June 05, 2003

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Having just slammed poetry in general, I feel like I should acknowledge the poetry that I do like. I do like some poems. My tastes are fairly pedestrian, I suppose, and I don't pretend to get everything out of the poems that I could, but there it is. Actually, I'm kind of curious to see if there's anything the poems I like have in common.

I've decided to start with Keats and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", for no particular reason except that I've been talking about Faerie a lot recently. Here 'tis:

"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.

What on earth are you doing out here, you idiot? It's freezing cold, there's nothing to look at, and even the birds have gone south for the winter. It's not like you've got any business out here, even the squirrels have called it quits.

"I see a lily on thy brow
  With anguish moist and fever-dew.
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
  Fast withereth too."

You look like hell, too--pale and clammy, and you're losing the color from your cheeks.

"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.

You met a girl, and she bewitched you.

"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.

You gave her sweet nothings, and she gave you everything in return. (And you're the one complaining?)

"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.

You were completely besotted, and she did her damnedest to keep you that way. She led you around by your little finger (or, rather by the reins of your horse). (Or perhaps it's mettyphorical, as Nanny Ogg would say...but not being Nanny Ogg, I'm not going to go there.)

"She found me roots of relish sweet,
  And honey wild and manna-dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
  'I love thee true.'

And you believed her? Who's hunting who here?

"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.

She's just playing with you, you idiot.

"And there she lullèd me asleep,
  And there I dream'd—ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
  On the cold hill's side.

No dreams since then, huh? Not getting much sleep, are we.

"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!'

Today we'd call this an "intervention". Well, at least you're in good company. You're not the first, and you won't be the last. (This is my favorite verse, by the way.)

"I saw their starved lips in the gloam
  With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here
  On the cold hill's side.

She used you up and threw you away.

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

Well isn't this pathetic. Are you here because you stand to go home--or worse, are you hoping she'll come back for you?

Now, I have no idea whether Keats meant to write about this poor sod of a night who's taken advantage of by the Queen of Faerie, or whether he's simply romanticizing every poor slob who falls for a scheming woman. My preference is clearly the former, and I think he does a marvelous job of telling the story. From the first line he takes us back to the days of the knight errant, and from there 'tis but a step to the Land of Faerie; why else would so many fantasy novels have a vaguely medieval flavor? And there's just something wonderful and fantastic about the Pale Kings and Princes. And finally, waking from his glamour to find himself lying on the hillside instead of in his lady's bower is a typical fairy tale kind of happening.

So why do I like it? It tells a story, and a story that caters to my taste in literature, and moreover it sounds neat when read aloud.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 5, 2003 08:07 PM