'La Belle Dame sans Merci', poem by John Keats (1795-1821)

(As introduction read our today's Instagram post: @UntitledXXI - or scroll below, text right after the poem.)

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
  Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is withered 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 lilly 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 looked 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 gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes—
  So kissed to sleep.

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

I saw pale kings, and princes too,  
  Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried—"La belle Dame sans merci
  Hath thee in thrall!"

I saw their starved 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 withered from the lake,
  And no birds sing.

(John Keats, 1819.)

No love without decent love letter. At least, that’s what i think. One with a stamp, moreover. Or flown over by pigeon. (If ‘La Dame sans Merci’ - pics above - is the addressee, the pigeon will be consumed.)

Old fashioned, you say? Hm, well- Anyway, not a few passionate love letters have been written in the history of mankind. One of the most urgent – call it an outcry rather than a letter - might be from the hand of John Keats. He wrote it in 1819, 2 years before he died, to his love Fanny Brawne. He was only 23, and already suffering from tuberculosis:

"My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb'd me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder'd at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr'd for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you."

Burning passion indeed. A beautiful film has been made about the love affair: ‘Bright Star’ (2009). But… was Fanny the ‘Merciless Lady’? Could be. After all in the same period Keats wrote ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, a poem adored by the Preraphaelites (full poem on our blog - link in the bio).

From all the interpretations made on canvas i prefer Frank Dicksee’s (1902, pic above). The lady has the knight tightly in her claws - her fingers are as good as over his throat, he’ll be spilling his guts. Though the one by Waterhouse (1893) isn’t bad either.

But let’s listen to Keats:

“I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She’d look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.”

Hm. Doesn’t sound too promising, does it? Then:

“She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said
‘I love thee true.’”

Yeah - duh. Another one bites the dust:

“I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death pale were they all:
Who cried – ‘La belle dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!’”

Ah... won’t we ever learn...?

(Answer: no we won’t.)

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