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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

La belle dame sans merci

(La belle dame sans merci by William Russell Flint, 1880-
1969, Scottish artist and illustrator)

A ballad is a poem that tells the story of one event, often tragic, using repetition and simple language and dialogue. Its rhyme and rhythm make it easy to put the words to music. Originally, in medieval times, ballads were sung to accompany a dance. The words “ballad” and “ballet” are both derived from the Late Latin ballare or to dance.

Many ballads belong to the folk literature, written by anonymous authors and subject to changes, large and small, over the years. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, poets came to favor this already popular poetic form and write their own literary ballads.

The poem below is considered by many to be one of the loveliest of the literary ballads. It begins when a person passing by on the side of a hill comes upon a knight at arms who seems lost and dazed. The knight describes his meeting with a beautiful lady without mercy.


O what can ail thee, Knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered 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,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast witherest too —

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 —

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 —

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 then she wept and sigh’d full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And then she lulled me asleep
And there I dream’d, Ah Woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale Kings, and Princes too
Pale warriors, death pale were they all;
They cried, La belle dame sans merci
Thee hath in thrall.

I saw their starv’d 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 withered from the Lake
And no birds sing —

~ John Keats (1795-1821), English Romantic poet

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