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by Ian Reynolds

The poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ by John Keats was first published on May 10, 1820 in Leigh Hunt’s The Indicator. Keats’s health was failing, and under pressure he agreed to certain revisions to the original draft of the poem, which had never been published previously. He used a pseudonym ‘Caviare’; this choice perhaps, rather mischievously, coming from Hamlet’s ‘caviary to the general’, suggesting that the subject matter might be unsuitable for the ignorant. Perhaps it could also have been a dig at Keats’s past critics, as they also used pseudonyms to afford a degree of protection against the possibility of libel proceedings, including ‘Z’ at Blackwood’s Magazine who had attacked Keats and the so-called ‘Cockney school of poetry’ twenty months earlier.

A few weeks later, in June 1820, his final book of poetry was published: Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems. The great Odes are mostly all included, but ‘La Belle’ was not, seemingly, worthy for publication.  In 1848, twenty-seven years after Keats’s death, the original version of the poem is published in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats by Richard Monckton Milnes. This is the version we all know today—not The Indicator version.

There is little, if any, literary criticism or analysis of the poem in the nineteenth century.  It was, however, visually interpreted by a number of artists, in particular the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They savoured the imagery of La Belle, its medievalism, romance, and echoes of chivalry.

In more recent times the poem has become revered by many as one of their favourite Keats poems. It is unlike anything Keats wrote before, or after, and is unique; ambiguous, and mystical; an ethereal fairy tale dream, rich with textual sensuality, or alternatively, a nightmare tryst, with a dark theme of loss, deprivation and abandonment.  There are so many ways it can be read, giving the reader total freedom to have their own interpretation; perhaps this is why it is so highly regarded.

‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (1902) by Frank Dicksee
Bristol Museum, Galleries and Archives @bristolmuseum

The poem was included in a long journal letter that Keats sent to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana in America, dated April 21, 1819.  Without any introduction or explanation, it seems to have effortlessly sprung from his mind directly on to the page. The only commentary he offers is a joke after the end of the poem about why there were four kisses in stanza eight (And there I shut her wild wild eyes/With Kisses four). He said that he considered writing seven kisses, but three and a half kisses each, would have been awkward, and that two a-piece was quite sufficient; four also fits the rhyming sequence with full sore.

The letter was written during the most creative period of the ‘Living Year’ in which Keats composed most of his important work, including ‘Ode to Indolence’, ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘Ode to Melancholy’ and finally in September, ‘To Autumn’.

Keats borrowed the title of ‘La Belle’ from an early fifteenth-century French poem by Alain Chartier. He had already used the phrase in ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, in which Porphyro sings for Madeline ‘an ancient ditty, long since mute, /In Provence call’d, “La belle dame sans merci”. The poem ‘La Belle’ resurrects the age-old tale of the ‘femme fatale’, or fatal woman, an enchantress who traps men by her beauty, and it almost always goes badly for the man leading to his decay and destruction.

The characters in the poem are the Speaker, who questions the Knight in stanzas (i) and (ii) and observes in (iii) ‘lily on thy brow, anguish moist and fever dew’ and ‘on thy cheeks a fading rose fast withered too’, all symbolic of illness, decay and death. The Knight then takes over the narration to tell the Speaker how he met the Lady and what subsequently happened. In (vii) the Lady speaks ‘in language strange’ “I love thee true”, which rather begs the question, if the language was strange how did the Knight know what she said? In (ix) the lady ‘lulled’ the Knight to sleep, and this could be taken to mean that she has deceived or tricked him, and by (x) and (xi) the Knight tells of his nightmare when he ‘saw pale kings and princes too’ and they warn him that the Lady ‘hath thee in thrall!’ In (xii) the Knight concludes that as a result he has been left ‘alone and palely loitering’ in a desolate and withered landscape, where ‘no birds sing’.

Amy Lowell, in her 1925 biography, believed that Keats created ‘La Belle’ during one of his ‘special moods’, when he was liable to drop what he was doing and switch to something else.  Lowell maintains that its unique character among Keats’s work suggests it was essentially an experimental poem, and that had illness not intervened, this would have been a direction which he would have followed.

In a lecture entitled ‘”O what can ail thee?”: Keats, History, Trauma’, Richard Marggraf-Turley, professor of English Literature at Aberystwyth University, offers a more ‘modern’ interpretation of the poem, arguing that it can be interpreted as a war poem. The poem begins ‘O what can ail thee’, an echo of Keats’s time as a trainee doctor at Guys hospital in London, with its reference to the question doctors typically ask of their patients. The possibility of mental health issues is inferred, especially relevant in the aftermath of Waterloo (1815). Marggraf-Turley concludes that the battle-worn knight may be suffering from post-traumatic stress, suggesting further that he may be a shirker from his knightly duties—in other words, a deserter.

‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (1926) by Frank Cadogan Cowper, Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York

Turning to how the poem came into being, it might be helpful to review the months leading up to its creation, to explore what was going on in Keats’s life and consider what influences may have affected him. Having already lost his mother to consumption, Keats’s younger brother Tom had passed away from the same disease on December 1, 1818, at just 19. Keats’s brother George and his wife Georgiana were in America. His loneliness was apparent, and after Tom’s death, at the insistence of his friend Brown, Keats moved in with him at Wentworth Place, Hampstead.

In the early spring of 1819 Fanny Brawne and her family moved into the other half of the same villa. Fanny, who became Keats’s great love, was effectively living just through the wall next door, and not surprisingly his spirits and mood lifted.

Walking towards Highgate on April 11 he met a former colleague from Guys Hospital, in the company of  Samuel Taylor Coleridge and after introductions they walked on together. Keats records rather proudly in his letter to George and Georgiana:

“In those two Miles he broached a thousand things… Nightingales, Poetry, on Poetical sensation, Metaphysics, Dreams, …Nightmare, a dream accompanied by a sense of touch… a dream related, First and second consciousness…Monsters, the Kraken, Mermaids… A Ghost story…”

Here we have nightmares, dreams, monsters, mermaids and a ghost story all mentioned – all food for thought.

On April 15, Keats collected the last of his brother Tom’s possessions and correspondence, and read for the first time, the bogus ‘Amena Bellafila’ letters forged by mutual friend Charles Wells. These were sent to Tom two years earlier, written in mock sub-Elizabethan text, as part of an elaborate hoax, for reasons which are still not apparent. Robert Gittings argues that Keats saw his dead brother as a victim of a delusion, and felt that this had hastened Tom’s death. It remains unclear if Tom knew that the Amena letters were fake before he died.

I have been looking over the correspondence of the pretended Amena and Wells this evening. I now see the whole cruel deception… It was no thoughtless hoax, but a cruel deception on a sanguine Temperament with every show of friendship. I do not think death too bad for the villain… I consider it my duty to be prudently revengeful. I will hang over his head like a sword by a hair. I will be opium to his vanity, if I cannot injure his interests. He is a rat… I will harm him all I possibly can.

The language and tone here are very uncharacteristic of Keats’s normally placid temperament.

These months had been full of mixed emotions: the loss of Tom; the discovery of the Amena betrayal; the uncertainty of his future prospects offset by the love affair with Fanny Brawne. All these competing emotions played their role in creating the ‘special mood’ that led to the creation of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ on April 21, 1819. Did Keats think back and identify the dying Tom as the knight, deceived by the false Amena and betrayed to his death by a phantom lady? Is the ‘faery’s child’ in ‘La Belle’ an embodiment of Fanny Brawne? Or is she ‘Isabella’ with her Pot of Basil, Madeline from ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, or the mysterious and sophisticated Isabella Jones (an acquaintance he met in the spring of 1817)? Or was she an amalgam of them all?

‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (1905) by Rose Cecil O’Neill

 

 

Note: This post is an edited version from a much longer article Alone and Palely Loitering: The Mystery of John Keats ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ which is more detailed and looks at similarities and other influences that Keats may have had.

 

Bibliography

Robert Gittings, John Keats: The Living Year, (London: Heinemann, 1954)

Amy Lowell, John Keats, 2 Vols. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1925)

Grant F. Scott, Ed. Selected Letters of John Keats, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005)

Richard Monckton Milnes, Life Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats, 2 Vols. (London: Edward Moxon, 1848)

 

Ian Reynolds is a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Oxfordshire.  He has a personal interest in those associated with the Keats-Shelley Circle, and poets of the Romantic period, especially John Keats.  He is unaffiliated.  Ian’s other interests include reading, listening to music, particularly rock and jazz, road cycling and wine.

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