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Posted by Laon on March 13, 1999 at 23:20:18:
In Reply to: Re: Explanation of La Belle Dame Sans Merci? posted by jsoren on March 12, 1999 at 15:06:57:
He's a soldier in the original version: "Oh what can ail thee, Knight at arms?"
But he's just some guy in the revised version: "Oh what can ail thee, wretched wight?"
(In every respect I prefer the original version to Keats' later revisions. "Knight at arms" suits the Spencerian, Arthurian atmosphere of the poem better than "wight".
And why did Keats reverse the order of stanzas five and six? In the original he has his Knight make the Lady garlands and so on from flowers in the meadow where he met her; then he puts her on his horse.
In the revised version he sets her on his horse, and *then* makes her daisy chains and so on. But how can he pick the flowers to do that, when he's already up on a horse? I've ridden a horse. You *cannot* pick meadow flowers from horseback, especially if you've got a penger who's likely to get tipped off if you lean down too far.
Anyway, on to the meaning.
The Lady is, we are told three times ("a faery's child", "a faery's song", and "elfin grot") not human but faery: though the Wight, or Knight, himself does not seem to realise this.
There are many legends about beautiful faery women trapping men - water-nymphs drowning beautiful young men, as in the story of Hylas, from Apollodorus' "Argonautica", better known as "Voyage of the Argonauts", better known in Hollywood as "Jason and the Golden Fleece".
And of beautiful faeries who lead men into the elfin, eldritch world, where their enchantment turns to horror as terrible things happen to them.
In "La Belle Dame sans Merci" it's not clear exactly what happens to the Knight, or Wight, in Keats' poem, but the general intent is clear enough. They spend one night together. In the night he dreams of her other victims, the men who have preceded him. They warn him that the lady is "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" (beautiful lady without mercy), and she has him in thrall, that is, enslavement. He wakes up no longer with her in her "elfin grot" (ual allusion there? I think so), but alone on the cold hill side. Where it seems he cannot leave, though there's nothing to eat, and if he stays he's going to starve to death. Once dead, he's going to join the other pale warriors, the Lady's previous victims, and appear too late to warn the next guy.
That is, the pale Kings and Warriors aren't people the Knight has killed (and the wight, in the revised version, may never have gone to war or killed anyone). They're people killed by the Lady.
So what we have, essentially, is a horror story, and a good one.
Underneath, and not far underneath, we have misogyny: fear of the destructive power of women.
You could read what the Lady does to the Knight, or Wight, as enchanting him with her glamour, making him fall in love, and then leaving him pining. Which is not a million miles from what Keats thought Fanny Brawne was doing to him.
You could also read the poem as a parable about venereal disease, specifically syphilis, which patriarchal tradition tends to think of as something spread by desirable but deadly women, generally prostitutes. (In that tradition it's best not to ask how the prostitutes got the venereal disease in the first place, because that focusses on men as spreaders of syphilis.) Certainly, all approaches to containing VD, before AIDS that is, focussed on women as the agents of transmission, not on men. This was not for sound epidemiological reasons, but simple old-fashioned misogyny: women-as-carriers-of-disease. Keats' poem, in so far as it is about VD, is one small pebble in that patriarchal edifice.
"In so far as it is about syphilis"? Keats, you'll recall, was a medical student. He was familiar with the symptoms of syphilis, which was then practically untreatable, except by mercury, also prussic acid, both of which did enormous harm to the patient. Byron, and possibly Shelley, both treated themselves for syphilis in this way; I've read that the pre-penicillin treatment, though dangerous, is actually effective. Paleness, madness, wasting away; Keats would have seen these, in sufferers from tertiary syphilis.
That doesn't mean the poem is "about" syphilis. I think it's "about" the danger - to men, and specifically to himself - that Keats saw in the beauty and power of women. The danger has an emotional aspect "("they make us fall in love/lust with them, and then dump us") and a physical one ("they give us horrible, long-term, wasting diseases"). I think that the poem is not "about" syphilis, but includes syphilis among the dangers posed by women.
So I think "La Belle Dame sans Merci" is misogyny, I'm afraid. But at least it's extremely beautiful misogyny.
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