Sometimes the Birds Sing: La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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

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 faery’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
       Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
       With horrid warning gapèd 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.
So, who, are what, are the leannán sí ?
Here is poet W.B. Yeats’ position:
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.
Well, that’s how Yeats saw it. Let’s go back to Keats:
Keats was a licensed apothecary, a sort of 19th century pharmacist. It offered a modest living, one that he declined in pursuit of his poetry.
In his lifetime, his poems were critically derided; they are now regarded as an essential part of the English poetic cannon.
Sometimes, the birds do sing.
Is it worth the heavy cost of loving a leannán sí?
Ask a Gaelic poet,
if you can find one, her or he, 
that hasn’t been spirited away
by the leannán sí.
Henry Meynell Rheam, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1901
Painting, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Frank Dicksee, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

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