Thursday, May 1, 2008

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

The haunting poem by John Keats about "the beautiful lady without pity" figured prominently in J.R. Salamanca's Lilith, a novel about a man obsessed with a mentally-ill woman. It hearkens back to the old Celtic fairy lore which gave rise to many medieval myths, especially in Arthurian legend. It can also be seen as an allegory of seduction and the fall from virtue. The seducer, be it man or woman, has no regard for the soul or the ultimate well-being of the other person.


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, 10
And on thy cheeks 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, 15
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. 20


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, 30
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 35
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!” 40


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.



Brantigny said...

In the Jewish Caballa, Lilith is the first wife of Adam, and she was not nice.


Enbrethiliel said...


Lilith is also mentioned in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. If I remember correctly, the dwarfs of Narnia are supposed to be the children he had with her before he married Eve.