Frank Bernard Dicksee (1853–1928) created this beautiful work after reading Keats’ 1819 poem, or ballad, of the same name. This is quoted below. The poem itself is a sort of fairy tale gone awry. The knight at arms finds a women who is ostensibly in love with him, only to find her deserting him after their first and only night together. The poem itself is quite frappant and I shall leave you to read it.

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.

Dicksee, Frank; La belle dame sans merci; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

This splendid painting captures the moment after the knight at arms places the belle dame on his steed, and she leans over singing a faery’s song. We can see the garland on her head and the bracelets made by the knight on her head and arms, respectively. The knight is besotted with his new beloved. The expression on his face and the possessiveness with which he grips onto the horse are both evident in the painting’s rendering. The horse seems to be the only one who is with the programme and sees what is coming, having bowed his head in shame, almost.

The knight’s armour is done beautifully. I should note that while Dicksee was never a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, his work does show the extent of their influence on his artistic vision. The lighting, the subject matter, the beautiful colours, the red flowing hair of the belle dame herself – all of these elements form a striking picture. The portrait in my view does homage to Keats’ masterful poem.

The predominant mood is one of enchantment, intensified by the idyllic setting of the English countryside: ‘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 set her on my pacing steed, And nothing else saw all day long; For side long would she bend, and sing A faery’s song.’ A fascination with chivalry had lasted throughout the nineteenth century, typically combining romantic escapism with a cautionary note of the ‘femme fatale’. Art UK

I shall leave it to my dearest to explain the vicissitudes of Monsieur Keats’ poetry. I was quite taken aback by this poem on second and third reading. It is beautifully crafted, symmetrical and pierces through the reader. The reader finds him or herself on the hill, with the knight at arms, alone and deserted, bereft of swiftly developed love. These two are a beautiful combination of art forms, I am grateful to Charlotte for sharing these with me.