by Alex Kato

  • For a true knight inspired by pure nobleness and mental integrity, a lofty feeling of love for a magnificent woman embodies the supreme Ideal as a beacon illuminating his whole life and alluring him to discard shackles of the temporal world and bravely step into the unknown for his inamorata. The theme was reflected by an outstanding English painter and illustrator Bernard Dicksee in his 1890 painting “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and is based on a scene from a ballade with the same name by an English Romantic John Keats who narrated a story of a lonely knight with a pale face aimlessly wondering in a barren desert after he met a strange lady with wild and insane eyes. 

    The ruthless beauty lured him into a fairy Elfin grot where the nameless knight became her captive forever since he had no power to withstand the peculiar charm of the eyes of the mystic stranger, unlike anything in this world. 

    She took me to her Elfin grot,
    And there she wept and sighed full sore,
    And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
    With kisses four.


    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!'

    (John Keats “La Belle Dame sans Merci”)

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    Even the most unsophisticated person who has nothing to do with art would require just a single, brief glance at this famous canvas of the genius artist to realize with what trepidation and self-abandonment the knight looks at the enigmatic Fairy-Elf woman, for whose love he is ready to sacrifice not only his life but his eternal soul also instansly, without hesitation...

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

    Beside Dicksee, the image of an occult and mystical La Belle Dame sans Merci has inspired at different times other not less famous and talented Pre-Raphaelites painters like Arthur Hughes, Henry Meynell Rheam, John William Warehouse, Frank Cadogan Cowper and Walter Crane. 

    Each of them has contributed new variations in defining the narrative and image of the ruthless beauty from the world-known ballade of Keats. 

    For example, on the painting “A Magnificent dame Knowing No Mercy” by Frank Cadogan Cowper, we see an already breathless knight lying in a poppy field symbolizing the eternal sleep in the embraces of Morpheus. Next to him is a gorgeous fairy that has fulfilled her dark mission. She has taken not only the knight’s loving heart, but his life also. 

    john keats

    And there she lullèd me asleep,
    And there I dreamed — Ah! woe betide! —
    The latest dream I ever dreamt
    On the cold hill side.

    However, not everything is so straightforward as it may seem at first in the plot of the renowned Keats’ ballad and paintings by famous artists inspired by it. The elfin story of the wandering knight and the mysterious lady has other, much more gloomy interpretations. 

    For example, according to one of interpretations, you could detect a face of death lurking behind the mysterious and appealing Elf woman that the knight met on his way and who took him away into the world of shadows and spirits; where the knight soon transformed into a pale phantom aimlessly wandering the roads in sublime solitude. 

    According to another version, the pale and exhausted knight himself symbolizes death, condemned to eternal wandering in the hilly countryside.  And the story is being narrated to the author by the knight’s restless soul that succumbed to the spell of this transcendent subject and is suffering an endless punishment. 

    And formally, it doesn’t matter how the story unraveled in real life because it can’t belittle the heart-pounding lyricism and sublimity of the literary masterpiece created by John Keats along with the following paintings praising the supreme kind of love that soars high above all frail and earthy commotion, carrying on its invisible wings the one whose heart and soul it has illuminated and helped to reach higher planes of Being.

    And hasn’t each worthy man of all times and epochs secretly dreamed about such love? These are the men whose hearts and souls have not lost a capability to see, to hear and to perceive The Unravelled that is carrying you beyond the limits of the mundane life and useless vanity to the holy magnificent and unattainable Ideal for which everything can be sacrificed!


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