La Belle Dame Sans Merci

There are two versions of this very famous ballad.  The first version is from the original manuscript and the second version is its first published form.  The first is generally considered the best; it was altered upon publication.  We do not know who did the alteration.

The original version is found in a letter to Keats's brother, George, and dated Weds 21 April 1819.  Keats typically wrote a running commentary to George and his wife Georgiana in America, then loosely grouped the pages together as one long letter.  The letter which contains La Belle spans almost three months, from 14 February to 3 May 1819.  It also contains other famous poems, including 'Why did I laugh tonight?' which ends, prophetically enough, 'Verse, fame and Beauty are intense indeed / But Death intenser - Death is Life's high mead.'  Also included are 'To Sleep' and 'On Fame.'  The letter ends with the beautiful Ode to Psyche, of which Keats wrote: 'The following Poem - the last I have written is the first and the only one with which I have taken even moderate pains - I have for the most part dash'd of[f] my lines in a hurry - '

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy/Pity) was dashed off, then, and largely dismissed by Keats himself.  It was first published in the Indicator on 10 May 1820 and has since become one of his most celebrated poems. 

Note:  In 1893, the pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse was inspired by La Belle Dame Sans Merci to create one of his most famous works.  Click here to view the painting.


Original version of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1819

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
    Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
    And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
    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 cheeks 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 made a garland for her head,
    And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
    And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
    And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
    A faery's song.

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 wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
    With kisses four.

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

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!'

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
    With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
    On the cold hill's side.

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

 


Published version of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1820

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.
 
 

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