‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’- John Keats’ greatest faery poem

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)
John Waterhouse, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1893

In one of the very first posts on this blog, I discussed the use of faeries in the verse of English poet John Keats (1795-1821).  Here I’m going to focus on one of his greatest poems, and one of the greatest fairy poems of all.  I want to examine its meaning and how it has inspired other works of art.

cowper, belle dame
Frank Cadogan Cowper, Belle Dame, 1926

Here’s the text of Keats’ poem, which was written in 1819:

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered 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 thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks 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 made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me 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 sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
       With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
       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
       Thee hath in thrall!’
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.
And this is why I sojourn here,
       Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.
Henry Meynell Rheam, Belle Dame
Henry Meynell Rheam, La Belle Dame, 1901

Like many faery writers and painters, Keats immediately locates his poem in the past: we have a knight riding on horse-back- we know we’re in the Middle Ages, when faeries were much nearer to people than today (or so we always say- see my previous post on this perpetual relegation of the faes to the previous generation).  Simultaneously, the medieval context gives Keats’ verse an extra weight and authority.  He’s placing himself alongside Malory, Spenser and other poets who’ve written about faery themes, adding to the ‘authenticity’ of what he writes.

Walter_T._Crane_-_La_belle_Dame_Sans_Merci_(1865)
Walter Crane, La Belle Dame, 1865

Then we meet the faery woman- and she is everything that I’ve described in preceding posts on this blog: she’s beautiful, she’s sexually appealing, she’s also unearthly and deadly.  Instantly, it would seem, the knight falls under her spell: making garlands for her in most un-knightly fashion, bearing her on his horse and becoming obsessed entirely with her.  She sings to him- and this seems to be part of the spell that she works.  Her alien nature is betrayed by her every aspect: her strange speech, her songs, her wild looks.  Yet despite these warning signs, and the precipitate nature of their declared love for each other, the knight abandons caution and submits without resistance to her charms.

Dicksee La_Belle_Dam_Sans_Merci 1902
Frank Dicksee, La Belle Dame, 1902

Two fateful incidents follow quickly.  Firstly, the knight eats the food the fairy woman prepares for him; as I have described, consumption of fairy food – and the partaking of fairy nature that comes with it- can often have dire consequences for the human.  Secondly, (although Keats is circumspect about this, given the date and style of his poem) the knight has sex with the fae woman in her ‘grot’- her cave or underground home.  He has doubly surrendered his body to her power now.

hughes, La belle dame sans merci
Arthur Hughes, La Belle Dame, 1863

The consequence of the knight’s close contact with faery nature is serious.  He dreams his ‘latest,’ his last, dream and (it would seem) he finds himself no longer in the faery woman’s cave but abandoned and alone on a hillside-a common conclusion to stories of fairy encounters: the glamour evaporates and the human is left solitary and bewildered in the wilderness.  The knight sees visions of those who have before him fallen under the faery’s spell and he is warned- far too late- of the peril he was in.  These cautions are useless to him now, though: he is either ‘elf-addled‘- made sick by his intimate association with the faery- or he is, in fact, dead.  The others, certainly, are starved with gaping mouths, and the hapless knight is left ‘alone and palely loitering,’ looking fevered and haggard.  He cannot return to or settle back to his earthly life, he cannot escape the fairy woman’s ‘thrall.’  In this state of exile or alienation from his former condition, the knight closely resembles the fairy-abductee Kilmeny, of James Hogg’s nearly contemporary poem of the same name.  After her visit to Faery and her return to our world:

“But all the land were in fear and dread,
For they kendna [knew not] whether she was living or dead.
It wasna her hame, and she couldna remain;” (Hogg, Kilmeny1813)

Keats’ Belle Dame epitomises some of the aspects of Faery we often downplay.  It is common in folklore accounts to find faeries, and mermaids too, taking advantage of humans for their own benefit.  This can frequently have dire implications for the human involved, ranging from subjection to terminal decline; the best that might be said of these cases is that the outcome may not be intentional- the fairies’ solipsistic nature may simply fail to register the impact on the mortal party.  However, there are plenty of traditional examples of supernatural beings- ranging from boggarts and goblins through to kelpies- whose deliberate aim is to cause harm and injury.  Keats’ Belle Dame is one of these- we need look no further than the title of the poem to know this, of course: she is ‘sans merci,’ without mercy.

fishman bd2
Fishman. La Belle Dame

As the illustrations to this posting demonstrate, Keats’ poem has inspired successive generations of artists.  Two stages of the poem are illustrated: either the knight succumbing to the charms of the maiden, or the aftermath of his deadly seduction.  The version of this by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877-1959), an English painter often called the ‘last Pre-Raphaelite’ for his richly coloured historical and legendary paintings which regularly feature captivating, fay-like women, shows the faery maiden arranging her hair whilst the knight lies prostrate before her.  She looks wonderfully, callously unconcerned, sitting on the river bank in her glorious dress patterned with red poppies.  The blooming poppies that surround the couple suggest a possible origin for his unconsciousness.  Henry Meynell Rheam (1859-1920), depicts a similar scene, except that ghostly figures of previous victims are shown hovering behind the rather self-satisfied looking faery.  Other artists have focused instead the irresistible allure of the fairy maid, who seems superficially pretty and defenceless.  Frank Dicksee’s painting perhaps best encapsulates this first stage of the poem.  The fascination of Keats’ work persists even today, as we see from the two canvases by US based fantasy artist, Marc Fishman (b.1971).  He emphasises the dangerous sexual allure of the fae woman, with her gauzy, see-through gowns and her wild, perfumed, intoxicating hair.  Her emergence from a pool in the first of these also links her to the deadly meremaids I have discussed in the past.

Lastly, the Mediaeval Baebes have arranged the poem to music, in a haunting rendition (they have done the same too for Kilmeny,  and for the Scots ballad of Tam Lin for that matter).  For a more general discussion of fairy themes and iconography in nineteenth century poetry, see my recent book, Victorian Fairy VerseFor a detailed examination of the psychological and physical effects of faery contact, see my recently published Faery.

fishman belle dame
Fishman, La Belle Dame

Is there a fairy queen?

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Queen Titania, by John Simmons

This question may seem a shocking challenge to accepted conventions, but reflecting recently upon a couple of postings concerning the queens of elfland made on Living liminally by Morgan Daimler, I suddenly began to wonder whether we really mean the words we use when we so casually discuss the ‘fairy kingdom,’ the ‘faery realm,’  the seelie and unseelie ‘courts‘ and the king and queen of fairy.

Elsewhere, in her recent book Fairies, Morgan observes that “the social structure does seem to operate as a hierarchy ruled ultimately by Kings and Queens.” (p.61)    This is quite true, but as I have suggested before in my post on woodland elves, the idea of fairy royalty is very much a projection of medieval structures by medieval writers.  The idea was first seen in such poems as Huon of Bordeaux, King Herla, Sir Orfeo and in the verse of Chaucer: Sir Thopas and the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale.  Two centuries later, Spenser, Shakespeare and Herrick cemented the idea in our culture.  Neil Rushton has recently reiterated this interpretation in a posting on his ‘Dead but dreaming’ blog, Faeries in the Arthurian landscapein which he observes that:

“The stories were consumed by the small proportion of literate population, and were codified accordingly to suit their social expectations. The appearance of characters with supernatural qualities within these stories had, therefore, to adhere to certain doctrines, which would be acceptable to their social mores and belief systems.”

As Neil implies, when we think of fairies now we almost unconsciously and automatically conjure images of Arthurian knights and ladies and all the structures of precedence and privilege that go with them.  This is habit, but is it any more than that?

Fairy reign

We are very used, then, to thinking of Queen Mab and of Oberon and Titania.  But what need, though, do the faes really have of rulers?  In the Middle Ages, monarchs were required to perform several purposes within their simpler states:

  • to lead the people in armed conflict- as I have described previously, war amongst the fairies may jar with our conventional views of them, but the possibility is mentioned in a few sources and might therefore justify some sort of war chief;
  • to dispense justice- we are aware of no laws as such in Faery, although there are clearly codes of behaviour that they impose (upon humans at least) and the infringement of which (by humans) is subject to sanction.  Parallel with this distinct morality, there is a general atmosphere of unrestrained impulsiveness;
  • to organise society- it’s hard to tell what, if any, structure there is within fairy society.  If we regard them as nature spirits, then they are all at the level of worker bees, it would appear.  A few authorities have proposed hierarchies, although this normally seems to involve different forms of supernatural beings as against different ranks: see for example Geoffrey Hodson or two interviews with ‘Irish seers’ conducted by Evans-Wentz- one with George William Rusell (AE) and a second with an unnamed Mrs X of County Dublin (Fairy faith in Celtic countries pp.60-66 and 242-3).  You’ll see the differences in size in John Simmons’ painting below;
  • to act as some sort of religious leader or high priest(ess).  I explored the puzzling matter of fairy religion not long ago; it is an area of considerable doubt.

None of these functions seem especially essential to Faery as we generally conceive it.  Is the title of ‘queen’ therefore redundant, or at best merely a convenient honorary title?

1-there-sleeps-titania-john-simmons

There sleeps Titania, by John Simmons

Secret commonwealth

Let’s consider the views of the Reverend Robert Kirk, who certainly seems to have been well placed to know what he was talking about.  Writing in the late 1680s, he titled his justly famous book The secret commonwealth of elves, fauns and fairies.  A ‘commonwealth’ can merely denote a nation state or polity, but it can also more narrowly have the meaning of ‘republic.’  Given that he cannot but have been aware of the English Parliamentary ‘Commonwealth’ that succeeded the execution of Charles I in 1649, I think it’s inescapable that this was the connotation intended by Kirk when he chose to describe his subject matter.  That seems undeniable when we read at the head of chapter 7 that “They are said to have aristocraticall Rulers and Laws, but no discernible Religion, Love or Devotion towards God…  they disappear whenever they hear his Name invocked…”   We note Kirk’s belief in their aversion to church and religion, but also his conviction that they inhabit some sort of democracy regulated by rules of conduct of some description.

Much more recently, Theosophist Charles Leadbeater wrote that humans frequently mistook fairy leaders for kings and queens, whereas “In reality the realm of nature spirits needs no kind of government except except the general supervision which is exercised over it [by devas].” (The hidden side of things, 1913, p.147).

Rank or honour?

Perhaps those termed king and queen in Faery are simply those of the most distinguished character or the greatest magical power.  This was my conception of Queen Maeve in my story Albion awake!  In chapter 9, in response to being called Fairy Queen, Maeve replies:

“So you call me- but if I am a queen, I have no dominion.  I have powers, but I do not reign.  My people are a commonwealth- a secret commonwealth.”

Plainly I’ve stolen her phrase here!  Later she calls her people her ‘Nation Underground.’  I’ll let you track that reference down yourselves!

In conclusion, the main influence upon our conceptions of Faery as a stratified and monarchical society, with a royal family, a court, nobility and attendants, seems to be European society during the medieval period, channeled through contemporary literature.  Whether we are thinking of mythical Iron Age Ireland, Chaucer’s England or the France of Chretien de Troyes or Marie de France, their aristocratic society provided a model that was unthinkingly imposed upon fairyland.  It seems unlikely that the ‘common folk’ necessarily shared this; indeed, a large number of fairies were independent and individual characters or were conceived as members of their own, very local community.  Should we continue to talk of kings and queens then, or is it simply habit?  Do the terms have anything to do with contemporary perceptions of fairy?  What do readers think?

Rheam-Queen-Mab-L

‘Queen Mab,’ Henry Meynell Rheam

Further reading

Elsewhere I discuss fairy kings and that famous fairy queen Titania.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.