Nov 12, 2010

November and Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad"

left: earth's first modest swan

La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad by John Keats : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Every November, two lines from Keats find their way into my consciousness: “The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing.”

Like “The Eve of St. Agnes,” Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (“The Beautiful Lady without Pity”) is probably easy to mock in our time. On one level, it’s surely a silly soap opera that leans on overly familiar medieval tropes and plot, and some of the variations in meter sound simply awkward.

However, I give Keats credit for replacing the vision of the lady with images of pale warriors; I find genuine mystery there, mostly concerning the blurred boundary between the sleeping or visionary world and the waking one. I hear a larger question: “Where am I, and how did I get here? How many of my choices had anything to do with rational, conscious decision-making?”

As for music or meter, I hope someone else hears and loves as I do the shift from traditional ballad meter (alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines, plus a rhyme scheme of abxb). Most of Keats' stanzas here have final lines with two stresses rather than the traditional three. And when we do get three, they arrive as a trio of beats on a bass drum—consecutive hard stresses in “cold hill’s side” and even more so in “no birds sing.”

I’m tempted to say the whole poem is embodied in those final three words and the stresses upon them. Wherever he is, and we are, it’s hard, it’s cold, it’s bare. So is November; so are some—or many—of the loveliest humans. And so is the visionary world when it vanishes and returns to cold consciousness, awake and rational, but dazed, chilled, and alone.

Now hie thee thither into yon pearly weekend, and may'st thou never again feel mid-November in thy bones without hearing, "The sedge has withered from the lake/And no birds sing."



Anonymous said...

This happens to be one of my favorite Keats' poems; I even remember the first time I read it. It was a favorite of Fitzerald's too, and an inspiration (in addition to the obvious one) for his lead female characters.

Banjo52 said...

Good info, AH. Thank you.

gothpunkuncle said...

Here's a little something more for your autumnal collection -- complete with banjo, and do we ever really hear enough saw these days? ( I'll entice you to whore your photographic skills for my next cd somehow.):

Banjo52 said...

GPU--And I worried that the Keats was a downer . . . Man, that's one dark song/poem and an even darker rendering of it. But I must say, it's creative, and the pictures go great with the lyrics. I see that Waits sings it (I thought it might be some Michigan guy). Did he also write it?

For the record, this has been the nicest Michigan November I can remember. So far, only the short days and the knowledge of what's ahead need to be shot (a ref. to the Waits song). But we're also only at day 12.

Jean Spitzer said...

I associate this poem with a movie: Margie (1946). I found a you-tube video tribute to Jeanne Crain with a few seconds from it, around 1:30ish,

The movie is a favorite and is from a story by one of my favorite writers, Ruth McKenney, and has a wonderful scene involving the poem.

This is just the credits from the movie:

Michelle said...

Lovely words, that I was not quite familiar with. Thank you

Brenda's Arizona said...

One cold poem...
In the middle, a reader can almost feel spring; as Keats' describes the belle dame, certainly your heart sailed to a springtime love? Does he hint at the Indian Summer that is the final touch of lightness before the dark of winter?

I'm going to find a sweater. The cold is penetrating.

And the shy swan - tell us more about what you saw?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I tried...twice (or should I say thrice)

I'm like the kid preferring colored TV to black and white. Yup, I'm simple that way; but I do like the photo you took of the swan behind the dried reeds.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, is she somewhat under-recognized? I certainly know the title "Margie," but I'm not even sure I know the name Jeanne Crain.

Farmchick, we try for good words here. Come on back. Nice photos at your place.

Brenda, "And the shy swan - tell us more about what you saw?" I took the shots at Kensington Metropark a couple weeks ago, a fairly biting, grey kind of fall Sunday, but with its own kind of appeal. There'll prob. be more here from that day.

PA, thanks. I was trying to come up with something at least a little unusual with a swan--all that grace and dignity, bah humbug. So maybe her seeming to hide is a little interesting and a little like Keats' la belle dame--even a hint of visionary swan, or is that pushing it?

Some poems and art of all kinds will always be B&W to some well-intentioned viewers, I think. Maybe that's when I give up and concede the expertise of the experts. But sometimes I kick and scream while giving up. Oh, the list of classics that are B&W in BanjoBrain . . . But I really like the two opening and two concluding stanzas in this poem.

Anonymous said...

And I love the middle of the poem, starting with

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.

As with FSF, you have to fall a little in love yourself, else you won't buy the story.

Jean Spitzer said...

You probably are thinking of something else called Margie. McKenney ( ) wrote a story about growing up as a precocious teen in a small town. And Keats' poem features in that story.

Probably the thing she's most famous for is My Sister Eileen (Wonderful Town).

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