Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One: “La Belle Dame sans Merci”: A commentary

Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One

An analysis of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

Dedicated to C.S.

Composed on April 21, 1819, in a single afternoon or early evening, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” has haunted the minds of readers for almost two centuries now. In twelve stanzas, Keats says more than whole worships of writers say in their entire existence. The poem is so sleekly, treacily, and elegantly composed, without a single false word, that it is imperishable. Indeed, it is one of the few perfect English poems.

I will analyze the ballad stanza by stanza.

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

The question is the narrator’s—whoever the narrator might be—to the honey-starved knight. For the published edition, Keats foolishly substituted the words “wretched wight” for “knight-at-arms.” “Wight” recalls the Isle of Wight, where Keats would write lust letters to Fanny Brawne, the lust of his brief consumptive life, which makes the published text of the poem faintly ludicrous. “Knight-at-arms” is a much better choice of words, since it invokes strength, which contrasts nicely with the knight’s ailment, which is clearly love-psychosis. It also sounds and reads better, infinitely better, than “wretched wight.”

The narrator is asking an epidemiological question (when one compares the first stanza with the twelfth): What is the source of your illness? Even though the autumnal landscape is withered and songless, the knight is loitering around like a beggar.  The flora are desiccated, much like the knight; there are no fauna, it seems, in the expanse.  Nature has dried and shriveled up.  The birds that are not there are perhaps nightingales.  If this is the case, then the supernatural has withdrawn from the deathscape.

A nice instance of parechesis appears in the first stanza—a repetition of the grapheme LON in the words “alone” and “loitering.”

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.

The granaries and the harvest have yielded a superabundance of food — food that is suitable for human consumption — but the knight will never eat it. He will never eat the food because he cannot eat the food. The knight is famished, starving for food that no human mouth can eat: It is the food that only his beloved faery princess can feed him.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

The syntax here is confusing: The lily that is embroidered on the knight’s brow is moist with anguish and moist with fever-dew.  The anguish-moist lily and the fading rose embroidered on the knight’s face-flesh: These are symptoms of his love-starvation.

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.

This is where the knight’s answer begins—an answer to the question, “What ails thee?” Already, the reader is getting subliminal cues from the poem that the knight should run like hell away from the faery princess. For one, she is the daughter of a faery and therefore any romance between the knight and the princess would be an interspecies romance. Secondly, the wildness of her eyes might very well be the wildness of craziness.

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.

The number three is important in the poem: The faery princess’s physical attributes come in threes (her long hair, her light foot, her wild eyes), the food that she feeds to the knight comes in threes (relish root, wild honey, manna-dew), and here we have a triumvirate of decorations for the Beautiful Lady to wear (garland, bracelets, perfumed belt). We might know three of her physical attributes and three things that she is wearing, but who is she, really, on the inside?

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.

What kind of a knight is he, to let a woman he does not know ride his pacing steed? And how can someone set someone else on a steed that is pacing? Her sidelong look lets us know that she is unconcerned with him and that his love will be unreturned; sharp readers should question the integrity of her intentions. That he can see nothing else besides her radiance suggests that the knight has already plunged into total lunacy.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

How, precisely, does the knight know that the faery princess has declared her love for him? The answer is: He does not. Her words are inaudible to him. She speaks in a language that he cannot understand, and the suggestion is that the knight has projected his desire-to-be-loved upon her incomprehensible dark words.

The fact that communication between the knight and the faery princess is impossible intimates that contact between the knight and the faery princess is impossible.

“Honey” is sensuous, but the manna-dew is ethereal, heavenly: bread that rains from heaven. “Manna” is customarily a noun, but here, it is used as an adjective and evokes, of course, The Book of Exodus.

“Manna-dew” was not in Keats’ original draft. The lines read, in the original version: “She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and honey dew.” Keats was very wise to modify the wording. The manna-dew that she feeds the knight reminds us that the faery princess is not a child of nature, but rather an otherworldly entity, one who comes from a transcendental province, much like the Grecian urn and the nightingale. She exists outside of time and is not bound by the laws of nature.

The food that she feeds the knight is supernatural nutriment, and he will never be able to eat anything else. All other food has become inesculent to him, even though the granaries are full and the harvest is done.

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.

She dwells in an elfin grotto, then. If there is still any question on the subject, at this point, the argument over whether she is human has been settled: She is a chthonic being. The fact that she dwells in an elfin grotto might imply that she is the Queen of Elphame, the elf queen who transported Thomas the Rhymer into the otherworld.

Why is the elf-girl weeping and sighing?  Is it because she knows that contact between her and her human lover is impossible?  If she is weeping and sighing over the impossibility of interspecies romance, does this not militate against the interpretation that she is wicked?

“Wild wild”: the use of anaphora (repetition) underlines her chaos, her untrammeled nature. In Stanza Four, her eyes were described as “wild.” Her eyes appear even wilder now.

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

The faery princess anesthetizes the knight, drugging him with Ketamine.  “The latest dream I ever dreamt”: The knight will never dream again.  Will he ever sleep again?

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!’

Listen to the chorus of love-hungry kings, love-hospitalized princes, and love-hurt warriors. They tell you who they think the girl really is: The Beautiful Lady without Pity! They are the ones who call her “The Beautiful Lady without Pity.” She never identifies herself, nor does the narrator, nor does the love-slaughtered knight at arms. Why, precisely, should you believe them? Why should you believe the chorus of pallid loverboys?

The word “thrall” connotes enslavement. To be in thralldom is to be in bondage to a master or a mistress. In this case, the chorus of once-powerful men, of which the knight is now a member, is enslaved, enthralled, to the Beautiful Lady without Pity.

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.

After the love-drug wears off, the knight awakens and finds himself in desolation and a place of natural destitution. The only things in the dream-men’s mouths are warnings. Much like the knight, only the food of the faery girl can nourish them; no other food can sate them.

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

The faery-intoxicated knight is doomed to walk along the withered shore of the lake in a perpetual autumn, sapped of his vitality and potency. He has been enervated by the psychosis-inflicting Beautiful Lady without Pity. The poem suggests that she is a witch, but she might as well be a lamia or a succubus. The women in the Keatsean poetic universe are all Belles Dames sans Merci. “Misogyny” is a label too easily applied these days, but how can we avoid calling this a misogynistic poem?

Dr. Joseph Suglia

Postscript

There is yet another alternative interpretation that is possible: The figure of the woman would be the vessel into which the misogynistic delusions of the knight are projected, into the vacuum which stands for that which cannot be symbolized.  This evacuates the pallid, forlorn night.  The figure of the female has now become an agglomeration of split-off parts that represents him.  The figure is then a void to which the male is inexorably drawn and from which he is driven in horror.  Keats’s pallid, forlorn knight has an experience of horror vacui.

The knight-at-arms would then have projected all of his disjecta membra into the figure of the female, thus rendering himself as servile and exhausted.

In other words, the Beautiful Lady without Pity is a construction.  What we are left with is only the imaginary.  This is, sadly, psychosis.  It is all too common.  The poem might then be a descriptive instantiation of delusional misogyny.

My only reservation with this alternative interpretation is that it is ahistorical.

A Review of MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE: Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard): by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of MIN KAMP: Volume Two (Karl Ove Knausgaard)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s only aim.”

–Oscar Wilde, Preface, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY

“Woo. I don’t know how to sum it up / ’cause words ain’t good enough, ow.”

–One Direction, “Better Than Words”

If could accomplish one thing in my life, it would be to prevent people from comparing the Scandinavian hack Karl Ove Knausgaard with Marcel Proust. Knausgaard does not have a fingernail of Proust’s genius. Comparing Knausgaard to Proust is like comparing John Green to Proust. Those who have actually read A LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU know that Proust’s great novel is not the direct presentation of its author, a self-disclosure without literary artifice. Those who compare Knausgaard to Proust have never read Proust and have no knowledge of Proust beyond the keyword “madeleine.”

Knausgaard calls his logorrheic autobiography, MIN KAMP, a “novel,” but in what sense is it a novel? It is completely devoid of novelistic properties. There is not a single metaphor in the text, as far as I can tell, and the extended metaphor (the pataphor?) is one of Proust’s most salient literary characteristics.

The first volume dealt with Knausgaard’s unimportant childhood; Volume Two concerns the middle of the author’s life, his present. He is now in his forties and has a wife and three children. He spends his time, and wastes our own, recounting trivialities, stupidities, and banalities. All of the pomposities are trivialities. All of the profundities are stupidities. All of the epiphanies are banalities.

For most of this review, I will refer to Karl Ove Knausgaard as “Jesus,” since he resembles a cigarette-smoking Jesus on the cover of the English translation of the second volume.

We learn that Jesus dislikes holidays. We learn that raising children is difficult. Jesus takes his children to a McDonald’s and then to the Liseberg Amusement Park. In the evening, Jesus, his wife, and his daughter attend a party. Jesus thanks the hostess, Stella, for inviting them to her party. His daughter forgets her shoes. Jesus gets the shoes. He sees an old woman staring through the window of a Subway.

Jesus smokes a cigarette on the east-facing balcony of his home and is fascinated by the “orangey red” [65] of the brick houses below: “The orangey red of the bricks!” He drinks a Coke Light: “The cap was off and the Coke was flat, so the taste of the somewhat bitter sweetener, which was generally lost in the effervescence of the carbonic acid, was all too evident” [66]. He reads better books than the one that we are reading (THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and DEMONS by Dostoevsky) and tells us that he never thinks while he reads. For some reason, this does not surprise me.

Jesus attends a Rhythm Time class (I have no idea what this is) and meets a woman for whom he has an erection.

Jesus’s daughter points her finger at a dog. “Yes, look, a dog,” Jesus says [80].

Jesus assembles a diaper-changing table that he bought at IKEA. The noise irritates his Russian neighbor. He cleans his apartment, goes shopping, irons a big white tablecloth, polishes silverware and candlesticks, folds napkins, and places bowls of fruit on the dining-room table.

In the café of an art gallery, Jesus orders lamb meatballs and chicken salad. He informs us that he is unqualified to judge the work of Andy Warhol. He cuts up the meatballs and places the portions in front of his daughter. She tries to brush them away with a sweep of her arm.

Almost ninety pages later, Jesus is in a restaurant eating a dark heap of meatballs beside bright green mushy peas and red lingonberry sauce, all of which are drowning in a swamp of thick cream sauce. “The potatoes,” Jesus notifies us, “were served in a separate dish” [478].

(Parenthetical remark: “[A] swamp of thick cream sauce” is my phrasing, not Knausgaard’s.  Again, Knausgaard avoids metaphorics.)

Upstairs in the kitchen of his apartment, Jesus makes chicken salad, slices some bread, and sets the dinner table while his daughter bangs small wooden balls with a mallet. And so forth and so on for 592 pages of squalid prose.

Never before has a writer written so much and said so little. The music of ABBA is richer in meaning.

Interspersed throughout the text are muddleheaded reflections on What It Means To Be Human. We learn (quelle surprise!) that Knausgaard is a logophobe, “one who fears language”:

“Misology, the distrust of words, as was the case with Pyrrho, pyrrhomania; was that a way to go for a writer? Everything that can be said with words can be contradicted with words, so what’s the point of dissertations, novels, literature? Or put another way: whatever we say is true we can also always say is untrue. It is a zero point and the place from which the zero value begins to spread [here, Knausgaard seems to be channeling Ronald Barthes]. However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe. Paul Celan’s mysterious, cipher-like language has nothing to do with inaccessibility or closedness, quite the contrary, it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover. Paul Celan’s words cannot be contradicted with words. What they possess cannot be transformed either, the word only exists there, and in each and every single person who absorbs it.

“The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this. They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also nonconceptual. There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do” [129-130].

The only value of literature, then, according to Knausgaard, resides not in words, but in the transcendence of words. Literature is not composed of letters, for Knausgaard; literature is the feelings and the impressions summoned forth within the reader. After all, any idiot can have **feelings**. Very few people can write well.

It is clear that Knausgaard, then, does not think very much of literature. He is much more interested in LIFE. Everyone alive has life. Yes, palpitant life — throbbing, living life. Life is the most general of generalities, but talent is much rarer.

This might be the reason that he dislikes Rimbaud’s verse, but is interested in Rimbaud’s life.

“Fictional writing has no value” [562] for Knausgaard. After all, fiction is distant from life, isn’t it? This Thought is at least as old as Plato. Knausgaard is unaware that fiction is, paradoxically, more honest than autobiographical writing. Autobiographical writing is fiction that cannot speak its own name, fiction that pretends to be something more “real” than fiction.

(Parenthetically: Despite what Knausgaard tells you, Pyrrho did not practice misology. He affirmed the uncertainty of things. Following Pyrrho: One can never say, “It happened” with certainty; one can only say, with certainty, that “it might have happened.”)

Hater of words, enemy of literature: such is Knausgaard. He despises language, presumably because he does not know how to write. What is one to say of a writer who hates writing so much? One thing ought to be said about him: He is alarmingly typical.

Knausgaard is at home in a culture of transparency, in a culture in which almost everyone seems to lack embarrassability. Almost no one seems embarrassed anymore. People go out of their way to reveal everything about themselves on social-networking sites. Average people reveal every detail of their lives to strangers. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is violated, and almost no one seems to care. We live in a culture in which our privacy is infringed upon countless times every day, and where is the outrage? Those who are private — or who believe in the right to privacy — are regarded with malicious suspicion. Seen from this cultural perspective, the success of MIN KAMP should come as no surprise. An autobiography in which the writer reveals everything about himself will be celebrated by a culture in which nearly everyone reveals everything to everyone.

Art is not autobiography. As Oscar Wilde declared in the preface to his only novel, the purpose of art is to conceal the artist. Literature is not auto-bio-graphy, the presentation of the self that lives, the “writing of the living self.” It is, rather, auto-thanato-graphy, the writing of the self that dies in order for art to be born.

Dr. Joseph Suglia