Imagine being a poet, possessed by a fairy-lover, who provides you with inspiration.
A fairy muse, with the ability to make you shine twice as bright…
Even if that means…
for only half as long.
Long before rock’n’roll espoused a live fast-die young ethos, Gaelic poets understood the motto all-too-well.
They knew what it meant to be possessed by a leannán sí, a Fairy-lover.
The Romantic poets maintained a similar tradition of dying young.
Percy Bysshe Shelley – dead at 29.
(his wife, Mary, wrote Frankenstein)
Lord Byron – dead at 36.
(his daughter, Ada Lovelace, is often credited as being the world’s first computer programmer, having worked on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Machine).
John Keats – dead at 25.
(more on him down below).
Of course, there were exceptions. Samuel Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan) made it to the ripe old age of 61. And Alfred Tennyson, author of the Arthurian Idylls of the King, was virtually indestructible by his peer’s standards – he lived to see 83.
Still, for many a young romantic, death was always lurking around the corner, sometimes in a bottle, sometimes in a kiss, sometimes at the end of a loaded gun.
But for John Keats, death came from Consumption.
Through the 1800’s, Consumption, what we now call tuberculosis, caused over 30% of all deaths in Europe.
Europe had already limped through a Black Plague. This latest scourge was dubbed the White Plague.
By the time the bacteria were isolated in 1882, one out seven deaths were attributed to T.B.
John Keats died on February 23rd, 1821, at the age of 25. At the time, he was a critical and commercial failure.
There has been much speculation about the meaning of John Keats’ poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the beautiful lady without mercy. It might be an allusion to the Consumption; it might be a reference to one of young Keats’ unrequited loves (there were more than one).
Or maybe it is exactly what it appears to be: an ode to a dark fairy lover, a leannán sí – a being who drains the life force from her lovers.
Maybe it’s all three. Keats’ can’t tell us, and the leannán sí remain as silent as the birds in his poem.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom.