I was recently drawn to a poem by John Keats because of the French title, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (The Beautiful Woman without Mercy). This was a little misleading as only the title was in French. However, I am so glad to have made its acquaintance!

La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a hauntingly, beautiful ballad which Keats wrote in 1819 at 23 years of age. He would die of tuberculosis just two years later. Before his untimely death, Keats had not only learned French, but had also learned Latin AND had translated the Aeneid. How could such a young man have acquired this proficiency in linguistics as well as have such great insight into love, beauty, evil and death and be able to express his philosophical understanding of these in such a finite way? Even more astounding is the fact that he was licensed as a surgeon and apothecary before he began publishing his poetry. I am in awe.
In “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, Keats portrays a story of love and loss through a knight-at-arms who is seduced by a strange, fairylike woman. He is lulled into a dream-like state by “the lady in the meads/full, beautiful-a faery’s child” soon after she expresses her love for him through song. In his dream, he meets kings and princes who cry, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” as a warning. After he awakens on a “cold hillside”, he realizes the dark ironies of life and loss of love and consequently “sojourns, alone” where the sedge is withered from the lake and “no birds sing”. “The Belle Dame” has used her supernatural powers to destroy his love. Some believe that this was an allegory of Keats’ feelings for Fanny Brawne or perhaps for poetry itself.

Keats uses a stanza of three iambic tetrameter lines followed by a fourth dimetric line. This slows the movement down and gives more emphasis to the rhyme scheme. This style was very common in ballads of this time. In addition, the questioner, the knight, is not revealed as is also common in ballads.
The alliteration here helps create an aural rhythm is also very pleasing to the ear: “ 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…

Upon further research of this poem, I found that Keats copied the title of his poem from the French poet Alain Chartier, who wrote the original “La Belle Dame sans Merci” in 1424. Chartier’s poem is written in le moyen français, or Middle French (from the 14th-17th century and therefore very challenging for me to translate!) It is quite a bit longer than Keats’ poem with 100 octave stanzas of alternating dialogue between “L’Amant” (a male lover) and “La Belle Dame”. As in Keats’ poem, the mourning poet is wandering (by horseback) in sadness and comes upon his “belle dame” who offers her love and then refuses him. Perhaps Keats was inspired by Chartier’s “La Belle Dame”and this, in a way, is a tribute. [I hope to find a Keat’s scholar among my readers to help me with this idea!]
For my French readers, here is the first stanza of Chartier’s poem in Middle French:
Nagaires chevauchant pensoye
Com home triste et doloreux
Au dueil ou il faut que je soye
Le plus dolent des amoureux
Puis que par son dart rigoreux
La mort me tolly ma maistresse
Et me laissa seul langoreux
En la conduite de Tristesse

I tried to translate this into Modern French and this was the closest I could get:
Nageurs chevauchant penser
Comme homme triste et douloureux
Au deuil où il faut que je sois
Le plus dolent des amoureux
Puis que par son dart rigoreux
La mort me tolle ma maistresse
Et me laissa seul langoreux
En la conduite de Tristesse
There are many inspiring classics by Keats: “Hyperion”, “Endymion”, “Eve of St. Agnes” and his many “Odes”. I am grateful for this arcane little treasure which brought me joy!

Copyright 2018 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (