la belle dame sans merci

1.  Identify all of the different voices in the poem; how many are there? how to they interact (i.e., do they echo one another? undermine one another? both?)?  What is the function/significance of these interacting voices?

2.  Does this poem express a fear or resentment of women?  why or why not?

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10 Responses to la belle dame sans merci

  1. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    I’ve never read this poem as being directed at women at all. I could be wrong, but I always felt that La Belle Dame was poetry itself– or perhaps the poetic muse.

    The narrator comes upon the knight in a place of barrenness– in the autumn when creation is dying and likens him to early summer flowers that are fading–his promise is dying. A knight is arguable a person who’s occupation is to make death and destruction.

    The knight tells the narrator that he met a maid who inspired him to make “garlands…and bracelets”– ornaments of beauty from nature. The contrasts with the usual occupation of a knight which is to make war and death.

    He then “set her on [his] pacing steed and nothing else saw all day long”– in other words he objectifies her. He makes poetry an end in itself and the entire focus of his experience. In return she feeds him and tells him she loves him. But it is important to note that she tells him of her love “in language strange” rather and in plain words that he cannot doubt. In fact every communication from the maiden is uncertain because it is filtered through the desire of the knight.

    He then tries to tame her wildness by closing “her wild wild eyes/ With kisses four”– after which she lulls him to sleep. But he soon finds that it is an illusion. He dreams of other warriors with “starved lips” who had been taken in by the promise of poetry.

    The creation of poetry gives us the illusion that we can reverse our own ends from that of death (like the warriors) to the creation of beauty and eternal life (through poetry). By objectifying poetry as an end in itself the warriors starve themselves because poetry does not really “feed” the soul–it is an illusion.– Remember Elizabeth Bennet’s comments on poetry–it is instead an experience of nature/life which is fleeting, that we neither control, nor make an object of without finding ourselves desolate and alone when the experience leaves us.

    What do you think?

  2. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    PS– I have always felt the Waterhouse “La Belle Dame San Merci” is the best painting of this poem– if you notice the knight is so enthralled by the maiden that you can hardly see his own face.

  3. carmelohman says:

    Rather than expressing an explicit relationship with poetry, I think that this poem embodies the act of self-reflection, particularly in the wake of the Enlightenment. The voices in the poem both belong to the “knight-at-arms,” who may or may not be the poem’s author. In the first three stanzas, I believe that the old “knight-at-arms” is addressing the new “knight-at-arms,” who is fundamentally changed on a number of levels. In any case, our main character is self-questioning because he feels detached from himself – he has lost his identity, (I think) as a result of the movement away from strictly defined roles, characteristic of the Enlightenment. In his introspection, he is trying to find out how he got to this place of emptiness, disorientation, and despair. I think the lady, the faery, is representative of the ideas of the Enlightenment – both are infinitely intriguing, alluring, and tempting, but not likely to lead to happiness. If the lady represents Enlightenment, she also represents a detachment from religious order and its steadfast rules of conduct – its prescribed formulas for life on earth and its comforting promises of eternal bliss. In turning his head towards her, in seeing nothing else, he is flouting religious convention. In his reflection on the described events, too, he is turning his back to God, because he is asking questions of himself rather than of a higher power. Of course, this interpretation only works if you believe, as I do, that both voices in the poem belong to the same individual.

    It’s also significant that the knight-at-arms “set [the lady] on [his] pacing steed,” hence placing her above himself – he places her on a figurative pedastle, in a position of reverence. So in his pursuit of humanism (as per my analysis), he has suppressed certain aspects of himself – namely, a more solid concept of self or identity. Seduced by the ideas of the Enlightenment and in a heady stupor, he has allowed himself to be led astray and finds himself in an altogether unknown place – a place that has an abstract, otherwordly quality, just like the faery herself. It is because he finds himself in a woe-filled place that he feels deceived by her. He feels that she misrepresented herself (“She look’d at me as she did love”) because she seemed to promise sweetness and beauty, but gave him only sorrow. In our historical reality, freedom of thought and pursuit of knowledge may too have seemed to promise a deeper, more meaningful happiness, but doubtless have led many to feelings of hopelessness and purposelessness.

    It’s impossible to ignore Keats’ repetition of the word “wild,” which, through word association, one might link with the concepts of defiance, freedom, lack of restraint, and lack of structure – all concepts that have at one time or another been associated with the Enlightenment. Most significant is Keats’ reference to the faery’s wild eyes, as eyes are often interpreted as windows to the soul. The faery is therefore wild by nature – she is essentially wild and cannot be separated from her wildness.

    Taking this week’s Zizeck’s reading into account, part of the obscurity surrounding the speaker – the “knight-at-arms” – relates to the radical contingency of naming. If we accept that both voices in the poem belong to the same person, how can we account for the drastic change that he has undergone? Can the person who speaks in the first three stanzas be lumped together with the person who speaks through the rest of the poem? His defining characteristics certainly seem at odds with each other. The first speaker is a confident optimist who urges the second speaker to emerge from his pale prison. The second speaker is so unquestionably lost and bewildered that his physical aspect has actually changed (he’s lost the rose in his cheeks). Can we use the signifier “knight-at-arms” even “through a change of all its descriptive features” (Zizeck 104)?

    Further to Professor Earle’s question regarding the poem’s expression of fear or resentment towards women, it could of course be meaningful that Keats chooses to embody the concepts of wildness and deception in female form.

  4. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    That’s a really interesting reading Carmel! I like it! But I’m having a little difficulty with the suggestion that lack of restraint or structure –ie wildness– is associated with the Enlightenment. I think what you mean is that they are associated with the Revolution– or perhaps the idealism of the Enlightenment which led to it? Because I don’t think there is anything “wild” about self-reflection. It seems to me to be quite the opposite and I imagine that the Enlightenment writers would agree with me. Wildness seems to imply the exclusion of rational thought.

    Also I think it’s important to note that he “set her on [his] pacing steed–And nothing else saw all day long”– in other words, he put her IN FRONT of him on the horse– not above him. Slightly sexual imagery there I think. I suppose you could argue that she left him him on the horse while he waited around and eventually she came back with “wild honey” etc– but this seems unlikely because the following two stanzas are completely about their interaction that day. So seeing “nothing else…all day long” I gather to mean nothing else BUT HER. If that makes sense.

    This isn’t to say that I disagree with your reading mind you, but I think it might be more helpful to assume that instead of “enlightenment” or “poetry” what we both mean is that the lady embodies a kind of idealism and perfection which can be infatuating, and yet starves the soul when we objectify it and make it an end in itself. We cannot actually exist on it. What do you think?

    • Mandy Woo says:

      The lady does indeed embody the “terrifying power of fascination” (Zizek 76) and indeed we cannot wholly exist on it, but we cannot exist without it. Chronologically, the reader is given what Zizek calls the “knot of meanings” (74) from the “symptom” (74) of the “knight-at-arms” (Keats lines 1,5) by three different speakers. The first stanza suggests the first speaker comes across the knight-at-arms in the winter when the “sedge has wither’d from the lake,/ And no birds sing” (3-4), and the second stanza suggests the second speaker comes across the knight-at-arms in the autumn, right after the “squirrel’s granary is full,/ And the harvest’s done” (7-8). The first two speakers echo each other in a false lamentation of the knight’s “ail[ment]” (1 and 5) as (true) spectacle, but undermine each other in tone: the first is curious without sincere interest and the second is superficially rhetorical and somewhat exasperated with the knight’s appearance (disinterested with interest). In the third stanza, the third speaker escapes the circle of lamentation and is more observant:

      I see a lily on thy brow
      With anguish moist and fever dew,
      And on thy cheeks a fading rose
      Fast withereth too.

      There is ambiguity between orgasm and death. The “lily” (Keats 9) is associated with femininity and also one’s grave. ‘La petite mort’ is encapsulated in “anguish moist and fever dew/ And on thy cheeks a fading rose” (10-11). The rose is not fresh, it is “fading” (11) and “Fast withereth” (12), or in other words, impressions of intrigue and mystery, tools employed by fascination, must now answer to delineation. In the fourth to eleventh stanza, the knight responds to the third speaker before responding in the twelfth and last stanza to the spectacle or the first speaker. The second speaker, it seems, is not worth his time to acknowledge.
      In responding to the third speaker, the knight identifies the warning itself as “horrid” (42) which does not suggest a fear or resentment of women. Rather, without the “horrid warning” (42) he wouldn’t have attained a consciousness of the “cold hill side” (36, 44), a falling out of fascination. The knight’s vision in the “gloam” or the obscurity of ideology is interrupted by “starved lips” (41) whose metonymy reminds him of the limits of the possible Thing (Zizek 76). This exile by the recognition of the impossible Thing, to exist wholly as the impossible Thing (Zizek 77), is cause for real lamentation by the knight, who mourns, “And there I dream’d – Ah! woe betide!/ The latest dream I ever dream’d” (Keats 34-35). The knight reports “I awoke and found me here” (43), a “me” (43) that is not ‘myself’ and thus the knight becomes a source of terror when ideology ceases to be only a representation, “the meaning obscur[ing] the terrifying impact of its presence” (Zizek 77).

      • Tina says:

        I posted my comment before reading yours and now I’m regretting it! Your point about there being 3 speakers – the spring and autumn voices as well as the observant voice is brilliant. Why do you think this is the case? How do seasons come into play, especially in this cold barren landscape that the knight is doomed to wander for all eternity (or chose to do so out of his own autonomy)?

  5. Arin Vaillancourt says:

    When I read this poem I immediately thought of this song and the video that accompanies it. I can’t draw many exact connections in terms of symbolism and what not, but for me, this video evokes the same feeling that this poem did. A feeling of biter sadness. I do not know why, but that is the feeling I get. I’d like to know what you guys think.

  6. Rhiannon Gascoigne says:

    That was creepy. I mean it really gave me the heebie jeebies–which oddly the poem doesn’t. Maybe that’s because the feeling of losing an imaginary world is very familiar to me. Not sure how else to describe that. But Oddly enough the film very much reminded me of Coleridge’s “Rime.” The kind of dead but alive thing going on with the mariner’s hand– very much like the video– the way she was animated but acting dead. I didn’t get a sense of longing from the video, but the longing was definitely there in “La Belle Dame”–first impressions

    • Arin Vaillancourt says:

      I never thought of it in connection with the mariner, because I guess it has so much to do with love, but that is interesting that you made that connection. I’ll have to think about that.

  7. Tina says:

    There are two speakers – the one who encounters that sad shell of a man (the shattered remnants of a once-young and hearty lad) as well as the lovelorn knight himself. The first and last stanzas connect to form a circle suggesting that the spell she has cast over him has doomed him to eternal unrest. The first voice suggests innocence, probably a voice that is unfamiliar to the sensual world of love. It talks about homely, rural objects such as squirrel’s harvesting before winter and flowers – a lily and a fading rose. The second voice, the knight’s, is still intoxicated with the erotic charms of the damsel as he obsesses over her “[making] sweet moan”, “honey wild and manna-dew”,”[weeping] and [sighing] full sore.” It is the experienced voice teaching the inexperienced: beware of woman, this is what they can do to you.

    While I understand and appreciate what Rhiannon has to say about the poem being about the poetic muse, I still see evidence to suggest that resentment/fear against women is being manisfest in this poem. She is a distraction – she causes knights to abandon their duties and go frolicking on yonder pastures. Her beauty is bewitching with a touch of the supernatural. She conjures up potions with exotic ingredients and speaks in “language strange” – (a passionate, uncontrollable outburst in the peak of an orgasm?), and sings faery songs. She weaves a spell on the strongest men of the kingdom and renders them weak, mindless zombies. She destroys men, making them give up their purposes and responsibilities in life to just sojourning and loitering around a barren, cold landscape, pining after love.

    And Arin, thank you for sharing the video! I do get a glimpse of what you’re trying to express – this sense of how love is a bitter shackle that strips you of all self-respect and imprisons you. The knight becomes a human shell, wandering the landscape like a brain dead zombie, gnawing at his feverish obsession over ‘her’. The girl in the vid, wallowing in self-pity and inferiority, cannot bring herself to compare to the big, ‘savior’ figure that her lover appears to her. (Sorry I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic – I generally need more time before a song can enter my system then I can start really digging my claws into the core of the song.)

    BUT, the poem is romantic. Heck, the song too is romantic. The desire (erotic or otherwise) just screams out in every line – the yearning and wanting. In philosophy-speak, it’s jouissance to the most nuanced degree.

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