Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Poem o'the Day: John Keats, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

I'm not well-versed in Romantic poetry, but I adore this poem & want to share it with ya'll.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci
John Keats


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is 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 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 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.


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.


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


She took me to her elfin grot,
and there she gazed 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;
who 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 side.


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


As I say, I'm not a Romantics buff, though I've really come to love Keats since seeing the film Bright Star--incidentally, this poem is read between Keats & Fanny Brawne in the film as a sort of dialogue, and becomes intensely sensual (unfortunately, the soundtrack features it, but the poem is read entirely by Ben Whishaw (Keats), rather than by both of them). This is a rather erotic poem--I particularly find the lines about the Belle Dame on his 'pacing steed'--which creates a sort of sensory disorientation for the speaker--to be, frankly, hot. But the poem is likewise evocative of passion that bleeds into obsession & consumption; note that the world itself is in a moment of stasis or purgatory when la Belle Dame is absent. No birds sing, things wither, the poet-speaker describes himself as acting through inaction (what else would one call 'loitering'?)--even the physicality of the speaker images an almost literal consumption (tuberculosis), as his face is rosy (but fading) and fevered; he starves, as the knights & kings are starv'd and death-pale. I wonder if, indeed, superstition at that time suggested TB to be correlative with romantic licentiousness or overabundance...

Interesting, too, that the poet & speaker-lover are distinct at some moments in the poem, but converge at others--the first three sections are addressed *to* the speaker-lover, but the repetition in the final stanza suggests some harmony between the poet & lover that transcends mere address. I've always loved folklore concerning the faery world--particularly in instances where a mortal is lured into a world not his or her own, and enters a euphoric state that ultimately leads only to grief and death (people go into the fairyworld for mere moments & emerge to find everyone they knew and loved dead). In this sense, the erotics of the poem are inextricable from pain--something like an emotional cannibalism--and a sort of oblique terror. It's that shadowy underbelly that makes the poem, for me--a resistance of mere hollow beauty & adoration; it almost reads like a cautionary tale in some regard, particularly when the specters of princes & kings break the enchantment.

At any rate, I just love this poem--I have nothing profound to say about it, but hope you all will likewise enjoy it, and perhaps suggest some other Keats/Romantics for me to check out...

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