La belle dame sans merci

Looking at Rheam brought me to La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

Rheam, the banshee, or, la belle dame sans merci

She stands over the dying knight, with an entourage of ghostly knights awaiting her will. The removal of his helmet makes him human and vulnerable. Keats’ poem was a popular Victorian subject.

William James Neatby, la belle dame sans merci

Neatby’s illustration is just of her: she looks out at the male viewer, inviting him in.

Rossetti, la belle dame sans merci

In Rossetti’s sketch, there is far more work on the woman than the man: she has a face and body, he has a suggestion and a box-like form, enough to show where his foot would be to support hers. Yet she is still the Other before the male gaze: in the poem and the paintings, there is no suggestion that anyone asks the questions, what does she want? What is she thinking? What might “mercy” look like?

This is the verse he has copied:

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.

Frank Dicksee, la belle dame sans merci

In Frank Dicksee’s painting, I note the effect on the man: he is made an automaton or mannequin.

Walter T Crane, la belle dame sans merci

I needed Martin Earl’s commentary to point out the doubles entendres. Walter Crane’s illustration is similarly- “innocent” is such an unsatisfactory word. In his picture, one can imagine him just riding with her-

Oh. Yes. They are kind of unavoidable, aren’t they?

But what did she want? Was she collecting? Did she put up with their attentions, as the best way to get them to stop bothering her? Punch has an answer:

Punch, la belle dame sans merci

And finally, I am grateful to Jake for copying out most of Fardell v Potts, from Misleading cases in the Uncommon Law. No-one would ever expect a woman to be “reasonable”.

4 thoughts on “La belle dame sans merci

    • My favourite is the Rheam, the first picture. Rossetti has considered a painting and for whatever reason decided not to make it. He is playing with the subject. Perhaps, La belle dame being so incomprehensible, the woman desire for whom destroys men, he could not imagine her face. Rheam has imagined the lady, the knight and the retinue, imagined their faces and different postures to give them individuality. It is a painting to be looked at, more so than any of the others of his I have shown here.

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    • Because of the Victorians interest, we have their view of the Mediaeval period as well as our own. In the Sculpture Victorious exhibition there was a statue of a baron at Runnymede looking like a Victorian hero and Christian gentleman, rather than the murderous runts we see reclining in effigy above their graves in English churches. Chivalry was an honour code stating that peasant lives were of no account whatsoever, rather than one enjoining defence of the poor and weak.

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