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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,
    Haggard, and so woebegone?
The squirrel's granary is full
    And the harvest done.

I see a lily on thy brow
    With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
    Fast withereth 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 Zone2;
She looked at me as she did love3
    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 4
    And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
    With kisses four.

"And there she lulléd me asleep,
    And there I dreamed, Ah Woe betide!
The latest5 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!6

"I saw their starved lips in the gloam
    With horrid warning gapéd wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
    On the cold hill's side.

"And this is why I sojoum here,
    Alone and palely loitering;
Though the sedge is withered from the Lake
    And no birds sing."

  1. La Belle Dame Sans Merci: the Merciless Fair Lady
  2. fragrant Zone: a wide belt or girdle of flowers
  3. as she did love: as if she loved me
  4. grot: grotto, cave.
  5. latest dream: last dream. Implies he hasn't slept since, and may never again
  6. Thee hath in thrall: Has enslaved you, has bespelled you; far stronger than the modern enthralled.


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.

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: poems in, from and about dreams - elves - love - babes, hunks, and sexy creatures - vampires and parasites - nightmares - ghosts - oops! dreams of mistakes - help and gifts in dreams - guardians and protectors - abiku: homesickness for the spirit world - dreamwork in general - two more Romantic dream-poems: Byron's dream and Kubla Khan - Two centuries later, a dream-poem in the same spirit: A Gothic Tale

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