Versions of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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Versions of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Postby Aquarius » Thu Oct 22, 2009 6:55 pm

I know there was a thread about the two different versions on the poem, but I was wondering what is the story behind the two different versions? Did Keats prefer one over the other? I know some readers prefer one over the other, and for me I prefer the "knight at arms" version over the "wretched wight" version.

I was disappointed to find that the copy of his poems that I purchased has the version that reads:

"Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,"

And this edition I have is the "Modern Library" ed. I also have an older 1899 ed. that also has the "wretched wight" version.

I find the phrase "wretched wight" awkward and I don't know why the better version isn't in the editions that I have.

Luckily, in the Grant Scott ed. of his letters, there is the original version.

I wonder why some editions have the first version and some don't.
It appears to me that almost any man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy citadel.
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Re: Versions of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Postby Sid13 » Sat Oct 24, 2009 10:59 pm

Some people (Bate and Lowell come to mind) have tried to blame Hunt for the 1820 revisions, though there is no evidence for that theory. In fact, Keats seemed to feel uneasy about the poem as soon as he'd written it. Immediately after writing it out for George and Georgiana, he joked about kisses four as contrasted with kisses score or kisses seven, with three and a half kisses for each eye. Probably Keats felt the poem was too "smokeable" and revised it to make it more accessible to readers not familiar with the ballad tradition he was working in.

I agree that the revised version is weaker. The precise and visual knight-at-arms becomes a vague wretched wight. "She wept and sighed full sore" becomes diluted into "she gazed and sighed deep." And "she lulled me asleep" becomes the passive "we slumbered on the moss."

The preference for the original is almost universal. Andrew Motion preferred the later version, but his argument that the revisions bring the poem more in line with the ballad tradition is nonsense since those revisions were made precisely to distance the poem from the ballad tradition.

The Complete Poems of Keats I have, the Penguin Classics edition, edited by John Barnard, uses the 1819 version, as do most collected and selected editions of Keats's poems, and as does every single anthology containing the poem that I've ever seen. The Modern Library edition is flawed. (I'm assuming it is identical to the Keats half of the mammoth Modern Library Complete Poems of Keats and Shelley I have.) Random House seems to have simply reprinted in toto the text of some Victorian edition of Keats's poems. Not only does it use the 1820 La Belle Dame Sans Merci, but also a bowdlerized version of the poem about the Dawlish Fair, and it leaves out altogether several little pieces of doggerel by Keats which weren't published until the twentieth century.
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Re: Versions of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Postby Aquarius » Sun Oct 25, 2009 8:09 am

Thanks so much, Sid for clearing this up for me.

I might have to go out and buy the version you have. When I opened up the 1889 edition that I bought on ebay, and read La Belle Dame Sans Merci, I was so puzzled over the term wight. I even had to look it up. Even the definition of it was vague.
It appears to me that almost any man may like the spider spin from his own inwards his own airy citadel.
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