1820
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad.

The Indicator (10 May 1820).

John Keats


In Leigh Hunt's Indicator Keats's poem is signed "Caviare." The headnote remarks on the relation of imagination to history: "Among the pieces printed at the end of Chaucer's works, and attributed to him, is a translation, under this title, of a poem of the celebrated Alain Chartier, secretary to Charles the Sixth and Seventh. It was the title which suggested to a friend the verses at the end of our present Number. We wish Alain could have seen them. He would have found a Troubabour air for them, and sung them to La Belle Dame Agnes Sorel, who was, however, not Sans Mercy. The union of the imaginative and the real is very striking throughout, particularly of the dream. The wild gentleness of the rest of the thoughts and of the music are alike old, and they are alike young; for love and imagination are always young, let them bring with them what times and accompaniments they may. If we take real flesh and blood with us, we may throw ourselves, on the facile wings of our sympathy, into what age we please. It is only by trying to feel, as well as to fancy, through the medium of a costume, that writers become fleshless masks and cloaks — things like the trophies of the ancients, when they hung up the empty armor of an enemy" (1819-21, 1845) 211.

Lord Byron to John Murray: "The Edinburgh praises Jack Keats or Ketch, or whatever his names are: why, he is the [Onanism] of Poetry — something like the pleasure an Italian fiddler extracted out of being suspended daily by a Street Walker in Drury Lane. This went on for some weeks: at last the Girl went to get a pint of Gin — met another, chatted too long, and Cornelli was hanged outright before she returned. Such like is the trash they praise, and such will be the end of the [outstretched] poesy of this miserable Self-polluter of the human Mind" 4 November 1820; Letters and Journals, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (1898-1901) 5:109.

M. M. Bhattacherje: "'La Belle dame sans merci' owes something indeed to Spenser's episode of Cymocles and Phaedria, but it is far more weird and sinister than anything in Spenser" Keats and Spenser (1944) 90.

Miriam Allott: "Her nearest relatives are Spenser's Duessa, false Florimel, and Phaedria, who share her 'garland' and 'fragrant zone,' her sighs 'full sore' and 'sweet mone" Spenser Encyclopedia (1990) 417.

Greg Kucich: "The specific details of its brief allegory, where a 'knight at arms' awakens from his dreamed alliance with a fairy maiden to find himself alone on 'the cold hill's side' (lines 1, 44), recall Arthur's story of waking from his dream of 'lovely Blandishment' with Gloriana, 'Queen of Fairies,' to find 'her place devoid, | And nought but pressed Grass where she had lyen' (1.9.15) — a passage Keats underlined in his copy of Hughes's edition of The Faerie Queen. Even the words of the fairy's song in 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci,' 'And sure in language strange she said — | I love thee true' (lines 27-28), echo Gloriana's plea to Arthur: 'Most goodly Glee and lovely Blandishment | She to me made, and bade me love her dear' (1.9.14)" Keats, Shelley, and Romantic Spenserianism (1991) 215n.



Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither'd 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 look'd 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.

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.

And there we slumber'd on the moss
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 cry'd — "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.

[H. Buxton Forman (1900-01) 3:22-25]