“A doubtful tale from faery land”- John Keats & fairy

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)

J Waterhouse, ‘La belle dame sans merci’

I am a great admirer of the poetry of John Keats.  At the start of my adult fairy tale, The Elder Queen (available through Amazon- see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Elder-Queen-modern-fairytale-ebook/dp/B00RZ7UNLW ), I quote some verses from his poem La Belle Dame sans Merci, which is a tale of a fatal fairy lover.  Throughout my book, there are sly quotations from Keats which those steeped in his works may spot.  An example is the fairy folk’s name for themselves- they tell Darren at the dance that they are ‘sky children’ which I have shamelessly stolen (or borrowed) from Hyperion line 133.

elder queen

Many writers have explored Keats’ poetry and his interest in faery.  A very good example is Maureen Duffy, The erotic world of faery (1972, pp.260-287), which examines in detail the intertwined themes of fairy women, death, love, sex and Keats’ relationship with his mother.  In this post I will simply highlight some of the main aspects of the poet’s treatment of fairy lore.

There is little doubt that one use of faery made by Keats is as a shorthand for girls and sex.  Keats is open in his liking for women (“Nymph of the downward smile” To G A W line 1) and feminine attributes (“Faery lids” in Lines line 7).  He readily goes further too, expressing his desire for physical contact.  He “fondled the maids with breasts of cream” (To Charles Cowden Clark line 34) and on a visit to Dawlish meets a Devon maid he greets as a “tight little fairy, just fresh from the dairy” (Where be ye going line 3).  He expressly tells country wench Betty that he would like to “rumple the daisies” with her (Over the hill line 19).

It isn’t just a matter of lust though.  Fairies are linked too with love.  Keats fears he will “Never have relish in the faery power/ Of unrequiting love!” (When I have fears line 11) and he knows that they love true, as humans do (When they were come to Faery’s Court & Song of the Four Fairies).  

If you want a field guide to the fairy realm, Keats indicates that faeries are creatures of the countryside- particularly groves (When they were come to Faery’s Court) and glades (To Emma line 7); they are most often found at evening- for example in Ode to a Nightingale line 37 he describes how “the Queen Moon is on her throne, Clustered around by all her starry Fays” (see too To Emma line 7 & Song of the Four Fairies).  Lastly they are often diminutive and delicate (see for example Faery Bird’s Song & Faery Song). 

So far, so conventional; these faeries are the tiny sprites of Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet: they may be mischievous, but they are not wicked.  Keats, however, knows another strand of fairy lore.  He is aware that fairies can be perilous and vengeful.  In When they came to the Faery’s Court he alludes to the ‘three great crimes in faery land’, which are playing before them, sleeping in their company and stealing their property.  This sort of disrespect will be punished- a very regular feature of human/ fairy dealings.  The faery folk can be antagonistic and possessive: at the very start of Lamia (Part I, lines 1-2) he recounts “Upon a time before the faery broods/ Drove nymph and satyr from the prosperous woods.”  The fairy folk are jealous of what they control and will not share- and it seems that this applies to lovers too.  Diane Purkis in her book Troublesome things (Penguin 2001) highlights the deadly privilege of being chosen and loved by a faery maiden.  This is a traditional theme epitomised by La Belle Dame sans Merci.  She is alluring, this Lady of the Meads, “Full beautiful, a faery’s child” with her long hair, wild eyes and sweet moan, but association with her is dangerous and almost invariably fatal.  Contact with the lady is literally enchanting: “And nothing else saw all day long./ For sidelong would she bend, and sing/ A faery’s song… and sure, in language strange she said,/ I love thee true.”  Very soon the hapless knight was “in thrall” to the fairy and was deathly pale.

No wonder then that, in Ode to a Nightingale line 70, Keats describes being “In faery lands forlorn.”  Many of his descriptions of the fays imply carefree joy, but John Keats was also alert to the darker side of relations with supernatural beings, that their interest and affection could constitute a curse as well as a blessing.  This theme is something I intend to explore in my books.

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