John Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (printed in its entirety below) opens with narration by some poor schmuck like you and me startled by the appearance of a man who has done some serious shit in his time.
This no-named narrator could be literary cousins with Nick Carraway and Ishmael and Coleridge’s Wedding Guest and Emily Bronte’s Lockwood, all of whom stumble into stuff way out of their league. The man he sees could be just back from the war or he could’ve lost his soulmate or his soul or his reason for living or just his desire to keep breathing. Or maybe he’s in his last days of a terminal illness.
In any case, our Mr. or Ms. Nobody narrator wants an answer: “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms / Alone and palely loitering?”
A knight probably shouldn’t be alone and he should definitely not be loitering, i.e., moving or lingering aimlessly and purposelessly. And his paleness already marks him, for Keats readers, as someone who has had a peak or flow experience and is now attempting to reenter the world’s “normal” life. The experience could be good or bad, but it’s too soon to tell. Keats readers know this, or have reason to suspect it, but the narrator has not read Keats, so he knows nothing. (Because, obviously, Keats tells us all we know and all we need to know.)
The Knight’s paleness goes well with the dreary landscape in which he appears: “The sedge has withered from the lake / And no birds sing.” Is the narrator telling the Knight that he (the Knight) is out past his time and had better rejoin his fellow knights before the winter snows come? Is nature’s depleted state a result of the Knight’s enervated condition or vice versa? Is he part of an Arthurian wasteland that cries out for the healing power of the Holy Grail? Or has the poor bastard stumbled onto the “blasted heath” where Macbeth sees the most “fair and foul a day” he’s ever seen?
The narrator continues to question the Knight in stanza two: “O what can ail thee Knight at Arms / So haggard and so woe begone? / The squirrel’s granary is full / And the harvest’s done.” “Haggard,” of course, reiterates and intensifies “pale.” Webster defines it as “having a gaunt, wasted or exhausted appearance, as from prolonged suffering, exertion or anxiety; wild looking.” And the reference to the squirrel getting his nuts together for winter reiterates the Knight’s need to seek more pleasant climes.
The narrator’s questioning, now completed, transitions into an unflattering mirror for the Knight: “I see a lily on thy brow / With anguish moist and fever dew, / And on thy cheeks a faded rose / Fast withereth too –”. The only flowers on this barren hillside are on the Knight’s face, and they’re figurative, and they’re not flattering. This is not the Lily of the Valley but more paleness, with clamminess added for good measure in the next line. Here the rose is not a symbol of passionate love, but of a fever’s flush.
With no transition or introduction – in the typical abrupt fashion of ballads, by the way – the narration is handed off from “us,” the nobodies without interesting stories of our own, to the Knight, who will attempt to explain it all in this unexpected, impromptu press conference. I’m not the least bit surprised to learn that it began with a woman:
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 –
For me, the first two lines make the whole process of reading and pondering this poem far more enjoyable. Why? Because we know this never happened. Now we can relax and not object to details that don’t fit in with our sense of reality. We can’t go all Age of Enlightenment on this medieval yarn. It never happened, and Keats knows it never happened, and he believes in neither faeries nor faeries’ children, but imagining these characters allows him to tell a truth that he otherwise could not have told. So we should go ahead and picture an actual sick knight and a beautiful faery’s child – I know I am – but we should be asking, “What does this story tell us?” To borrow from the biblical scholar Marcus Borg, we can take this poem seriously, but not literally.
|Sarah (Meryl Streep) staring down Charles|
As for the last two lines of this stanza, how can they not make you weep? This female bedazzles him from the start; just look at the discontinuity of his description: He doesn’t go top to bottom or left to right, but jumps from her hair to her foot to those eyes, those eyes, those wild eyes. Maybe the same kind of eyes that mesmerized Charles Smithson in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and wound up either ruining or saving his life.
Anyway, I love how that last word slams the door both on the stanza and the Knight’s description: “wild.” Now this could get interesting.
The Knight then tells us he initiated the courtship by dressing this already beautiful faery’s child in the lovely trappings of nature: “I made a garland for her head / And bracelets too, and fragrant zone.” A garland is made of flowers and perhaps leaves, so in the flashback, nature still lives and provides the Knight with an assortment of female accessories.
The “fragrant zone” is often glossed as a girdle, but probably isn’t the kind that shrinks the female waistline. Rather, it’s a belt or sash made of flowers, hence its fragrance. (Just remember, that by the time we get back to “real time,” nature will be cold and dying.)
|Pre-Raphaelite Frank Dicksee imagines Keats's faery on the pacing steed|
|In Hughes' version the Faery looks enthralled -- look at her wrists.|
In the next stanza, with the Knight having previously dressed the faery from the stuff of nature, she now feeds him from it: “She found [him] roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and manna dew.” This is an exotic communion indeed, not the fare of a high-school cafeteria, not Sonic’s greasy tater tots.
This food comes from a far country in another time where the sweet relish from roots and wild honey mingle with “manna dew,” the Bread of Heaven that gently fell like tiny wafers or flakes of snow on the Children of Israel, reminding many Christians of that most sacred of meals offered weekly at the altar rail.
In short, this is not like any food the Knight has had before or any he will have again. It cannot become his default order at his favorite restaurant. It touches taste buds he never knew existed.
Maybe I felt something similar the first time my mom made pancakes. I certainly thought it was food from heaven, and it immediately became my favorite food, and I have had thousands of pancakes since then, but never the one I wanted.
After these two beings from separate worlds have completed their communion, the love sensed by the Knight in line 19 (“She looked at me as she did love”) is articulated by the faery. Or is it? “And sure in language strange she said / ‘I love thee true’ – .” Here’s where a teacher who wants to embarrass or belittle a student asks, “Does the faery love the Knight?” One of the poor bastards will say “yes,” and then you pounce on her and ask for proof, and she’ll go back to that line and notice both the qualifying “sure” and “language strange,” and sheepishly admit, “The Knight thinks she does, anyway.”
True enough. He has earlier interpreted her look as expressing love, now he does the same to her faery language which probably sounds something like this: “Brxh shft broxenhrt.” Sure, he’s projecting, but also deducing from her actions – she accepts his gifts, she moans, she goes for an iambic ride (winner of crudest Keatsian pickup line ever: “Hey, mama, wanna go for an iambic ride?”), she sings to him (granted, he can’t understand the lyrics), she feeds him exotic food with sexual and religious connotations – so of course when she says “Brxh shft broxenhrt” he hears “I love thee true.”
How can it get any better than this? Veteran Keats readers have come to expect a similar moment in most of his poems. Some of us have even named it Keatsian Intensity (and we think Fitzgerald adapted it to the end of Chapter 6 in Gatsby when Nick narrates the famous “stairway to heaven scene,” culminating in a kind of Keatsian Kiss between Gatsby and Daisy, in which Gatsby “forever wed[s] his unutterable visions to her perishable breath”), and we’ve noticed that it often contains an ecstatic experience in which a character loses himself, in the best sense, his boundary of “I” falling away, opening up to a consummation with Another.
(What would Porphyria’s lover in Browning’s poem do in a similar situation? What would Faulkner’s Emily do, her perfect love returning to her bed for one more tryst?)
Look how Keats indicates this experience with his use of pronouns (I learned the following from a critic whose name I’ve forgotten). The Knight’s first stanza of narration (stanza 4) is all “I,” all about his actions. The following stanza combines “I” (“I made” in lines 17-18) with “She” (“She look’d” in 19-20). The next stanza is also “I”/”She,” with “I” setting her on “my pacing steed,” and “she” bending and singing “a faery’s song.”
But in the stanza of Keatsian Intensity, “I” goes away. The faery takes control and the Knight loses his “I,” loses himself in her. Again: How can it get any better than this? I only hope it lasts. Why would anyone accept this as a temporary experience? Why would anyone relinquish it? For the love of God, “let no sunrise’ yellow noise / Interrupt this ground.”
This stanza is also the culmination of something Keats calls the Pleasure Thermometer. This thermometer, with its somehow faintly obscene appellation, measures gradations of happiness, or, as Keats states it in a letter, “a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a Truth.” In his poetry, this process often begins with references to nature (see lines 17-18), followed by music (23-24), then ending in a kind of self-obliterating love (28). If you’d like further evidence of the Pleasure Thermometer, see the third stanza of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Lest the viewers at home grow restless, however, foolishly desirous of a change of subject and scenery, let’s move to the next stanza which begins with “She took me to her elfin grot.” Now it’s time to see the world from her place.
Who doesn’t remember this stage of a relationship? Entering the alien world of your new sweetie, a world perhaps first distinguished, as the door opens, by its scent. No two residences smell alike. How does this one smell? What is its bouquet, its flavor? What are the senses telling you immediately about possibilities, potential?
Is Rockwell on the wall or the bearded old man saying grace or Jesus himself, or is there an O’Keefe painting that, whatever it is, looks much, much like Femaleness Herself? This place, the female’s place, is certainly an analogue for the alien rarefied Other World for a bumbling, awkward clueless male primate.
So this place is her habitat , her Self projected all over it, where she goes when she leaves you. Closets, hangers, mirrors, shoes, laundry, a female life that’s been carried on without you, and now you’ve broken through. She has made herself vulnerable by letting you in. What all can happen in this place and where? You can already picture things that might happen. There are erotic charges in the air.
You’re pretty sure that’s what you feel. Or is it menace? She could easily slip a knife between your ribs or boil your child’s rabbit, if you have a child, if your child has a rabbit. She could tie you to the bed and leave you there to rot.
But if she pulls you to her and you smell the perfume on her neck, on her sweater, then maybe you’re home, maybe you’re safe, and it’s not going to get any better than this. Will this be heaven or a trap?
Where were we? At her place. Her grot. A dictionary will tell you “grot” is just short for “grotto,” a cave or cavern, an artificial cavern-like recess. But people I know who believe in fairies – reliable sources, all of them – tell me that in fairy lingo, a grot is an invisible cave-like residence in the side of a hill or mountain. You can walk by said hill or mountain and never see the grot. It’s enchanted, a fairyland. Keats’s narrator in “Lamia” lives in one, and no one can see him and his sweet snake lady in there, burning with romantic love.
And the grot has come to symbolize that invisible and pointless place the romantically involved go.There are no board or department or committee meetings there, so nothing worthwhile is ever accomplished. The couples apparently just lie around and make out and have sex and fall asleep, then snack on exotic and sensual foods long enough to get their stamina back and go at it all over again.
Sometimes, if they speak the same language, I assume they fall into an ecstasy of talk – the other intercourse -- and the language flows and sings and makes poetry throughout the grot and they talk and talk until sleep knocks off the ends of their sentences, and they rest for a tomorrow they not only don’t dread but can hardly sleep in anticipation of.
So, yes, that’s right, we’re at her grot, where it can’t get any better, except . . . “there she wept and sigh’d full sore.” How can we possibly read another line before we answer the question: Why in God’s name is she weeping and sighing?
Some readers will recall the easiest verse in the bible to memorize: “Jesus wept.” (Surely, you’re not going to interrupt this narrative by looking it up, but just in case, go to John 11:35.) He has heard that one of the Lazaruses in the bible has died, and he intends to resurrect him. But before he performs this act, he weeps.
I’ve always thought he wept because Lazarus was better off dead, and Jesus was truly sorry he had to bring him back to this rat’s nest of a planet just to soothe the grief of Laz’s family and to prove that he, Jesus, could do such things. “If you knew what I knew,” I imagine Jesus saying, “you’d leave him where he is.”
The still unnamed faery’s child, too, knows she must now return the Knight to the land of the living. A grot is no place for a human to stay. “You’ve been here, you’ve experienced me, but you can’t camp out. You say we’re in love, but that has nothing to do with your making a career or a life of it. It has nothing to do with extending it in time, because love happens in Eternity which is outside of time. I’ll miss you – and that’s why I’m weeping in English – but go and love again. Or, if it makes you feel better, you can just mope and palely loiter on the cold hillside.”
|Pale Harold, learning to play Maude's banjo, tries to "go and love again" in Harold and Maude|
Mr. William Blake, would you like to say something about how Eternity might relate to this Keatsian Intensity? “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy. / But he who kisses the joy while it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.” So what really lasts are the things that don’t, because we never forget them, so they’re always present.
That’s my take. But whatever the Knight hears in her weeping, it prompts him to “shut her wild wild eyes / With kisses four.” (Why four? In a letter, Keats gave two reasons: He wanted the kisses to be symmetrical, privileging neither eye, and he needed a rhyme for “sore.” Plus, he thought “a score” would be overdoing it. Seriously.)
The Knight’s “I” has returned. He feels the need to assert Self again. Why? Because he feels this bliss may go away if he doesn’t. He needs to “be there” to retain it. Her wild eyes would certainly invite kissing, but the verb is “shut.” My God. “Don’t see me”? “Don’t be awake”? Who hasn’t tried to keep his eyes closed to prolong a dream or to close them tightly again to restart it?
Some readers will argue that the earlier horse ride was only suggestive of sex, reflecting the sensual nature of the attraction. Instead of saying “They’re doing it,” the image of the ride was saying “This is what one or both of them would like to happen. This is not an attraction based on how the two feel about the world’s important issues.” I find this argument convincing and believe that the Knight’s intent is now, for the first time, to make love to this still unnamed faery’s child as if she were a human woman.
Haven’t we already established that we shouldn’t ask empirical questions about a story that includes a faery? Is “can faeries have intercourse with humans” an empirical question? Or “do faeries need to have sex?” or “do faeries even have genitalia?” Given Keats’s propensity for exacerbating the Romeo-and-Juliet problem a step farther (see “Lamia,” “Endymion,” and “The Eve of St. Agnes”), maybe we should ask the questions. Depending on our answers, these two could be about as star-crossed and hopeless as any lovers in literature.
Is there any chance that this couple, as a couple, can survive this encounter? If this were a Victorian novel, they’d have to wind up married. How will the Knight’s parents respond when he informs them he plans to marry an unnamed faery’s child who brings zilch in the way of a dowry? What about when his friends read the wedding announcement in the Sunday edition of the Camelot Herald? A faery? Faeries aren’t usually the friends of Knights.
To continue with the Victorian novel, a consummation would need to take place off stage to assist in the continued growth of the empire. But do faeries have bodies one can actually physically consummate with? Can’t you see through faeries? My friends who believe in faeries say you can and they say they don’t need to do any messy biological things to reproduce. Plus they say they’re immortal. The odds are that the faery’s child will outlive her husband long, long after his pension has run dry.
|How Frank Cadogan Cowper depicts the sleeping knight while the faery's child quickly tests the efficacy of her deoderant.|
The Knight, too, is pale and we earlier connected that to his experience with the faery’s child. Is she a femme fatale on steroids, a succubus who has drained his élan vital, leaving him “dry as hay” to “peak and pine,” as the first Weyard sister in Macbeth plans to do to a sailor?
And if so, has she also depleted the kings, princes and warriors? And why doesn’t the Knight see pale peasants, cooks and merchants in the dream? Why are they all men of power? And is the faery’s child making him dream this? Is this a dream or a vision? What’s the difference? If it’s a dream, does it mean anything? Are all dreams either about wishes or fears? Or are they pointless like the ones we hear almost daily either at home or work, surreal desultory epics, peopled and animaled with shape-shifting, free falls, aborted flights and psycho killers? Is it possible for dreams in poems to be pointless?
Too many questions, I know, but the interpretation of the poem rests on the answers. I believe Keats gives the Knight a dream born out of his, the Knight’s, anxiety which has been generated out of too much happiness. When we are too happy, we are afraid even to say the word “happy,” fearing it will break the enchantment, because we’ve come to think of happiness this way, as not being a normal part of existence, just some flickering temporary magic, so don’t say anything, don’t breathe, don’t get used to it.
I think of Othello reunited with Desdemona on the shores of Cyprus when he says, in essence, let me go ahead and die now because I’m afraid I’ll never be any happier than this. How to go on living when the greatest happiness is behind?
I will now soil this otherwise lofty narrative with words from that great Bard of the American Midwest, John Cougar: “Oh yeah, life goes on / Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.”
|Waterhouse's enthralled Knight|
So the Knight’s dream tells him, from people whose judgment he is most likely to value, he is happier than a human being has a right to be. They convince him that it is only a trick, a lethal one at that: “They cried, ‘La belle dame sans merci / Thee hath in thrall.’” Thrall? St. Paul believed we were enthralled, enslaved by sin. Recovery people recognize addiction as enthrallment. Your drug of choice says it will make you happy, and it does for a while, but only to betray you later “in deepest consequence,” i.e., to screw you to a lifetime of wanting what you cannot have, what will kill you.
And now the faery’s child has been named. But consider the source. Of course, these guys are going to call her “la belle dame sans merci” – typically translated “the beautiful woman without pity or mercy” as opposed to “without thanks.” And by “these guys,” I mean the allegorical stand-ins for the Knight’s Excessive Happiness Anxiety (EHA) or Too Good to Be True Syndrome (TGBTS). Or they are the personifications of his timid, overly cautious, earth-bound conscience telling him “You shouldn’t be doing this.”
So “la belle dame sans merci” is not this faery’s name. Maybe she doesn’t even have a name. But if she does it’s probably something like “Blrfshxt.”
After the ghastly images of these wan weenies’ yakking mouths, the Knight awakes and finds himself where we and the nameless narrator first find him, the “cold hill side.” The final stanza employs the incremental repetition typical of ballads, bringing the poem full circle:
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering;
Though the sedge is wither’d from the Lake
And no birds sing --
The first line answers the no-named narrator’s question posed in the first stanza. The last three lines essentially repeat the final three of that stanza, saying, in effect, “Your description is accurate. I am as you said.” The Knight’s repetition of the narrator’s words is as close as we’ll get to seeing him (the narrator) again. Who was he? Where did he go? Whatever happened to him?
Who gives a shit? No one sings the song of an ordinary man. I am reminded of the last words Susan Alexander says to the faceless Thompson near the end of Citizen Kane. After she has given her account – painful in its honesty – of Kane’s life, she gazes up at the skylight toward the dawning of a new day, blows a cloud of smoke, and says to him, “Come around and tell me the story of your life sometime.” Anyone want to hear that one?
As for the Knight, he resides in the not-so-sweet hereafter, suffering the possibly lethal symptoms of Keatsian Withdrawal or the Keatsian Twilight Zone or just plain old “reentry.” You’ve seen this in literature and life. See Charles Smithson in the final chapters of French Lieutenant’s Woman; see Jay Gatsby had he been able to get out of his pool in time; see Harold at the end of Harold and Maude; see Cecilia at the end of Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo. See me when I return from Japan and find myself in an airport elevator filled with sweating, obese Americans complaining about the tiny portions of in-flight service.
Had this been written by someone other than Keats, we would now set out to determine if what happened to the Knight was a good thing or a bad thing. But Keats enjoyed holding two apparently contradictory ideas in his head simultaneously, and he enjoyed teasing his readers into an argument, then giving them ample evidence to support both the pros and the cons. I could easily, for example, argue that in “Grecian Urn,” life on the urn, in art, in the Ideal is preferable to life on earth, in nature, in “the real.” Having made that argument, I could then go back through the poem and make an equally convincing case for the other side.
Likewise for “La Belle.” “Palely,” “haggard,” and “woe begone” combined with faery and elfin imagery are all menacing and sinister, and suggest the Knight is lucky to be alive, that he has survived – for now! – a terrible evil. Seduced by the temptress faery, he has dared, like Dr. Frankenstein, to cross over into the forbidden supernatural world. He has responded to the songs of the Sirens, and now his ship has crashed into the rocks.
On the other hand, the faery’s child is “full beautiful,” and Keats claims in a letter that “What the Imagination seizes as Beauty, must be Truth,” and, of course, in “Grecian Urn” the narrator claims that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
If we hunger for Beauty, we hunger for truth, and vice versa. Maybe the roots, honey and manna the Knight receives from the faery is our proper diet, the only one that truly nurtures us, the one we should’ve been eating all along. Note that the pale kings, princes and warriors warn the Knight with “starv’d lips,” perhaps because, fearing the faery’s food is toxic, they have deprived themselves of it.
Maybe the “too much happiness” feared by Othello and Keats’s men of power is what calls to us from the Other Side. It is real, the only reality worth living for. Maybe it calls us, not only to come over, but to bring it back with us, incarnate, if you will, to be a “friend to man,” to lift our thoughts and soothe our cares, “here and now where men sit and hear each other groan; / Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.”
Maybe, then, the pale Knight will recover from this painful withdrawal and go on to . . . .
Oh, how the hell would I know? Maybe he’d want to go back to the grot. Maybe he’s sorry for whatever he did that ejected him from his ecstasy. Maybe next time he’ll not “assert Self,” he’ll not try to hold on to it in hopes it’ll stay forever. Maybe the little sliver of light seeping under the grot’s door (if a grot has doors) is as close as he wants to come to this world again.
“Sing your faery’s song, my beloved, La Belle Dame avec Merci, sing forever, even if I can’t understand a word of it.”
“La Belle Dame sans Mercy”
By John Keats
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thou brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheek a faded 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 made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too and fragrant zone;
She look’d at as she did love
And made sweet moan.
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.
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 wept and sigh’d full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep,
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;
They cried -- “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’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering;
Though the sedge has wither’d from the Lake
And no birds sing --