O.Wilde, Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. (...)
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. (...)

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. (...)
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself...

O. Wilde (1854-1900),
Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

Monday, January 03, 2011

J. Keats, La Belle Dame sans Merci

John Keats

English Romantic poet
(2nd generation)  

                  La belle dame sans merci

O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has 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 cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

                                                           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 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 sigh’d fill 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’s side.


I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”                                                                    

                                                              I saw pale kings and princes too,
                                                              Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
                                                              They 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’s 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.

La Belle Dame sans Merci  (it means: ‘the beautiful woman without mercy’)  is a ballad written by the English poet John Keats in 1819. He took the title from a 15th century poem by the medieval poet, Alain Cartier (15th century), though the plots of the two poems are quite different.
The poem is considered an English classic and it seems easy to understand at the narrative level. With only a short twelve stanzas, of only four lines each, with a simple ABCB rhyme scheme, the poem is nonetheless full of enigmas, and has been the subject of numerous interpretations.

 stanzas I-III      =  An unidentified passerby asks the knight
                             what is wrong  

          stanzas IV-XII   =  The knight answers  that  he has fallen in
                                       love with and then abandoned by a beautiful

As he is imitating the folk ballad, Keats uses in his poem a simple language, focuses on one event, provides minimal details about the characters, and makes no judgments. Some details are realistic and familiar, others are unearthly and strange. As a result, the poem creates a sense of mystery which has intrigued many readers.

"La Belle Dame sans Merci" was a popular subject for the Pre-Raphaelite painters. (See my Blog Archive)

In the first two lines of stanzas I and II, the anonymous speaker asks a question. The first line of both questions is identical ("O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms"). The second lines differ somewhat:  in stanza I, the question concerns his physical condition ("Alone and palely loitering"); in stanza II, the question gives both the knight's physical state and his emotional state ("Haggard and woe-begone"). This kind of repetition with a slight variation is called incremental repetition and is a characteristic of the folk ballad.
The speaker sees no reason for the knight's presence ("loitering") in such a barren spot (the grass is "wither'd" and no birds sing). Even in this place, not all life is wasteland, however; the squirrel's winter storage is full, and the harvest has been completed. In other words, there is an alternative or fulfilling life which the knight could choose. Thus lines 3 and 4 of stanzas I and II present contrasting views of life.

Stanza III
This stanza is about the knight's physical appearance and mental state, which are associated with dying and with nature. In the previous stanzas, the descriptions of nature are authentic; in stanza III nature is used metaphorically. The knight’s pallor is compared first to the whiteness of a lily, then to a rose; the rose is "fading" and quickly "withereth." The lily, of course, is a traditional symbol of death; the rose, a symbol of beauty. The knight's misery is suggested by the "dew" or perspiration on his forehead.

Stanzas IV-IX
The knight's narrative consists of three units: stanzas IV-VII describe the knight's meeting and involvement with the lady;
stanza VIII presents the climax (he goes with her to the "elfin grot");
the last four stanzas describe his sleep and expulsion from the grotto.

Thus, the first four stanzas (IV-VII) are balanced by the last four stanzas (IX-XII). The poem returns to where it started, so that the poem has a circular movement; reinforcing the connection of the opening and the ending, Keats uses the same language.

In these stanzas the roles of the knight and the lady change.
In stanzas IV, V, and VI, the knight is dominant; lines 1 and 2 of each stanza describe his actions ("I met," "I made," "I set her"), and lines three and four of these three stanzas focus on the lady.
But a shift in dominance occurs; stanza VII is devoted entirely to the lady ("She found" and "she said").
In stanza VIII the lady initiates the action and takes the dominant position in lines 1 and 2 ("She took me" and "she wept and sigh'd"); the knight's actions are presented in lines three and four.
In Stanza IX, she "lull'd" him to sleep (line 1) and he "dream'd." The rest of this stanza and the next two stanzas are about his dream.

Eight and a half lines of this poem are devoted to his dream (the poem itself is only 48 lines long) and the last six lines are about the consequences of the dream.
The men he dreams about are all men of power and achievement (kings, princes, and warriors). Their paleness associates them both with the loitering pale knight and with death; in fact, we are told that they are "death-pale."
The description of her former lovers, with their starved lips and gaping mouths, is chilling.

Stanza XII
Here the knight uses the word "sojourn," which implies he will be there for some time. The repetition of language from stanza I also reinforces the sense of no movement in connection with the knight.
Ironically, although he is not moving physically, he has "moved" or been emotionally ravaged by his dream or vision.

No comments:

Post a Comment