“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats

A performance video of John Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci.  

Read by Margit Ilgen; original music by Bruce Donehower.


Performance Notes

In the days before COVID, our Section meetings occurred in the house — in the living room or the kitchen. Prior to COVID, we were studying British Romanticism and the major poets. When COVID hit, we changed our strategy. The meetings increased in intensity and content, Novalis arrived, and we began to explore artistic collaborations with artists from the Visual Arts Section and Performing Arts Section who participate in the Literary Arts Section meetings. A series of performance video arose from this inter-Sectional collaboration. They are directly related to the COVID crisis.

Margit recorded this reading of the Keats poem on the back porch on a summer day in 2020. We only had time and opportunity for one take. There are some sounds in the background such as lawn mowers and birds and voices of kids. Not too loud, however. The recording sat on the hard drive for a while, until the end of summer when the mood and weather began to change. Inspired by Margit’s reading and by the the genius of the poem, I wrote some music to accompany the recitation. Our group has been exploring the use of classical guitar with spoken poetry. For other examples, see the Rilke Project page.

This performance video premiered at Section Zoom meeting at the time of Michaelmas in 2020. Here’s what the meeting summary said:

“We closed a recent meeting with an artistic offering: Margit’s reading of John Keats’ poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which we related to our current studies of Hesse. One year ago, while we studied Keats, lightning struck the 200-foot redwood tree during our meeting, causing the airedale to leap onto Dan’s shoulders from a flat-out slumber. As Narcissus told Goldmund: Wake Up!” (Reference is to Hermann Hesse’s novel Narcissus and Goldmund that we studied in 2019.)


La Belle Dame Sans Merci
By John Keats (1819)

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

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. 

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 lullèd 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 
       Thee hath in thrall!’ 

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. 

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


Photo: “La Belle” by Bruce Donehower