an invocation of the sensually gothic    
Dark Arts - Painting
Myth, Legend and the Dark Muse
La Belle Dame Sans Merci

'La Belle Dame Sans Merci,' by Sir Frank Bernard Dicksee, 1903
The Romantics of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were fascinated by stories of doomed love, particularly if they involved the supernatural or mystical enchantments.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (the merciless beauty), written by John Keats, can be seen as the compliment to The Lady of Shalott, the poem which also inspired many classic depictions by painters of the same era.

Whereas Lord Tennyson's Lady of Shalott describes the tale of a woman, fatally doomed by her attraction to the knight Sir Lancelot du Lac, 'La Belle Dame' concerns the dangerous beauty of a faery maiden, who so deeply holds a wandering knight in thrall that he becomes a ghost of his former self, doomed to linger on the cold hillside where he finds himself alone after a troubled sleep.

Arthur Hughes and Frank Dicksee depict the knight staring into the eyes of the enchantress, completely under her spell, as she sings 'a faery's song.'

In the J.W. Waterhouse painting, the knight appears to have been taken to the femme fatale's 'elfin grot' where she pulls him down to slumber beside her on the moss.

Frank Cowper's later work has the merciless lady gazing down upon her victim, as he dreams of those who have gone before him, 'death-pale were they all.'

Keats himself took his inspiration from the title of a poem by the court poet of Charles VI.

John Keats died tragically of tuberculosis in 1821 at the age of 26. On his gravestone in Rome where he died is inscribed his epitaph as he wished it to read:

         "Here lies one whose name was writ in water"

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats, 1819

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
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 cheek 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 set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery's song.

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.

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 there she gaz'd and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes--
So kiss'd to sleep.

And there we slumber'd on the moss,
And there I dream'd, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd--"La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee 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 side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.

By Frank Cadogan Cowper, 1926

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