Sometimes, obscurity exercises its own spell. It’s the bit you don’t understand that does the trick.
Maybe that’s only true if you more or less ‘get’ the main part of the poem, on one level at least. I woke thinking about Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. I like it because it feels so fragmentary – a glimpse of something, a mood, a half a story, a mystery. And it’s a masterly exercise in exploiting traditional ballad form (with a twist – the way the last line of each stanza falls metrically short is exquisitely melancholy).
It’s enormously romantic, of course. Knights wandering around the edges of lakes looking lost, faery ladies seducing them and then disappearing. But at least it makes sense of that label ‘romantic poetry’. I love the way the whole ballad answers “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms?”, though the narrator has to repeat the question twice. It’s not easy disclosing ailments.
So what does ail him? Love, of course, that old culprit. The loitering knight met a faery lady in the meads (meadows) and they had a dynamic erotic encounter. The word ‘wild’ recurs four times – first it’s her eyes, then it’s the honey. Then the adjective multiplies:
......And there I shut her wild wild eyes
............With kisses four.
That’s two kisses for each wild eye, following which she lulls him asleep. All this wildness must be sexual intensity. I don’t see how it can not have something to do with that, and the dream he goes on to have – all the pale kings, princes and warriors – these are all the strong men who, like our melancholy knight, have been destroyed by love (all-consuming passion, in particular).
I love the phrase “palely loitering”. How can you make ‘pale’ be an adverb? Keats can – and all those ‘L’ consonants make the tongue stick to the phrase, loiter round it, no less. I once worked in a college with a set of published rules for its students, one of which was: “No loitering in the corridors.” Loitering is not manly. Loitering means a person can be up to something . . .
In this case, the knight is up to something quite useful. In answering the narrator’s questions “O what can ail thee”, he passes on the “horrid warning”, and the message is quite simple. Should you meet a faery lady in the meads (or, if you live in Fife, the Meadies), don’t even think about it. If she gets her way with you, you’re going to be stuck for ever, a prisoner of inertia. All you’ll want is the faery lady, but hey, she’s off enthralling some other poor bastard.
In a Scottish Higher English examination recently, one of the questions invited people to write an essay about some text (could have been novels, or poetry, I can’t remember) which took as its theme ‘unrequited love’. Interestingly, nobody in my class this year had met the word ‘unrequited’, so it’s obviously become archaic, or relatively so. And when you think about it, can anything else be unrequited except love? Merriam Webster wholly links the word to this emotion and even, bizarrely, rhymes it with “self-excited”.
Anyway, I still haven’t got to the bit I was thinking about when I woke up this morning. It was “fragrant zone”. I never understood “fragrant zone” though I have always adored that bit of the poem simply because it was its own wee mystery. Here it is:
......I made a garland for her head,
............And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
......She look’d at me as she did love,
............And made sweet moan.
In my head, the garland and bracelets had to be made out of flowers, something like daisy chains, though perhaps something a bit more exotic. Meadow flowers, anyway. And I figured they were scented flowers, so the garland and bracelets together created a whole zone of fragrance. And ‘zone’ has a nice buzz to it, as though even the bees would be gently attracted to the faery lady’s adornments.
I’ve been reading this poem to groups of people, off and on, for approximately thirty years. Nobody has ever asked about “zone”. You’d think somebody would have said once: what does he mean by “fragrant zone”. But no. I have explained manna and elfin grot and why faery is not spelled fairy. But not a peep about fragrant zone.
I don’t know why I’ve never looked it up. However, I just did. The mystery of half a century has dissipated. “Zone” is an archaic word for girdle or belt. Why did I never think to look it up before? I don’t know. Maybe I just wanted it to stay obscure. But now the mystery’s solved, I still like it. What a strange word for a belt: a zone. But now I know ‘zone’ means something that encircles (even in its more usual uses), I like the word even better. And I like that the garland, the bracelets and the zone are all circles, magic circles. Though he could have made her a ring, couldn't he? And he didn't do that . . . .
So here’s another thing poetry does. It uses words magically: you get drawn to them and like them (some of them, anyway) before you know what they mean. And sometimes you eventually look up the ‘meaning’ and find there are no simple meanings, just layers of usage and association. And this is amazing. Far better to fall in love with the mystery of language than faery ladies with wild eyes in meads.
But if you want a jolly version, you can’t do better than the Ray Archer Trio. Recommended antidote to faery ladies, in fact.