“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.”
John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Mercy” (1819)
A beautiful woman must disappoint most of her many suitors, and the rejected men will naturally salve their vanity by calling her la belle dame sans mercy. They may of course use coarse and vulgar words, but this is what they mean: she is a beautiful lady without pity, a beautiful lady with a heart of stone. But the imputation is almost always unjust, since the heart they allege to be made out of stone will someday melt—has perhaps already melted—like butter before the ardent passion of another man.
To truly be la belle dame sans mercy, a woman must have the power to kindle love in man, but possess no corresponding capacity to be likewise kindled. She must be absolutely frigid, absolutely silent when his heart cries out and he awaits her answering call. The beautiful lady that the knight found wandering in the meadow cannot respond to the cry of his heart because she lacks a human heart. She is “a faery’s child” who has the power to kindle love in man, but cannot be likewise kindled.
This faery child is a symbol of unrequited love, and unrequited love is a uniquely human form of misery. This misery is by no means limited to the exquisite pangs of lovelorn men and women who have been passed over, or tossed aside, in the merciless moil of the mating market, for unrequited love is man’s constant and universal plight.
A man’s heart cries out to some great beauty in this world, but when he await its answering call, he hears nothing but what Pascal described as “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces.”*
Like the elfin folk of fairyland, the universe has a lovely face, but it does not return the love that its lovely face inspires. I see the beauty of a midwinter sunset and my heart cries out with love. But the earth has a heart of stone, and my suit is spurned. Like the knight in Keats’ ballad, I am rebuffed, and find myself lovelorn on a “cold hill’s side.” I feel myself “alone and palely loitering.”
As the great English naturalist Richard Jefferies put it:
“The trees care nothing for us; the hill I visited so often in days gone by has not missed me.”*
But Jefferies’ human heart has an unrequited love for the trees; his human heart has been pining for that hill.
“If the entire human race perished at this hour, what difference would it make to the earth? What would the earth care?”
Nothing whatsoever, it would seem, for the earth is sans mercy.
“All nature, all the universe that we can see is absolutely indifferent to us.”
Just like the elfin folk of fairyland. And the reason is much the same. We are not of the same nature as Nature, and this is partly so because we can love and Nature cannot. Our hearts cry out and are not answered, and we therefore know a misery that Nature does not know.
Nature is a “cold hill’s side” where we feel ourselves “alone and palely loitering.” To Nature’s mind, it is all the same whether I loiter a spell on this cold hill’s side, or I secure a rope, and find a tree, and hang myself by the neck.
La belle dame sans mercy!
*)Pascal, Pensees (1670)
**) Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart (1883)