in fact it tells of a cruel woman who deceives knights and princes.
The poem is open to different critical interpretations: it may simply revive an old legend or deal with the confusion between illusion and reality. In the same way there are different possible interpretations associated with the Lady; she may symbolise sensual love, which leaves lovers tired and confused; the ideal of one’s life which deceives people and leaves them alone with their unfulfilled desires in the real world; death, which exerts a morbid fascination above all for young people; Fanny Brawne and Keats’s suffering and disappointed love for the girl; and finally beauty which, unlike Ode on a Grecian Urn, where it is ‘a friend to man’ (l. 48), no longer means consolation but death. The lady might also symbolise the fleetingness of poetic inspiration necessary for art, a theme that is also at the heart of the sonnet ‘When I have fears’ (1817); in fact, in the period of the composition of the ballad, Keats had a temporary lack of inspiration. In this case, the ‘song’ (l. 24) would be the artistic product, inspired by the magic power of poetic inspiration.
The Belle Dame is associated also with the evil belonging to the tradition of the "femme fatale", in her namelessness standing for a “type” of woman: she seduces the knight with her beauty, her accomplishments and her sensuality, thus embodying the destructive nature of love, a theme commonly found in the traditional medieval ballad. She is one of the many literary representations of the enigmatic ‘divine sorceress […] whose mystical powers deprive man of his powers’.iii
The femme fatale exists in the history, folklore and myth of nearly every culture in every century. Early examples are Eve, Lilith and Delilah. In ancient Greek literature, the femme fatale has the darkly fascinating shapes of Aphrodite, the Siren, Circe, Pandora and Medea. Besides them, there is the historical figure of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, with her ability to seduce the powerful men of Rome. In the Romantic period the femme fatale is presented also in other works of Keats, among these there is the figure of Lamia. Graham Hough argues that La Belle Dame is “the fatal woman-figure, like Circe or Tannhauser’s Venus, who haunts romantic literature. She is the opposite of the pure and ideal Madeline [the protagonist of Keats’s The Eve of St. Agnes], and yet the same person; one of the many forms the woman image assumes in the unconscious imagination”.iv
These women have some features in common: they are accused of tempting, dominating, manipulating men and bringing misery and ruin, with a frequent tendency to sexual freedom and promiscuity; they are courageous, strong and independent, refusing to be subservient and submitted, and in this sense they appear to threaten patriarchal authority; they are mysterious and sometimes, as with Circe and Medea, they use magic, an attribute that increases the sense of mystery.
Generally speaking, the woman is considered fatale from a male perspective, in fact also in the poem La Belle Dame sans Merci the lady is described from the knight’s point of view so it cannot be defined as an objective portrait. The knight considers the lady cruel and without pity but what she actually does is nothing to be said cruel, moreover she speaks in "language strange" (l. 27) so we cannot be sure she said "I love thee true" (l. 28). It would mean that he translates what she says into what he wants to hear. Beyond this the knight has disregarded an element which should have to be considered: the ‘wild eyes’ (l. 31), in fact this aspect in a fairy’s child is not a positive element so this appears to confirm the hypothesis that the knight has seen and heard what he wished.
It is important to say that in history, folklore and myth we can find also evil male characters like: Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus. They have the same features of the femme fatale but while it is said that men use their abilities, women are said to be manipulative.
The theme of the femme fatale is central also in the visual representations of "La Belle Dame sans Merci" by Pre-Raphaelites painters like Arthur Hugues, Frank Diksee, Walter Crane, John W. Waterhouse, Frank Cowper, W. J. Neatby. The first three painters portray the same scene, in fact they describe the moment when the knight sets the lady on his horse and she bends on one side singing "a fairy’s song". The knight is clearly attracted by her sensual and languorous beauty and he seems almost hypnotised by her, a feature that is particularly evident in the paintings by Waterhouse, Hugues and Diksee. Besides, in the latter the intense look between the two lovers is given special emphasis as the couple is portrayed with both their faces visible to the observer.
In Crane’s picture, instead, the knight is turning his back to the viewer and there is less emotional tension in the attitude of the two to each other, a sensation transmitted also by the colour of the horse, white, in contrast with the darkness of the animal in the other two paintings. The strong attractiveness and sensuality of the lady is highlighted also in the picture by John W. Waterhouse where the lady pulls the knight to her with a gesture of intense voluptuousness. In this case, as in the others already mentioned, the painter foregrounds the intensity of the lady’s look; the effect he achieves is that of transmitting the image of a woman whose beauty is both idealised, disquieting and tormented, oscillating between the spiritual and the morbid. Cowper’s and Neatby’s paintings are completely different as they both choose to focus only on the disturbing sensual and deceitful beauty of the lady with her long, voluptuous red hair which underline the sensuality of the woman, a physical feature present in every picture. Furthermore, Cowper underlines the destructiveness of her beauty painting the knight who lies dead at her feet: she appears triumphant, mindless of the dead knight, even celebrating her victory with a dance. In a way, the image evokes the eternal contrast between life and death, eros and thanatos.
In all cases, with the single exception of Diksee’s, the dark, intricate background invites the eye of the viewer but somehow coerces and traps it in a claustrophobic ‘other’ space. The trees, the rest of the vegetation, as well as the rocks, lock the lovers in a sort of ‘Decadent closure, a Spenserian embowerment’v that complements and emphasizes the sense of mystery associated with the magic, ‘dark’ powers of enchantment of the lady and foregrounds the sense of total isolation in space of the two lovers.
It is possible to conclude these observations quoting a short critical text that, though actually discussing Rossetti’s paintings, can be equally referred to the representation of La Belle Dame by the above mentioned painters: ‘The Rossetti woman rebels against Victorian convention, her unpinned hair and unstructured medieval gown flowing with lyrical freedom. The heavy head swaps on a serpentine neck. Her long thick hair is The Belle Dame Sans Merci's net of entrapment. Her swollen lips are to become a universal motif of Decadent art, thanks to Burne-Jones and Beardsley. The Rossetti vampire mouth cannot speak, but has a life of its own. It is gorged with the blood of victims. Like Blake's sick rose, the Rossetti woman is blanketed in silence and humid, private pleasure’.vi
i Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land (New Haven & London: Yale Un. Press, 1989), vol 2. p. 8.
ii Graham Hough, The Romantic Poets (Hutchinson: London, 1953), p. 169.
iii Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, p. 8.
iv Graham Hough, p. 169.
v Camille Anna Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (London & New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), p. 492.
vi Camille Anna Paglia, p. 498.