La Belle Dame sans Merci1
A dream-poem by John Keats, April 1819
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,
I see a lily on thy brow
'I met a Lady in the Meads,
"I made a Garland for her head,
"I set her on my pacing steed
"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 4
"And there she lulléd me asleep,
"I saw pale Kings, and Princes too,
"I saw their starved lips in the gloam
"And this is why I sojoum here,
Let's ignore the misogyny for a minute, and look at the dream inside the poem. Quite a practical nightmare! It warns the knight what's really happening under his romantic (and Romantic) frenzy. Note that it's not a message from his own unconscious, neither subliminal nor psychic in any modern sense; it's a visitation by the ghosts of the Lady's former victims.
But let's set aside the nightmare's supposed origin, too, and consider its intent. These ghosts look ghastly, yet they're horrifying him constructively. The nightmare means to help. This view isn't a bit archaic; and far from being unique to Keats, it's found all the way through Jung to modern dream-guides like Faraday's The Dream Game and Van de Castle's Our Dreaming Mind.
And I agree. Some of my worst nightmares turn out to be simply literal warnings. Indeed, caution suggests taking nightmares with specific warnings at face value, first, and looking for symbolism only later, once you've checked your brakes and thrown out that questionable fish and perhaps exchanged that plane ticket. Better naive than dead.
Though this haggard knight might disagree. He seems homesick for his fey lover. Very Romantic, this longing. In Nigeria there's a word for it: abiku, "homesickness for the spirit world". Westerners have a duller phrase: "failure to thrive".
It makes for fine drama, but not, I think, a happy life. Or life at all.
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