La Belle Dame Sans Merci

I was originally going to do a GQ post and ask the origin of this phrase. I’m referring to the Sirens in The Odyssey as “belles dames sans merci” – which I can do because it’s a French essay and it seems appropriate – and I got to wondering whence this phrase cometh*.

So, like any good poster, I decided to do a search (on both Altavista and Google, if you’re curious) before posting. I found both the poem of the same name by Keats, and this essay which mentions the allusions to the Keats poem in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

So, I’m posting for two reasons:

Does anybody know if the Keats poem is the first occurence of this phrase, or if he’s alluding to something else?

Isn’t it weird that I’m using the phrase in reference in to The Odyssey and it figures somewhat prominently in Ulysses?

Thank you, and good night. :slight_smile:

[sub]*Is that the proper construction?[/sub]

Since this seems to be an actual question, I’ll move it over to the forum “Actual Questions.”

Could be reference to Alain Chartier’s poem of the fourteenth century, see

Keats also uses the phrase in another poem, “The Eve of Saint Agnes”

I don’t know which Keats poem was written first.

Damn your yellow stick. Where are we going?

Lecherous lynx, to la belle dame sans merci, Georgina Johnson, ad deam qui laetificat iuventutam meam.

Jomo Mojo:
Babelfish gave me an acceptable translation of the French (Smart women without mercy.) but I’m having hell’s own time translating the Latin. Could you help me out here?

I believe that this is a very old story. “La Belle et le bete” old. Like a fairy tale. As far as the first written appearance of the story or the phrase “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, your guess is as good as mine. This has been a favorite subject of artists (poets, painters - especially the Pre-Raphaelites, etc.)for a long while. I hope someone figures this one out. It’d be cool to know where it all started.

I know of a painting based upon the Keats poem by John W. Waterhouse, if you’re interested.

I seem to recall reading the phrase in tales of King Arthur. My brain keeps wanting to link her with either Gareth of Gawaine.

My copy of Le Morte d’Arthur does not seem to list her in the index, though, so I may be confusing her with Breunis Saunce Pit’e, the Brown Knight Without Pity.

I wonder if it might be a stock epithet for any woman who is beautiful but cruel.


“Smart”? Huh? Babelfish he think he smart to give idiomatic translation of French word instead of literal meaning, but he no clever that much, no.

It means ‘the beautiful woman without mercy’.

The Latin phrase comes from the Easter Mass, but with a twist. You would have to be familiar with Catholic ecclesiatical Latin (as Joyce was, of course, having been educated by Jesuits) to recognize that the twist could be seen as a bit blasphemous.

The original phrase from the Mass goes:
Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutam meam
“I will go up to the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth”.

Stephen Dedalus’s quoting of this follows on the very first words spoken in Ulysses on the first page by Buck Mulligan, who intones Introibo ad altare Dei as he walks upstairs to give Stephen a shave. But this comes much later, in the hallucinogenic Chapter 15, the “Circe” chapter in the Nighttown brothel.

Stephen substitutes deam for Deum, changing the gender from masculine to feminine, so he’s saying: “To the goddess who gives joy to my youth.”

It used to be said in all Masses. The first thing the priest said was “Introibo ad altare Dei,” and the altar boy responded with the rest. I ought to know, I was one in my misspent youth. This could also point to the possibility of Joyce himself having been an altar boy (a good bet in Catholic Ireland).

And as any Flanders and Swann fan knows, the thread title means “the beautiful lady who never says ‘thank you’”. :slight_smile:

I’m not an expert on this, but as far as I know, merci was a part of medieval courtly love and meant the approval or favor of a lady towards her admirer. It could, of course, extend to physical favors.

In “Lord of the Rings,” the exchange between Galadriel and Gimli is a courtly one. One might say she bestows her merci (as such a very gracious queen might) before he personally expresses his admiration.

Thank you, all, for your help. (Even Euty. Sorry!) :slight_smile:

zgystardst, your thought on the courtly love angle makes a lot of sense, and it would tie in with mbh’s Arturian thought. And the three poems and the paintings all seem to have that medieval air to them …

The tie-in to joyce and the Mass are interesting, too.

Your help is much apppreciated, folks. I’m starting to feel like writing a thesis … =)