Friday, June 17, 2016

Keats & the Fear of Happiness, Part One

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 a 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 seasoned Keats readers, as someone who has had a peak or flow experience and is now attempting to reenter the world’s conventional 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 since the narrator has not read Keats, 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" -- “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 not flattering. That lily is not the Lily of the Valley, just more paleness, with clamminess added for good measure in the next line. The rose, furthermore, suggests not passionate love, but 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 now we know this never happened. We can relax and not object to details that don’t connect with our sense of reality. We can’t go all Age of Enlightenment on this medieval yarn. We know Keats believes in neither faeries nor faeries’ children, but imagining them 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 but ask not "Did this really happen," ask rather, “What does this story tell us?”

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 that mesmerized Charles Smithson in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and wound up either ruining or saving his life.

I love how that last word, "wild," slams the door both on the stanza and the Knight’s description. Now this could get interesting.

“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 --

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