ABSTRACT

A sleeping man, aged and ugly, is approached by a beautiful and elegant young woman. She bends over him and sweetly kisses his lips. When reproached for this action by one of her followers, the young woman responds to the jealous courtier: “I did not kiss the man, but only his precious mouth, from which have issued so many witty words and virtuous remarks.”1 Quoted first by Jean Bouchet in the sixteenth century, this famous anecdote of Marguerite of Scotland kissing the sleeping Alain Chartier is a figurative expression of the extent of Chartier’s reputation for oratory and literary excellence during his lifetime and long after his death. The Pre-Raphaelite painting by Edmund Blair Leighton depicting the kiss has brought this legend of Alain Chartier into the modern imagination. PreRaphaelite painters Waterhouse and Cowper made a subject of Alain Chartier’s most notable character, the Belle dame sans mercy, who earlier in the nineteenth century had captured the attention of the Romantic poet John Keats.2 The strong and beautiful femme fatale of the Middle Ages was reincarnated in the poem titled after her, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” in which the story of her encounter with a forlorn lover is translated from the medieval court into a fairy forest. The melancholy influence of Romanticism underlies the fear that echoes in the narrator’s words, evoking in their despair the fate of Chartier’s lover, who was killed by the hardheartedness of this Belle dame. The poem’s wistful portrait of her, fortified by the exquisite rendering of her beauty in the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, has ensured the image of the Belle dame in our consciousness as the woman whose beauty means death for an enthralled lover.