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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004) ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004)
ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
~~ "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and
You may wonder why you've been assigned these two works together, why they're on the same page here. I wonder that myself! Yet there was a method to my madness. I wanted to begin with two works which (1) take us to an imaginary world, and (2) have something philosophical to offer about these journeys we take to imaginary worlds. The Keats poem and the Holst story both explore, allegorically, what the consequences are for indulging your fancy in imaginary, or "otherworldly" pursuits. Whereas Holst seems to imply the consequences are positive, even life-saving, Keats sounds a cautionary alarm; he sees a fatal danger there. Could they be more opposite?
Reading of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John Keats
Because "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is such a rich poem, it's possible to read it many ways. The last time I studied this poem, I was convinced it was an allegorical poem about drug addiction, or any addiction, and I still like that reading. Another reader might say it's an allegorical poem about passionate love, a particular kind of passionate love that can get carried away. Another reader may read it as poem about what happens to the "dreamers" of the world, the idealists who can't find their home in reality. My intention in examining it as a cautionary poem against the indulgence of fancy is NOT to diminish it to one theme and claim, "it means this." But it does also mean "this" as I read it.
As the poem opens, a speaker addresses the knight-at-arms, who is found is "loitering." The paleness and the loitering are taken by some readers as the indication that he's actually a ghost, and not alive at all. The season is cold, wintry; all around the lake the plants have "withered" and the birds have disappeared. There's no reason for the knight to be there, but he's stuck there, apparently, appearing "haggard" and "woe-begone." He's a miserable sightanguished, feverish, drained of all life-force and vitality.
When the knight begins to explain his misery, we learn that there was a beautiful lady involved. But we learn right away she's not an ordinary lady. She's a "faery's child." The distinction is significant. Either she's actually a faery, in which case we've entered an imaginary world, or she represents his ability to imagine she's a faery, in which case we've entered the knight's imaginary world. Either way, we're in the presence of an imaginary world in which the knight is immediately enchanted (or snared like a rabbit as it turns out), and he enters that world willingly. He never questions the wisdom of embracing a faery's child, who might after all be dangerous, he simply gives himself over to her, showering her with flowers. Possibly, she represents a fantasy, and maybe his fantasy world is easily more attractive to him than the real world. It's exciting, beautiful; the lady is "wild." He's drawn in.
A note of doubt creeps in, though you have to read very closely to detect it: "She looked at me as she did love, / And made sweet moan." You can read this to mean that she looks at him AS IF she did love. That's not quite as definite as saying she looks at him lovingly. The knight can't be entirely sure what her look means, but he INTERPRETS it as "love." The sweet moans seem to prove to him that her look must mean love. But does it? Is he wrong? Why does he misinterpret her? Perhaps it's because he's blinded by illusion, by fantasy, by his own imagination.
The next stanza also has a pretty significant line: "I set her on my pacing steed, / And nothing else saw all day long." I read this as a sexual image emphasizing how "in control" he is, but it also introduces the idea that the real world is disappearing. "Nothing else saw all day long." The world has gone away, as it does for lovers at the beginning of a love affair. The ordinary world is shed like a snake skin. You don't need it anymore. Everything you need is right there in your lover. In the fantasy of perfection. But can it last? Can that fantasy be sustained? For now, its power is in full swing; he's happy for her to "bend and sing, / A "faery's song." On the literal level, he's enchanted by her song. Their song. He is transfixed by her, falling under her spell. The music plays on and, as if inevitably, she slowly takes over whatever control he seemed to have when he placed her on his "pacing steed." The fantasy is taking on its own life, independent of his will, which he has already lost, though he hasn't realized it yet.
Now she is the one gathering "roots of relish sweet" and showering him with "honey wild, and manna dew." And then the note of unacknowledged doubt again: "And sure in language strange she said / 'I love thee true' " The "and sure" sounds like he's still trying to convince himself that her intentions were loving (which they weren't), that he couldn't have been fooled. But he admits that her language was "strange," that he didn't REALLY understand what she was saying, but he INTERPRETED her, again, as expressing her love. When she leads him to "her elfin grot," he's finished. Clearly he should realize her for the banshee she is, but he doesn't. He once again misinterprets the reality of the situation and assumes her wailing means she's sad. He absurdly tries to comfort her. But her cries signal his death (if not literal, then metaphoricalthe death of his ability to return to the practical, ordinary world). "And there she lulled me asleep." In a dream, he envisions the host of her other victims (a subconscious recognition of all the things he was ignoring and misinterpreting before?), and they try to warn him, but it's too late. She's already killed him. Or fantasy has killed him. His delusions have killed him. Or maybe what is killed is his ability to return with any ambition to ordinary reality, which feels cold and dead compared to the wild vitality of his fantasy.
One of the premiere English Romantic poets of the 19th century, Keats well appreciated the force of imagination. It's a power he's drawn to, but which he fears as well. Variations on the theme developed here are pursued in many of his great works, including the masterful "Ode to a Nightengale" and "The Eve of St. Agnes."
A Reading of "The Zebra Storyteller" by Spencer Holst
It's hard to place a small fable like this one beside a great work like the poem above, but like the poem, this work also has something to say about the consequences of abandoning oneself to an imaginary conceit. And while it might not be venerated in the same way as the Keats poem, it's nevertheless a popular little tale frequently anthologized and widely read.
It's obvious from the story's first line that we'll have to suspend our disbelief and entertain something we know is impossible: a talking Siamese cat who speaks the language of Zebras. We're willing to do this because early conditioning to the fables of Aesop have taught us there's a point to it all, and we'll find out what that is in the end if we just hang on. Like all imaginary worlds, this twilight zone of talking animals will have something meaningful to tell us about the zone we inhabit here at ground level. The animals are funny animals, but they're also us. Holst keeps up his side of the bargain, and we get what we expected. The story ends by by making the allegory explicit for us, announcing its maxim: Indulging our imagination nourishes our powers of intuition; by imagining the impossible and trusting what we imagine, we can stop being victims of unexpected circumstance. Not surprisingly, the point is communicated a lot better by the story itself than by my feeble attempt to articulate its implied theme.
How different this is from Keats' theme. Gone is the aching desire for bliss and oblivion, and gone the fear of being swept away by forces beyond our control, never to return. Gone is the psychologically complex cautionary tale and arrived is the simple good news: imagination is good for us.
It may be simple, but it's a powerful message. And Holst amuses us with talking animals to deliver it.
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