Cowper’s exquisite painting is a visual representation of John Keats’ poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci or The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy. There are two versions of Keats’ ballad. The first version is from the original manuscript and the second version is the form the poem took when first published. The first version, which is generally considered the best, was altered upon publication in 1920. Keats’ ballad is inspired by an early fifteenth-century French poem by Alain Chartier of the same title: La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which belongs to the tradition of Courtly Love. Courtly Love is a noble and chivalrous expression of love and admiration. Typically, it was a secret affair between members of the nobility and was generally not practiced between husband and wife. Literature that forms part of the Courtly Love convention usually describes a man pining after a woman, who ignores his wooing until he has sufficiently proven his love and adoration for her. Only then will she succumb. The chivalrous and noble man is thus rendered a tragic figure as he faces the virtuous rejection of the woman he so loves.
Keats’ draws on the Courtly Love tradition by telling the story of a beautiful woman – a femme fatale, who tempts men away from the real world only to leave their dreams unfulfilled and their lives in a state of misery. The knight in the poem is left “haggard” and “woe-begone” and doomed to sojourn at the lake pining after the faery woman from his dream. The poem does not reveal the nature of the knights ‘dream’. Was it was merely a dream or did he have a real experience? The supernatural nature of the beguiling woman from the faery realm serves to further confuse the issue. The knight is destined to wonder for eternity.
Original version of Keats’ 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.
Frank Cadogan Cowper, often referred to as “the Last Pre-Raphaelite”, depicts the story of Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci in his painting of the same title. It was a popular subject for Pre-Raphaelite painters who embraced romance and sentiment in favour of the “imitative historical and genre painting of their day”. The most popular versions are probably those by Cowper, John William Waterhouse and Arthur Hughes, as well as later versions by Frank Cadogan Cooper and Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee. Walter Crane and Henry Maynell Rheam also did works inspired by the poem. The Pre-Raphaelite” brotherhood rejected the stoic conventions of the Royal Academy. They “rebelled against what they saw as Raphael’s theatricality and the Victorian hypocrisy and pomp of the academic art tradition”. They were influenced and inspired by the pre Raphaelite art of medieval and early Renaissance painters up to the time of Italian painter and architect Raphael. They admired the truth and simplicity inherent in the art of the fifteenth century and thus rejected Raphael’s grand style. They favoured beautifully luminous colours, evenly lit pictures and an almost photographic representation of even humble objects. Symbolism and realism are characteristics of Pre-Raphaelite art as well as a high moral stance that is particularly evident in the religious paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, which was founded in 1848 by a group of English painters: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, as well as poets and critics, violated the conventional views of both proper style and subject matter that were dictated by The Royal Academy at the time.
Cowper’s visual interpretation of Keats’ poem draws on the characteristics of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The colours are beautifully vivid and the luminosity of the femme fatale’s dress initially captures the viewer’s eye, which is consequently drawn down to the sleeping knight in the foreground. His armour glistens gold and captures the photographic realism characteristic of the Pre-Raphaelites. The prominence of the blood-red poppies that are sporadically dispersed between the knight and the lady are poignantly symbolic. According to Greek mythology, Demeter created the poppy so she could sleep. The twin brothers Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Thanatos, the god of death, were depicted with a crown of poppies. In Greco-Roman myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead. The link between sleep and death in Greek mythology is thus revealed. Throughout history, these flowers have been used as emblems on tombstones to represent eternal sleep. Endless sleep is equated with death. The knight in Cowper’s painting could be either asleep or dead and this is emphasised by the presence of the poppies. Has he fallen into an eternal sleep (death) as the poppies would suggest? The only clue we have as to the true state of affairs is Keats’ poem, in which the knight awakens from his sleep. The knight in the painting looks content and peaceful in his sleep, a stark contrast to the ‘pale’ and ‘anguished’ knight in the poem, who is destined to sojourn at the side of the lake pining after lost dreams. The knight may be physically awake but his soul has died a spiritual death along with his dreams. He has died a figurative death. He is a prisoner to his dreams and his love for the woman in his dreams. The red of the woman’s dress links her to the red of the poppies, suggesting that her hold over him is long-lasting, perhaps ever-lasting. The femme fatale looks on the sleeping knight, her conquest, with arrogance and pride as she grooms her hair. The knight is thus rendered a tragic figure against the strength and vitality of the object of his affections – the beautiful woman without mercy.