La Belle Dame sans Mercy

“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.”*

Banks of the Brazos

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.”*

Bench on the Brazos

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.”

Banks of the Brazos

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!

Brazos River Bluff in Twilight

*)Pascal, Pensees (1670)

**) Richard Jefferies, The Story of My Heart (1883)

9 thoughts on “La Belle Dame sans Mercy

  1. Kristor wrote an article some time ago recommending James Chastek’s blog over at “Just Thomism”. I dutifully followed, and so saw he recently wrote an article here in a similar vain.

    I’ve tried to summarize, paraphrase, quote, or whatnot, but I really am not qualified to do so, so i’ll just leave you with the link.

    A style note, which here is as good as anywhere to share: I really appreciate the poetic nature of your writing and how you build to a point. I’ve come to refer to your essays as Triptychs: You begin with one point (La Belle Dame sans Merci), continue into a seeming non sequitur (elfin fairyfolk and a midwinter sunset); and bring it all together in the final grafs (the earth is sans mercy).

  2. Pingback: La Belle Dame sans Merci | Reaction Times

  3. I regard your argument as a reductio ad absurdum; because we know in our hearts (and we used to know by experience as children) that we are part of nature, and nature a part of us – we are involved with each other.

    You have been led to false conclusion by false metaphysical assumptions (some ancient, some more modern) that you are taking for granted as necessary; and the mismatch between your heart and your mind is evidence of the fact.

    I think we can do better than to repeat the errors of the past. To find how to heal this breach between heart and mind is the hope of what I term Romantic Christianity, and is my main business in life these days.

    One vital aspect is metaphysical work; we need to expose, evaluate and revise some of our deepest assumptions concerning the nature of reality.

    For example, the (false) assumption that (although we cannot scientifically define it) there IS a real and sharp division between ‘biological’ things that are alive, and ‘physics-chemistry’ things not-alive. In practice this distinction leads both to a division between nature and Man, and to a rational pressure to conclude nothing is alive – not even Man.

    Another false assumption is that there is an ‘objective’ world knowable (model-able) without human thinking (subjectivity); despite that all our actual knowing is thinking – i.e. we wrongly believe we can know without subjectivity, despite that there actually-is no objectivity without subjectivity.

    For me, over the past five years or so – Rudolf Steiner’s early philosophical work (Truth and Knowledge, and The Philosophy of Freedom) and Owen Barfield’s work such as Saving the Appearances, have been extremely helpful in sorting-out this vital subject.

    • I’m going to write a second counterpoint post from the perspective you describe. My intention is to build it around R. W. Emerson’s poem “Blight,” this blight being the metaphysical assumptions of modernity. I find that my experience vacillates between the two moods. Sometimes Nature is sacramental, at other times blighted and bleak. I have no idea if this vacillation is a freak of personal psychology or a more general fact of the human condition, but I take it as meaningful. The sacramental interludes are real blessings, the bleak spaces remind me that this is not my true home.

  4. “This world is cruel yet beautiful.” – lyric

    In years past I used to think going into the wild was to be done as a respite, a healing salve to daily sufferings. But since I’ve realized there’s no point, there is no help, no spiritual awakening or healing to be found by loitering among trees and rocks. The wild is brutal, it gives no advice and feels no remorse. No amount of gawking will make man commune with nature. Our ancestors didn’t go out loitering in the environment for show they had an agenda to create and survive. The only ‘nature’ consistently beautiful is the part maintained docile by human hand. If nature is so great then why did we build cathedrals to commune with Heaven, we reduced the input of the environment on purpose.

    • What you call “spiritual awakening or healing” has much less to do with physical environment than is commonly supposed. I say this as someone who is far from indifferent to physical environment. I like a cathedral or a woods as much as any man, but know that peace will sometimes come in the dentist’s waiting room or the parking lot of a grocery store.

      • > The only ‘nature’ consistently beautiful is the part maintained docile by human hand. hou

        This part I take back upon re-reading, there’s definition large areas beautiful without maintenance.

        I also don’t agree
        >“spiritual awakening or healing” has much less to do with physical environment than is commonly supposed.
        environment does matter to spiritual things especially noise, we are body and soul. Ugliness sooner or later breaks people and man made ugliness is much uglier than the ugliest in natural realm.

  5. Pingback: The Blight of Telmarine Science – The Orthosphere


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