Medieval Sources for Keatsian Creation in la Belle Dame Sans Merci

By Finlayson, J. Caitlin | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Medieval Sources for Keatsian Creation in la Belle Dame Sans Merci


Finlayson, J. Caitlin, Philological Quarterly


Critics have identified a considerable array of possible sources for Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci including, but not limited to, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and Canto 5 of Dante's Inferno. Ballads, such as Thomas the Rhymer and the kind of popular ballad collected by Percy and later by Child, have also been cited for their influence on Keats's ballad. One commonly accepted source is Alain Chartier's medieval work by the same name, though it is commonly asserted that Keats took only the title from Chartier's work. (1) As the plethora of other claimed sources merely suggests a general influence rather than a direct source for the poem's materials, and as there is no evidence except the ballad's title that Keats was ever in possession of Chartier's poem, I should like to question the latter attribution. Furthermore, I propose to demonstrate that the direct source for the ballad is more probably a Middle English (ME) poem attributed to Richard Roos, entitled La Belle Dame sans Mercy, an expanded translation of Chartier's work, at one time thought to be by Chaucer and thus included in a 1782 edition of Chaucer known to have been in Keats's Library. (2) Although the principal narrative of the ME poem (and of its source, Chartier) is not reproduced in Keats's poem, I propose to investigate the possible influences the ME work may have exerted on the form and language of Keats's ballad, and some implications for our reading of the Romantic text. Since the ME poem belongs to the love vision or dream genre, was considered in Keats's time to be by Chaucer, and Keats himself is known to have been familiar with other, genuine Chaucer poems, I shall locate discussion of the ME poem within the love vision genre and Chaucer's courtly poetics, with particular reference to the Book of the Duchess, because it is the most conventional of Chaucer's dream poems and also, as an elegy centred on a plainte d'amour, connects love and death, narrators and lovers, as do both La Belle Dame poems. I shall propose that these Chaucerian poems supplied, or initiated, an organizational structure, an emotional ambiance and, thus, a catalyst for Keats's creative energies; that they provided analogues of inspiration, rather than matter for direct imitation.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there were a number of collected editions of Geoffrey Chaucer's works circulating that included pseudo-Chaucerian works: that is, works that have since been discarded from the Chaucerian canon, but which were accepted as Chaucer's at the time. On 12 March 1819, one month prior to the composition of La Belle Dame, Keats writes in a letter to George and Georgiana Keats: "I am writing this on the Maid's tragedy which I have read since tea with great pleasure -Besides this volume of Beaumont and Fletcher - there are on the tabl[e] two volumes of chaucer." (3) As Hyder Edward Rollins cites in his footnotes: "Keats's library contained an Edinburgh, 1782, edition of Chaucer, 14 volumes bound as 7, that is now in the British Museum." (4) Notably, this reference to a Chaucerian collection appears in the continuation of the same letter to George and Georgina Keats (beginning 14 February and concluding 3 May) that contains the original composition of the ballad. Volume 10 of this 1782 edition of Chaucer presents La Belle Dame sans Mercy as by Chaucer. While there is no evidence that Keats possessed a copy of Alain Chartier's work or read the French version of the poem at anytime, and in fact this is highly unlikely since French manuscripts of this period were not in wide circulation during Keats's lifetime, (5) his letter clearly indicates that he was in possession of a copy of the Middle English poem one month prior to the composition of his ballad and, as the letter implies, he was reading this Chaucerian edition at the time. Thus, it is more probable that Keats at the very least adopted his title from the ME text rather than from the original French poem.

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