Belle Dame sans Merci, by John Keats in music and film

Leggi in italiano

John Melhuish Strudwick

In 1819 the English poet John Keats reworked the figure of the “Queen of Faerie” of Scottish ballads (starting with Tam Lin and True Thomas) in turn writes the ballad “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, giving rise to a theme that has become very popular among the Pre-Raphaelite painters, that of the vamp woman who has however already a consideration in the beliefs of folklore: the
Lennan or leman shee – Shide Leannan (literally fairy child) that is the fairy who seeks love between humans. The fairy, who is both a male and a female being, after having seduced a mortal abandons him to return to his world. The lover is tormented by the love lost until death.
Fairy lovers have a short but intense life. The fairy who takes a human as lover is also the muse of the artist who offers talent in exchange for a devout love, bringing the lover to madness or premature death.
The title was paraphrased from a fifteenth-century poem written by Alain Chartier (in the form of a dialogue between a rejected lover and the disdainful lady) and became the figure of a seductive woman, a dark lady incapable of feelings towards the man the which falls prey to its spell. We are in reverse of the much older theme of “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight

John William Waterhouse – La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893)

THE SEASONS OF THE HEART

In the ballad there are two seasons, spring and winter: in spring among the meadows in bloom, the knight meets a beautiful lady, a forest creature, daughter of a fairy, who enchants him with a sweet lullaby; the knight, already hopelessly in love, puts her on the saddle of his own horse and lets himself be led docilely in the Cave of the Elves; here he is cradled by the dame, who sighs sadly, and he dreams of princes and diaphanous kings who cry out their slavery to the beautiful lady.
On awakening we are in late autumn or in winter and the knight finds himself prostrate near the shore of a lake, pale and sick, certainly dying or with no other thought than the song of the fairy.
The keys to reading the ballad are many and each perspective increases the disturbing charm of the verses

There are two pictorial images that evoke the two seasons of the heart and ballad, the first – perhaps the most famous painting – is by Sir Frank Dicksee, (dated 1902): spring takes the colors of the English countryside with the inevitable roses in the first plan; the lady has just been hoisted on the fiery steed of the knight and with her right hand firmly holding the reins, with the other hand she leans against the saddle to be able to lean towards the beautiful face of the knight and whisper a spell; the knight, in precarious balance, is totally concentrated on the face of the lady and kidnapped.

caitiffknight
Sir Frank Dicksee La Belle Dame sans merci

The second is by Henry Meynell Rheam (painted in 1901) all in the tones of autumn, which recreates a desolate landscape wrapped in the mist, as if it were a barrier that holds the knight prostrate on the ground; while he dreams of pale and evanescent warriors (blue is a typical color to evoke the images of dreams) that warn him, the lady leaves the cave perhaps in search of other lovers.

Curiously, the armors of the two knights are very similar, but both are not really medieval and more suitable for being shown off in tournaments that on the battlefields. Elaborate and finely decorated models date back to the end of the fifteenth century.

Henry Meynell Rheam La Belle Dame sans merci

BELLE DAME SANS MERCI: a “live action short” by Hidetoshi Oneda

The ballad could not fail to inspire even today’s artists, here is a cinematic story a “live action short” directed by the Japanese Hidetoshi Oneda. The short begins with giving body to the imaginary interlocutor who asks the knight “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms …” so we find ourselves in 1819 on an island after the shipwreck of a ship and we witness the meeting between the castaway and an old decrepit kept alive by regret ..

THE PLOT (from here) 1819. The Navigator and the Doctor survive a shipwreck only to find themselves lost in a strange forest. The Navigator is challenged by the gravely ill Doctor into pursuing his true passion – art. While he protests, the ailing Doctor dies. Later, the Navigator is beside a lake, where he finds an Old Knight who tells him his story: once, he encountered a mysterious Lady, and fell in love with her. But horrified by her true form – an immortal spirit and the ghosts of her mortal lovers – the Young Knight begged for release. Awoken and alone, he realized his failure. Thus he has waited, kept alive for centuries by his regret. The Navigator considers his own crossroads. What will he be when he returns to the world?

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Hidetoshi Oneda – 2005

BELLE DAME SANS MERCI IN MUSIC

The first to play the ballad was Charlse Villiers Stanford in the nineteenth century with a very dramatic arrangement for piano but a bit dated today, although popular in his day.
The ballad was put into music by different artists in the 21st century.

Susan Craig Winsberg from La Belle Dame 2008

Jesse Ferguson

Giordano Dall’Armellina from “Old Time Ballads From The British Isles” 2007

Penda’s Fen (Richard Dwyer)

Loreena McKennitt from “Lost Souls” 2018

POETIC READING
 Ben Whishaw

I
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither’d from the lake(1),
And no birds sing.
II
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest ‘s done.
III
I see a lily(2) on thy brow thy
With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.’
IV
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(3).
V
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.
VI
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(4).
VII
She found me roots of relish sweet
And honey wild and manna(5) dew,
And sure in language strange she said,
“I love thee true (6)
VIII
She took me to her elfin grot(7),
And there she wept and sigh’d fill sore(8);
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.
IX
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dream’d — Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
X
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!”
XI
I saw their starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
XII
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.’

NOTES
1) not by chance the landscape is lacustrine, the waters of the lake are beautiful but treacherous, but it is a desolate landscape and more like the swamp
2) the lily is a symbol of death. The knight’s brow of a deadly pallor is bathed in the sweat of fever and the color of his face is as dull as a dried rose. The symptoms are those of the consumption: the always mild fever does not show signs of diminution, turns on two “roses” on the cheeks of the sick. It is also said that Keats was a toxic addict to the use of nightshade that in the analysis of Giampaolo Sasso (The secret of Keats: The ghost of the “Belle Dame sans Merci”) is represented in the Lady Without Mercy
3) the whole description of the danger of the lady is concentrated in the eyes, they are as wild but also crazy. The rider ignores the repeated signs of danger: not only the eyes but also the strange language and the food (honey wild)
4) the elven song leads the knight to slavery
5) the manna is a white and sweet substance. It is well known that those who eat the food of fairies are condemned to remain in the Other World
6) the fairy is expressed in a language incomprehensible to the knight and then in reality could have said anything but “I love you”; yet the language of the body is unequivocal, at least as far as sexual desire is concerned
7) the elf cave is the Celtic otherworldly (see more)
8) why the fairy is sorry? Would not want to annihilate the knight but can not do otherwise? Does she know that a man’s love is not eternal and that sooner or later his knight will leave her with a breaking heart? Is love inevitably destructive?

LA BELLA DAMA SENZA PIETA’

To the disquieting fascination of the ballad could not escape Angelo Branduardi the Italian Bard, the final part of the melody of each stanza takes the traditional English song “Once I had a sweetheart.”

Angelo Branduardi from La Pulce d’acqua 1977


Guarda com’è pallido
il volto che hai,
sembra tu sia fuggito dall’aldilà…
Vedo nei tuoi occhi
profondo terrore,
che bianche e gelide dita tu hai…
Guarda come stan ferme
le acque del lago
nemmeno un uccello che osi cantare…
“è stato in mezzo ai prati
che io la incontrai
e come se mi amasse lei mi guardò”.
Guarda come l’angoscia
ti arde le labbra,
sembra tu sia fuggito dall’aldilà…
“E`stato in mezzo ai prati
che io la incontrai…”
che bianche e gelide dita tu hai…

“Quando al mio fianco
lei poi si appoggiò
io l’anima le diedi ed il tempo scordai.
Quando al mio fianco
lei poi si appoggiò…”.
Che bianche e gelide dita tu hai…”
Al limite del monte
mi addormentai
fu l’ultimo mio sogno
che io allora sognai;
erano in mille e mille di più…”
Che bianche e gelide dita tu hai…”
Erano in mille
e mille di più,
con pallide labbra dicevano a me:
– Quella che anche a te
la vita rubò, è lei,
la bella dama senza pietà”.

BELLE DAME SANS MERCI: GERMAN VERSION

Faun from “Buch Der Balladen” 2009.


“Was ist dein Schmerz, du armer Mann,
so bleich zu sein und so gering,
wo im verdorrten Schilf am See
kein Vogel singt?”
“Ich traf ein’ edle Frau am Rhein,
die war so so schön – ein feenhaft Bild,
ihr Haar war lang, ihr Gang war leicht,
und ihr Blick wild.Ich hob sie auf mein weißes Ross
und was ich sah, das war nur sie,
die mir zur Seit’ sich lehnt und sang
ein Feenlied.Sie führt mich in ihr Grottenhaus,
dort weinte sie und klagte sehr;
drum schloss ich ihr wild-wildes Auf’
mit Küssen vier.
Da hat sie mich in Schlaf gewiegt,
da träumte ich – die Nacht voll Leid!-,
und Schatten folgen mir seitdem
zu jeder Zeit.Sah König bleich und Königskind
todbleiche Ritter, Mann an Mann;
die schrien: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci
hält dich in Bann!”Drum muss ich hier sein und allein
und wandeln bleich und so gering,
wo im verdorrten Schilf am See
kein Vogel singt.”
English translation (from here)
“What ails you, my poor man,
that makes you pale and humbled so,
among the withered seashore reeds
where the song of no bird is heard (1)?”
“I met a noble lady on the Rhine,
so very fair was she – a fairy vision,
her hair was long, her gait was light,
and wild her stare.I lifted her on my white steed
and nothing but her could I see,
as she leant by my side and sang
a song of the fairies.She led me to her cave house
where she cried and wailed much;
so I closed her wild deer eyes (2)
with four kisses of mine.
She lulled me to sleep then,
and I dreamt a nightlong song!
and shadows follow me since
be it day or night (3).I saw a pale king and his son
knights pale as death, face to face;
who cried out: “The fair lady without mercy
has you in her spell!”Thus shall I remain here alone
to wander, pale and humbled so,
among the withered seashore reeds
where the song of no bird is heard”


NOTES
1) lit “(where) no bird sings”
2) I assume it’s “Aug(en)” instead of “Auf'”
3) the original says “all the time” but I opted for (hopefully) more colorful English

LINK
http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/belle.html http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/keats/john/la-belle-dame-sans-merci/
http://noirinrosa.wordpress.com/tag/la-belle-dame-sans-merci/ http://zerkalomitomania.blogspot.it/search/label/Belle%20Dame%20sans%20Merci
http://www.celophaine.com/lbdsm/lbdsm_top.html
http://www.craigrecords.com/recordings/la-belle-dame/

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