Merciless Beauty


One of the poems that has never ceased to fascinate me is Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci.  Recently the poem featured in my blog post, Secrets of the Knight.  The haggard Knight also features momentarily in the novel I’m writing.  At the age of 16, the protagonist of the novel writes an English assignment titled The Quest of Keats’ Knight, which his English teacher, Father Joseph Kunnel, finds scandalous.  While the priest was doing everything within his capacity to bring up the boy as a God-fearing Catholic, the boy seemed bent upon following in the disastrous footsteps of the romantic poet’s Knight.  Let me quote the relevant lines from the novel.

The real mercilessness of la Belle Dame lies in her “titillating tantalisation,” argued the essayist.
“Titillating tantalisation!”  Father Joseph was stuck on that phrase for quite a long while.  Interesting, he thought. 
All human quest for the meaning of life is sure to end in futility, Ishan’s essay went on.  The Knight is a prototype of all those who set out on the quest.  

Father Joseph would have been much less scandalised had he heard the interpretation given by his young protégé to his companions.  It was full of sexual innuendoes.  The “pacing steed” on which the Knight “set” the Dame, her “fragrant zone” and her “sweet moan” acquired all the luridness of a fertile adolescent imagination.  But that luridness would have struck the priest as more natural and hence tolerable than the potential blasphemy that lay between the lines in the boy’s essay.  The priest predicts junkiehood for the boy.

But that boy will grow up to understand the association between truth and beauty as envisaged by Keats.  He will grow beyond the puerility of both adolescence and religion.

In another poem, Keats makes an equation between truth and beauty.  “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty,” says he in his Ode to the Grecian Urn

The beauty of life lies in the discovery of the meaning of one’s existence.  The quest for that meaning is as painful and laborious as the Knight’s quest.  Almost endless too, for the romantic souls. 

The meaning of one’s life is a personal discovery, a personal truth.  If one discovers it after the inevitable struggles it will be beautiful.  That is the beauty Keats speaks about.  That is the beauty contained in works of literature and other arts.  That beauty is the artist’s truth. 

I wrote this piece for the latest Indispire theme which also requires me (as I understand) to post the poem.  So here it goes:

La Belle Dame sans Merci

A Ballad


O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!           5
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,            10
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,         15
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.                  20


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,           25
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 there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,                30
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.


And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d                 35
On the cold hill’s side.


I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”            40


I saw their starved 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,                   45
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.


  1. So profoundly penned... this one is truly invigorating!

  2. La Belle Dame sans Merci - I remember reading it last time may be 20 years back in school ! felt so good reading it again

    Beauty is artist's truth - so well said.
    Good luck for ur book

  3. Wonderful for bringing some memories back ....ethereal is the feel

  4. Thanks for the beautiful poem Sir....I don't remember reading it. The conversation between the priest and the boy piques my interest in the plot of your narrative. Titillating tantalization goes beyond its physical appeal and touches the mind of father Joseph who perhaps is on a roller-coaster ride to nowhere. The boy will find the quest fulfilling, just like Keats's knight who despite being left 'cold' has experienced it are all 'pale' in comparison'...

    1. I must thank you, Sunaina, for being the cause of this.

      The boy who will grow up and pass through many phases in that process learns life at first hand instead of accepting given truths which is what religious people do. However, the priest in my novel is intelligent too. But he will use his brains more for controlling the faithful than for understanding them. No roller-coaster for him, in short. He puts others on the roller-coaster!

    2. That makes the ride more thrilling.....doesn't it....!

    3. I suppose. At any rate, we can't live without coming into contact with such people; they are the majority.

  5. I had this poem as part of our English syllabus in college and definitely made for an intriguing read.

    1. Yeah, this poem is usually prescribed at the undergrad level because of its close associations with Keats' view on beauty and art.

      Glad you liked my addition to it.

  6. One of the lovely creations that cannot be forgotten......truly amazing !!!


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