To Die of Life: A Few Thoughts on Keats

“In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.”

                                    From Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet.

This image has pestered me for many a month: that glimpse at a life lived out, used up. Helen Vendler, in her careful and thoughtful work The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, characterizes this quatrain as capturing the notion that “one dies simply of having lived” as burns out the fire on itself. It is a valuable truth to recall that our finitude and our mortality are bound up with one another: we are always using ourselves up. This third image seems truer than the first two that the speaker has tried: first, of the autumn swept away by the cold (and lifeless) winter; second, of the gloaming eaten up by night, the “second self” of death. I feel foolishly young and vital to try even to speak on the specter of death; regardless, this final image seems a far more satisfying one. The speaker of the poem certainly seems to rest more contentedly on this particular image as a resolution to his pursuit of a satisfactory image for himself and his own life. Life must expire and be all consumed, but this is caused by no more fearful a thing than simply having lived, having glowed brightly for its time, given off its warmth and light—a defense against and rebuttal to the wintry night of the first eight lines—and finished itself.

I recently revisited Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” while still ruminating on this sonnet, and I found in Keats an interesting complement to it in the fanciful tale of a knight’s romance with a fey lover and the grief that follows. Here is the poem in its entirety:

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
Hath thee 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.

The poem opens with a speaker addressing a knight “on a cold hill’s side”; this knight is “haggard”, “woebegone”, and pointedly marked with a sickness—”a fading rose” on his cheek perhaps not entirely different from the symptoms of consumption Keats experienced. We begin somewhere very near the wintry night of Shakespeare. Both poems at least share the implication of smothered life, and the rest of Keats’s poem bears out this tone. To relieve us from this bitter cold, though, the atmosphere is punctuated by the knight’s tale of his brief interaction with a “Lady in the Meads”, who is “beautiful” and “a faery’s child”. Unlike the frame narrative, the knight’s tale is full of life, beginning with the portrait of this lady; to it he adds “Garlands”, “fragrant Zone”, “roots of relish sweet”, “honey wild” and “manna dew”. The language is quick and vital, overflowing with a sort of eldritch wildness, abounding in life and growth. Of course we do not remain there: lulled to sleep, the knight dreams of a “death pale” crowd who warns of this elfin woman, the beautiful lady without pity or mercy, and the  knight wakes from his sleep on the cold hill’s side where our frame narrative began. Framed by lifelessness on either end, this brief interruption proves tantalizing but deceptive and even deadly. In many ways, this whole poem seems, on first glance, to strike a note much like the opening of Shakespeare’s sonnet: life is closed bitterly and violently by an outside force.

But, as I’ve stated, I find Shakespeare’s rejection of that image and his substitution in the last quatrain far more fitting. Perhaps these poets simply differed; or perhaps Shakespeare recognized something that the younger Keats could not. I thought so, for a long while, but I come to see more in Keats’s poem that undermines my original assessment. I begin to see something that strikes me as quite profound, and a few critical works have helped justify my interpretation. Some of the foundation for this analysis is a view expressed by Keats that imagined beauty, which can sublimely raise one up out of the cares of this world, invariably leaves one despondent in its wake when that beauty has passed. This is coupled with a view of beauty as inextricable from truth—even equivalent to it as in the conclusion to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—and both as essential to life. That movement of elevation and depression has a prominent parallel in the movement of the poem in question, so much so that I think it warrants evaluation in light of this paradigm.

Though I realize this is predominantly speculation, I find one can helpfully view the movement and tenor of the poem as an exemplification or illustration of that idea, manifested in a beautiful fairy tale of sorts. In this paradigm, this faery child becomes a picture for the sublime of the world, the beautiful; she is the transporting kind of beauty that strains at you, that absorbs your attention and energy and life in its pursuit; she is the kind of joy that, in Keats’s view, a poet ought to lose himself in to capture and show. But, of course, such things are fey and perilous by their very nature, and they cannot be held on to. Though the knight and elfin woman journey to this “elfin grot” where they whisper words of love and shut “wild wild eyes” with kisses, it does not and cannot last. The sublime cannot be sustained; life lives itself out. So, the knight is lulled to sleep, he dreams of those who have come before him only to be equally disappointed in the end, and he wakes on the cold hill’s side where our original speaker finds him palely loitering. I take, then, the dream revelation that “La belle dame sans merci / Hath thee in thrall” not as the unmasking of a villain or of a femme fatale but instead as the recognition of the nature of such perilous things to pass away; the knight, like the pale kings and princes before him, has drunk life to the lees and is left with an empty glass: he is finished. (Even if you do not quite take the description of the knight in the third stanza to intimate a mortal wound, he is at the very least sorely suffering because of this deprivation.)

I recognize a few issues with this interpretive framework: it relies on a number of external ideas without which my thoughts would be only tendentiously supported by the poem. I think it also fair to say that this kind of pseudo-allegory robs the characters of some of their nature: the knight becomes almost an Everyman, while the elfin woman become something far more abstract: the fantastic and sublime. That loss of concrete identity is a problem for my interpretation, and it is one I have not resolved satisfactorily yet. That said, those same external ideas reassuringly parallel what the poem reveals upon a closer reading, and I think the resulting interpretation demonstrates fewer problems than most others; the characters, too, are presented in such sparse detail that they almost necessitate abstraction in any analysis. In fact, I think this kind of interpretation (which would harm many poems) saves “La Belle Dame sans Merci” from some of its features which else would be failures. The story is not only sparse but obscure at points; the characters are in many ways weak on their own merits. If, however, they are not intended nor need to rest on their isolated features, if they ought to be read as more than they are, there is no failure or flaw in that presentation. My interpretation also makes sense of, and takes as heartfelt and serious, the lady’s inconsolable weeping and her sure words of love. If she knows that she, by her very nature, will leave this knight despondent, of course she weeps. Regardless, I think there may be a worthwhile nugget in all of this analysis. If it is not of Keats or his poem, I think it is worth pondering nonetheless.

These rabbit trails all comes back around to Shakespeare’s sonnet. We die of living, but that does not rob life of its worth; in fact it makes the life lived a matter of the most pressing importance. I would, as it were, like to glow rather than putter out in a heap of ash. I would like to chase after those moments of truth and beauty, even though they can be difficult to bear, even though they can be utterly exhausting. The most valuable of things—the true and the beautiful and the joyous—demand and warrant a price, but it need not be one handed over reluctantly or begrudgingly as a miser who fears to run out of gold (as if hoarding our time and energy, as if protecting ourselves from the best things that make us human, could ever save our lives; it is, after all, by losing our lives that we save them). It is not of spending until we’re paupers that will kill us; no, it is of starvation: hunger for the honey wild and manna dew of life. It is the refusal to pay the price for those moments of beauty and bliss, those moments of the marvelous and the strange. We must be willing to buy those things, to chase after the things that make us most human. With no fuel to feed us, we will glow but dimly.

[Note: WordPress rather mutilated the formatting of the poem. There should have been breaks between each stanza.]

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  1. #1 by Corvus Marinus on December 12, 2014 - 11:49 pm

    You can fix the formatting of the poem, I think, by going into HTML mode and removing the paragraph breaks between lines.

    • #2 by Angmód on December 13, 2014 - 2:22 am

      Ah, thank you. That did clear it up.

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