La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Pre-Raphaelite Pastels with Negative Capability

Henry Meynell Rheam

Love is never mutual; one loves and the other consents to be loved. ~Edward Burne-Jones

Henry Rheam, La Belle Dame Sans Merci

And that pretty much sums up the Pre-Raphaelite view of love. It's projection. Projection usually doesn't end well:

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!'

Rheam finished this painting in 1901. Pre-Raphaelite paintings tend toward bright colors and simple lines. While the subject matter is Pre-Raphaelite, but Rheam makes his point with heavy watercolor and strong pastels.

Unlike the many Pre-Raphaelite La Belle Dame Sans Merci paintings interpreted as referring to Keats's ballad of the same name, Rheam's lady seems seems more present and as if about to enter into dialog with the observer, which is perhaps closer to the 1424 poem on courtly love written by Alain Chartier than to Keat's poem.

Keats finished his ballad in 1819, more than 80 years after Rheam painted his La Belle Dame. It had been stewing in the Victorian consciousness for a long time.

I fancy this painting, though, for more reasons than a love of Keats, not the least being the sensory pastels. Though the English ballad is a tight form, Rheam captures the openness of the poem's poetic sensibilities, how as ease it is with its own Negative Capability:

As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort, of which, if I am anything, I am a member; that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian, or egotistical Sublime...) it is not itself -- it has no self -- It is everything and nothing -- It has no character.... What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the cameleon poet. . . . A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity. . . .

Finally, I like it because it seems clearly a feminist painting. The common courtly love pattern is that the woman is at fault if she finds herself the unwilling victim of male projections and thus is obligated to take pity on him and accept him. Whereupon she often dies, a convenient tragedy for both, since dead women neither refuse advances nor talk back. The lover in Chartier's poem complains that she does not go along with his agenda. She says:

As for pleasaunce, it is not alwey oon;
That to you is swete me think a bitter payne.
Ye may not me constrayne (ner yet right noon)
After youre list to love, that is but vayne.

This is from the Roos translation, about 1575.

This is from the Roos translation, about 1575.


Pricing and Specifications

Title: La Belle Dame Sans Merci

13 x 17 inch (12 4.25-inch tiles): $1175

Availability: Can usually be shipped in about two to three weeks.

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci, detail

You might notice that the knight in the background looks remarkably like the Tin Man in the Wizard of OZ, which makes me love it all the more.

Wizard of Oz: As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don't know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.

Tin Woodsman: But I still want one.

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci

John Keats, 1819

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

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.

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 fairy'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 lullèd 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 gap&egrav;d 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.