La Belle Dame Sans Merci – John Keats – a Reading

She sits wrapped in furs on an ancient Celtic floor, chanting her soft ballads and staring at smoke from a peat fire curling softly up and round and out of the roof. She has lived many lives and known many names; no doubt she will live many more. She is the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Queen of the Deep Realm, she is Lamia. She lures men to their death.

The wind howls outside, along the sea loch and the birds cry their mournful song. She is wronged, mis-portrayed, misunderstood by generations. No Siren she but mere mortal, demonized by hapless storytellers who know no better.

She is Eve, cast out of the Garden of Eden, she is the cause of all our suffering. No noble savages, we seek to blame womankind, when blind evolution alone has done us wrong.

Our Circe, our witches, our magical world view are as present now as ever they were. They lull and caress us, inspire and guide us, if not literally then in the imagination of our hearts. To be human is to imagine. To imagine defines us, renews us.

The poem tells a beautiful and ancient story, and what is our life but a story? Perhaps we live but a story after all.

It is cold and dark and winter:

“The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing.”

The knight is “haggard and so woe-begone.”

The Belle Dame is

“a faery’s child, Her hair was long, her foot was light,And her eyes were wild”.

But her love, it seems, was nothing but

” A faery’s song”,sung “to pale kings and princes too, Pale warriors, death-pale were they all”.

And in the end the Belle Dame was just a dream, like life itself.

“And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side”

Wrapped in the beauty of myth ancient and modern we create our own truth, we bring meaning to a universe some say is dark and cold and without purpose. Sometimes sad and sometimes not, our stories and our poems, our Green Ladies and our Belles Dames are reflections of our desires and anxieties.

We are the stories we tell about ourselves. We are our myth in all its richness and beauty. In the world of our imagination there need be no ugliness, and without our imagination we would have no fire, no wheat to harvest, no wheel.

Heaven and Hell are creatures of our own making. We have imagined them and it is in our power to create in our own lives a “heaven” or a “hell”. May more of us choose the former over the latter and “nirvana” can be here and now.


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