Friday, December 20, 2013

Victorian Fantasy: "La Belle Dame sans Merci"

This month’s meeting of the Victorian Fantasy discussion group addressed John Keats’s “pocket epic” poem of 1819, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Sir JJ Drinkwater coined that oxymoron, and what an appropriate term it is!

Despite its brief length, a mere twelve stanzas of four lines each, the poem relates a tale in which a traveler encounters a knight, “alone and palely loitering” in a place where “the sedge has withered from the lake, and no birds sing.” The knight then tells of meeting a lady - “full beautiful - faery’s child” - who, “in language strange,” declared her love for him. The lady induces the knight to sleep, where he dreams of “pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death-pale were they all” who were similarly seduced by the fae lady. He awakes, alone, on the hill where he met the traveler.

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Left to right: Dame Kghia Gherardi, Mr. Simeon Beresford, Miss Sanchia Bumblefoot

The Poetry Foundation describes the poem as follows:
This dialectical probing of enchantment, of the always-threatened artifice by which imagination seeks its fulfillment in the world, initiates Keats’s most profound meditations in the spring of 1819. The dangers of enchantment deepen in the haunting, beautifully suggestive ballad, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” written 21 or 28 April 1819, and published in a slightly altered version by Hunt in his Indicator of 10 May 1820. Here a knight-at-arms is seduced by a strange, fairylike woman, reminiscent of Morgan Le Fay or Merlin’s Niniane, and in the midst of this enchantment a warning dream comes to him from other lost princes and warriors. But his awakening from her does him little good; he wanders “palely” on “the cold hill’s side,” where “no birds sing,” a world as empty of charm as the fay’s was empty of real life. The poem has been seen as allegorical of Keats’s ambivalent feelings for Fanny Brawne or for poetry itself. More fundamental, though, is Keats’s growing sense, here and in his letters, of the dark ironies of life, that is, the ways in which evil and beauty, love and pain, aspiration and finitude, are not so much “balanced” as interwoven in ways that resist philosophical understanding. The more we imagine beauty the more painful our world may seem—and this, in turn, deepens our need for art.

Victorian Literature  Keats 002
Back row: Miss Janet Rhiadra, Miss Zanicia Chau; Front row: Miss Morgan Trevelion, me

Our group discussed the nature of the knight and of the lady; how much time passed when the knight was with the lady; whether she was seductress or whether it was merely her nature that men fell in love with her; and Keats’s influence (folk ballads) and others who may have been influenced by the poem (Tolkien was one suggestion).

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Miss Ravenstask Bayr and Miss Galiena  De Tourney

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Sir JJ Drinkwater, Miss Herndon Bluebird, Miss Thuja Hynes, Miss Ellie Mink

Other interpretations of the poem may be found here and here, both apparently part of a syllabus from a Citiy University of New York English class.

As one can see from the pictures, we had quite a number of people (plus a few stragglers not pictured), many of whom were familiar with Keats in general and this poem in particular. That made for a good, lively discussion, which is always a treat.

The next meeting is scheduled for January 16, where the topic will be the 1850 novel The King of the Golden River, by John Ruskin.

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