Tuesday, March 23, 2010

La belle dame sans merci in "The Eve of St. Agnes"

This post is in response to Liz's post.
Liz, I love the painting you posted, and I think the question you raise is really interesting. I guess we tend to focus on the anguish of the knight at the end of the poem, of how he was tricked, but you made a point that perhaps there was some other motive for her love...and yes I agree with you that La Belle Dame sans Merci has probably duped a string of men.
ALSO, this poem is connected to Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes," which is definitely about perverse romance. The longer poem "...Eve..." can be read in many different ways, but what is most..."perverted" about the poem is that Porphyro breaks into the castle to be united with his love Madeleine on a stormy winter night, and her room is the only safe place of warmth in the entire castle of his enemies, and he ends up taking advantage of her. It is never really clear whether he rapes her, but it is interesting to see the effect of the poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci" when Madeleine hears it:

Awakening up, he took her hollow lute,—
Tumultuous,—and, in chords that tenderest be, 290
He play’d an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence call’d, “La belle dame sans mercy:”
Close to her ear touching the melody;—
Wherewith disturb’d, she utter’d a soft moan:
He ceased—she panted quick—and suddenly 295
Her blue affrayed eyes wide open shone:
Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.

Madeleine wakes up horrified (to find Porphyro in her bed, the eerie song of "La belle dame sans merci," or probably a combination). Her agitated gaze has the power to turn the flesh of her lover into "smooth sculptured stone." The fact that Porphyro chooses this song to play can mean no good can come to the lovers, and this dream actually appears to be a nightmare to Madeleine. The song could be a prefiguration of what is to come. Unlike most other star struck lovers in poetry, Madeleine and Porphyro escape into the night together without being caught. However, the poem ends there, the two lovers out in the "bitter cold," nobody having heard of them since that desolate winter night. The fact that they venture into the raging storm does not seem like it is going to bode well for them, and even if their love does last, it probably ends up being the kind of weird and obsessive love for a lover who appears to be less than real, or an illusion.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post, Clara. I think your reading of the two poems together supports Liz's contention that La Belle Dame is not entirely a temptress in the shorter poem, and that we should consider further the power dynamics playing out in the text.