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Featured Poem: La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 24th May 2010

The month of May ushers in the start of sunnier days, the blossoming of flowers and trees all around and is book-ended by bank holidays. So all in all, it’s fair to say that it’s a pretty good month. But what makes it even better for literature lovers, novel nuts and those who root for reading (bear with me…) is that May is National Share-A-Story Month. Organised by The Federation of Children’s Book Groups, the event has grown from its origins as National Tell-A-Story Week in the 1970s to the month-long celebration of the art of storytelling it is now. Its main aim is to “celebrate the power of story” and places a particular emphasis on encouraging children to immerse themselves within the magical world of stories. However the grown-ups and young at heart are certainly not excluded – of course, they are encouraged to be the storytellers but as the FCBG itself declares, you’re never too young or too old to be read to. Never was a truer statement spoken.

In honour of National Share-A-Story Month, and before the month is out, this week’s featured poem is one which tells a story – a narrative poem. It’s not too likely that poetry is considered the primary form for storytelling these days; a story is most commonly thought of as something contained with in a book , even conjured up almost of nowhere…certainly a story is considered to be much longer and goes into more depth than a poem. Or does it? What is considered to be the staple of storytelling – the modern novel – actually derived from narrative poetry. Though they are amongst the oldest forms of literature, narrative poems continue to be developed by latter day poets while the classical narrative poems have provided us with some of the most famous, popular and best-loved fables of all time. It should also be mentioned that narrative poems can also be termed ‘performance poems’, as they have their roots in ancient oral traditions, when stories were not written down but instead memorised, passed on and used to entertain while on a journey or huddled around a fire (I concede, that is a rather romantic and somewhat clichéd image but one I want to stick to nonetheless when thinking of ‘days of yore’). They were not made to be read silently to one ’s self but designed to be said aloud, recited proudly, proclaimed bombastically. After all, what is a story if it isn’t shared and heard by others?

So, without further ado – and any more rambling – I will leave you to enjoy the poem, or more accurately, the story, and hope that you will share it with someone. A lot of narrative poems can seem quite overwhelming on first glance, given their somewhat supreme length, so I’ve bypassed the epics for something on the altogether shorter side – La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Keats. One of Keats’ most revered poems, the narrative centres upon an unnamed knight who happens across a beautiful and mysterious woman (the title translates from French as ‘The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy/Pity’). It could be said that the story is fairly simplistic but many different interpretations can be reached and through its use of imagery and symbolism, the poem remains enigmatic and as mysterious as the wild-eyed fairy’s child that is so central to the narrative.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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.

John Keats (1795-1821)

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