Hanging in our living room is a copy of a painting by Sir Frank Dicksee called La Belle Dame sans Merci, which means “the beautiful lady without mercy.” This famous painting of an enchanted knight staring into the eyes of a beautiful maiden on horseback gives one pause when contemplating the modern world. While the painter’s intent may not have been to provide the symbolic message illustrated in this article, it’s nevertheless worth exploring.
The painting, both in theme and in title, is based upon a poem by John Keats. In the painting, it’s not immediately clear why the lady has no mercy or even what her intent is other than to capture the attention of the knight. But what is clear is that the knight has removed his helm, dropped his shield, and sheathed his sword.
Keats’ poem opens with a question asked twice of the knight, “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms?” The knight then answers that he had met the child of a fairy, who professed love for him, and he for her. But at the end is an interesting twist that bears examining.
“O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, “She found me roots of relish sweet,
Alone and palely loitering? And honey wild, and manna dew,
The sedge has wither’d from the lake, And sure in language strange she said –
And no birds sing. ‘I love thee true.’
“O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, “She took me to her elfin grot,
So haggard and so woe-begone? And there she wept, and sigh’d full sore;
The squirrel’s granary is full, And there I shut her wild wild eyes
And the harvest’s done. With kisses four.
“I see a lily on thy brow “And there she lullèd me asleep,
With anguish moist and fever dew; And there I dream’d – Ah! woe betide!
And on thy cheek a fading rose The latest dream I ever dream’d
Fast withereth too.” On the cold hill’s side.
“I met a lady in the meads, “I saw pale kings and princes too,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child, Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Her hair was long, her foot was light, They cried-‘LaBelle Dame sans Merci
And her eyes were wild. Hath thee in thrall!’
“I made a garland for her head, “I saw their starv’d lips in the gloom,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone; With horried warning gapèd wide,
She look’d at me as she did love, And I awoke and found me here,
And made sweet moan. On the cold hill’s side.
“I set her on my pacing steed “And this is why I sojourn here
And nothing else saw all day long, Alone and palely loitering,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
A faery’s song. And no birds sing.”
The knight in Keats’ poem explains how, shortly after meeting the beautiful lady, he crowned her head with flowers, made her bracelets, set her on his horse, and saw NOTHING but her the rest of the day. In short, he was completely enchanted by her and had no other thought in mind but to see, hear, and kiss her. But the twist comes in the form of a dream, where the knight is warned by dead kings, princes, and warriors that he has been enchanted by the beautiful lady without mercy. Upon seeing the ghastly corpses before him, the enchantment is broken and the knight wakes up on the hillside.
It should be noted that even though the enchantment is broken, the knight still pines for the lady who had him “in thrall,” which is to say that she possessed him in slavery. She lulled him to sleep and then left him to die on the side of a hill, and even though he was awakened he will still likely die from his loitering and longing. To be enthralled is to be enslaved, and by way of allegory, to be enslaved to the beautiful lady without mercy is to be enslaved by sin. The ghastly noblemen that warn the knight remind us that the wages of sin are death, as each of then has apparently died in their sins, left to wander about “alone and palely loitering.”
Today, there is a beautiful lady without mercy romancing the world. She uses her beauty, her food, and her voice to lower the guard of the soldiers for Christ. She uses a song to lull the Christian world into a sleep that leads only to death. She is the devil, disguised as charity; she is lust masquerading as love; she is complacency and complicity under the guise of compassion and pity; and she is death pretending to be life.
And why is she the beautiful lady without mercy? She has no mercy because, as the devil, she rejected Our Blessed Lord, who IS mercy itself. The lady WITH mercy, on the other hand, is the one who bore mercy incarnate in her blessed womb: Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. It is she who handed us the armor of the scapular and the sword of the rosary. It is she who gives warning to be on guard against the sweet temptations of the devil. It is she who will mend our hearts, wounded by the poison of an enchantress, so that we will not be found loitering and pining for the one who stripped us of our armaments and lulled us to sleep. It is she to whom we must have recourse because she is the one who will crush the head of the serpent under her heel.
All confirmed Christians are knights, called to be soldiers for Christ, not soldiers for ourselves. So, let us not remove our armor, drop our sword, or lower our guard. The allure of the world leads to complacency, and complacency leads to compromise and ultimately complicity. If we faithfully wear our scapulars, pray our rosaries, and remain close to the sacraments, we will not fall to the enchantments of the beautiful lady without mercy.