Thoughts on "La Belle Dame"

Who has not tried to hold onto something that slipped away? This poem speaks in a mournful throb of something precious lost forever.

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is commonly translated as “The beautiful lady without pity/mercy”, although “thanks” is the literal translation of “merci”. I think the idea of ingratitude is actually far more interesting than pitilessness: her procession of devotees pay single-minded homage and yet she seemingly cares not…or does she?

The narrator speaks of her eyes twice: “Her hair was long,/her foot was light,/And her eyes were wild” and then, later, “She took me to her elfin grot,/And there she gaz’d and sighed deep,/And there I shut her wild sad eyes– So kiss’d to sleep.” As described, there is a hint of regret in her eyes, of sadness for yet another lover abandoned. Is it because she feels more strongly for the narrator or that she is doomed to always lead her knights astray? This is the one moment in the poem where the coquette slips. If truly without pity, mercy or gratitude, why the lady’s sadness?

Though the poem seems straightforward, there are enigmatic layers within each stanza. He made her garlands of flowers as she sings to him faery songs, a traditional token of courtly love. She feeds him faery nourishment, “relish sweet,/And honey wild,/and manna dew“. Keats later references the “starv’d lips in the gloam” of the wraiths, an indication of lack of substance to her nourishment. It could also be read as love-starved. One common result of heartbreak in Romantic literature is wasting away from lack of love.

Keats did not originate the idea of “La Belle Dame” – it dates back to Medieval courtly love poetry. The theme of the beautiful faery creature who heedlessly breaks hearts is the mirror opposite of the lady who waits patiently at her tower window for her love or quietly pines away (see The Lady of Shalott).

Keats himself considered this poem dashed off: “I have for the most part dash’d of[f] my lines in a hurry – ” (Letter to George, Weds 21 April 1819). Nevertheless, it is considered one of the most classic English Romantic poems and was a great influence on the Pre-Raphaelites in particular (see paintings from previous post and sketch below by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

For a far more scholarly interpretation of the sources of “La Belle Dame”:

 Read more Keats and other Romantic poets at:

Poem by John Keats, post by me. All material copyright.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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.
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. 
Poem by John Keats. 
Paintings by Frank Dicksee, Frank Cadogan Cowper, John William Waterhouse
For a great analysis of the poem, read here:  

Who reads "Boy Fiction" anyway?

When it comes to internet comment pages, I have long been reticent to respond. I have no urge to comment on news stories or YouTube videos, no matter their content. Why waste time scribbling on the bathroom wall of the internet?

I felt that way until April 18, 2011 – a day that lives on in infamy for geeks webwide – the day Ginia Bellafante’s trite, smug and deeply irritating review of Game of Thrones was posted on the New York Times website.

Game of Thrones is the new HBO television series based on the George R.R. Martin fantasy series of the same name. The NYT assigned Ms. Bellafante to review it, though she admits she knows nothing about the fantasy genre. This would be the equivalent of asking John Madden to write a nuanced review of Pride and Prejudice or asking me to write about Babe Ruth calling his shot in Wrigley Field. Sports writing is not really my strong suit (nor presumably is it Mr. Madden’s to write on Jane Austen, though I apologize if it’s a secret passion).

Still from Game of Thrones, new HBO original series

The New York Times actually has removed her original review from the website. The comment section was closed immediately, presumably after a flood of mail from angry geeks like myself. I was driven to write the following:

Dear Ms. Bellafante,
It seems strange to me that the New York Times would assign you as a reviewer to a television fantasy series, when you clearly have a contempt for the entire milieu.
I couldn’t help but wonder about the source of such spite; your entire article is suffused with it. Perhaps you envision female fantasy readers with unkempt hair and coke bottle glasses, planning our days around Dungeons & Dragons tournaments and sewing costumes for World of Warcraft conventions.
While I don’t bother to ask that a television reviewer actually crack the book on which the series is based, please don’t insult us with cliched generalities (“the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic”).
The deepest cut, perhaps, is this paragraph:
“The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”
The only patronizing turned out here is emanating from you, Ms. Bellafante. There’s really no need to insult the multitudes of men -and- women who happen to enjoy fantasy.
To love fantasy is to love a world other than the one we inhabit. Fantasy invites us down the morlock holes, through the looking glass, into the magic wardrobe, back to the past and into the future. Bad fantasy is laughable, but every genre has its embarrassments. The fantasy and science fiction of yesterday is the technology of today.
Is it escapist? Yes. But who has not submerged themselves willingly in their favorite book, movie or television show without that end in view? What’s so flawless about the world we live in that we can’t leave for awhile?
In closing, I can only return to your own words: “the series…ought to come with a warning like, “If you can’t count cards, please return to reruns of ‘Sex and the City.’ ”
Ms. Bellafante, Carrie and Friends await.


Anna, “Boy Fiction” Lover

You can read her defensive response to the wrath of the geek hordes here: