Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Brian Bates, "Graphic and Digital Keats"

Brian Bates

Graphic and Digital Keats: "La Belle Dame sans Merci" in Poetry Comics

1> In the twenty-first century, John Keats's canonical poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci" has been given new lives through visual adaptations. [i] Hidetoshi Oneda's fifteen-minute film (2005), which adds a ship-wreck frame narrative that doubles the poem's existing frame narrative, was the first of several short movie versions of "La Belle Dame."[ii] Amidst these cinematic adaptations, in 2013 PM Buchanan and Karen Yumi Lusted began publishing a serialized graphic narrative anime version that, according to one reviewer, "drags The Beautiful Lady out of the forest and screaming into the modern world."[iii] Buchanan and Lusted's adaptation has received considerable fanfare in the midst of a print and digital poetry comics boom that has brought Julian Peters's and Neil Cohn's versions of "La Belle Dame" to an international audience.[iv]

2> Unlike the above-mentioned films and the serialized Buchanan/Lusted graphic narrative, which all add plot lines or contemporary contexts to the poem proper, Peter's one and Cohn's two black and white poetry comics focus exclusively on visually framing every word of Keats's twelve stanza, forty-eight line ballad. While Peters's version portrays Keats's lines through thirty-nine comics panels covering nine pages, each of Cohn's companion pieces depicts those lines through sixty-three panels over twelve pages. These three adaptations illustrate the same forty-eight lines of poetry, but they differ markedly in how they illustrate the poem's points of view and sequential pacing.[v] Similar to Jeffrey Robinson's concept of how typographic and spatial deformations of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" can break "fetters of reading," all three poetry comics prompt readers to see and read anew "La Belle Dame" through an ekphrastic lens that "emphasizes the visionary tendency of [art object and poem] to veer empathically towards each other" (Paragraphs 4, 8).[vi] In contrast to most scholarly studies of Keats's poem, which tend to read its four-line stanzas as two-line units, Peters and Cohn resituate many of Keats's stanza breaks and ballad lines. Their adaptations demonstrate how poetry comics can artfully supplement the language of a poem while also redoubling attention to how to read that poem's rhetorical figures, pacing, and temporal-spatial structure.

3> In the case of "La Belle Dame," that structure and metered pacing encompass timely encounters, seeing as believing, emotional enthrallment, and rhetorical entrapment. For readers, sojourning in Keats's poem involves encountering its vividly insistent present-ness in the midst of multiple vanishings.[vii] As Gary Farnell maintains, readers can never fully see the poem's enigma, which gazes back at them from an un-viewable recess overshadowed by the poem's self-reflexive performance.[viii] The knight's abiding presence from beginning to end of the poem indeterminately stands in for all of the bodies and figurations that disappear from or do not fully signify in the poem-most notably la belle dame, the poem's narrator, and the knight's warning dream. His body, both tell-tale sign and symptom of his story, represents an un-fixed site that asks for a virtual life to be granted through the reciprocal gaze and affective response of those he encounters. [ix] Peters's and Cohn's adaptations use comics techniques such as paneled spacing, sequential transitions, fragmented intervals, and narrative closure to involve readers in the poem's performance. By dramatizing how the poem's pro-regressive stanzaic movements set up acts of kairotic closure that can only be carried out before-, between-, and after-words, these strikingly different poetry comics highlight what knowledge turns on in "La Belle Dame"-the seeing eye/I as a constantly re-framed point of view in time.[x]

Framing "La Belle Dame's" I's / Eyes

4> The sheer number of scholarly studies over the last fifty years about "La Belle Dame's" manuscript and print variations has overshadowed its visual lives.[xi] Along with "The Eve of St. Agnes," Keats's poem has a rich tradition of visual adaptation that focuses on its gendered dynamics, unreliable speakers, ambiguous statements, and unanswered questions. Grant Scott's "Language Strange: A Visual History of Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'" details how often-from the 1840s to the first quarter of the twentieth century-Keats's ballad was adapted in single-frame pencil sketches, ink drawings, book illustrations, engravings, watercolor and oil paintings. [xii] The opening of Bernice Slote's 1960 article, "The Climate of Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci,'" implicitly recalls that tradition with a visual print metaphor: "If ['La belle dame'] were a lithograph, one might extract from it various levels of line, shade, and coloring; and in the design, trace various other dimensions that set it in time and place" (195). Invented in 1796 (a year after Keats's birth) and developed during the nineteenth century as a commercial practice and high-art form, lithography is an apt trope for re-seeing Keats's canonical poem. [xiii] The poem's questionable modes of seeing have been adapted and reproduced often in high art and commercial images that trace and flesh out its rarified depictions of space and time. Much more than any of these single-frame adaptations, however, the sequential, paneled form of poetry comics-a hybrid of high and commercial art-multiplies the possibilities for tracing, placing in relief, and supplementing the seen and unseen qualities of "La Belle Dame."[xiv]

5> A brief reading of the poem that emphasizes the significance of connective seeing, not seeing, and not being seen will lay out several visual qualities that Peters and Cohn deftly manipulate in their respective comics adaptations. In Keats's poem, knowledge of the knight, narrator, and belle dame depends upon sets of I's/eyes that see, look, envision and re-see. The first two stanzas of "La Belle Dame" present an unidentified, roving presence that questions what ails a solitary, "haggard," and "woe-begone" knight amidst observations about the knight's autumnal surroundings, including a lake with "wither'd" sedge, a squirrel's full granary, and a harvested landscape.[xv] Stanza three begins with "I see," thus connecting the pronoun "I" with the previous stanzas' wandering eye, which fixates on the knight's anguished, feverish look of death ("a lily on thy brow") and lost love ("on thy cheeks a fading rose"). The beginning of stanza four repeats the catalyzing "I" of stanza three, but that repetition quickly becomes disjointed through a shift from the present tense-"I see"-to the past tense-"I met." Although the poem does not have quotations marks to clarify who speaks any of its lines, scholars have routinely read this tense shift as a sign that the first three stanzas of the poem are separate from the knight's story in the next eight stanzas. Reciprocally, the shift in the poem's final stanza back to the present tense has been read as a return to the frame narrative. Notwithstanding those tense divisions, the I's that begin stanzas three, four, five, and six create an anaphoric continuity that aligns the seeing I's/eyes throughout the poem.

6> The second of those layered I's-the "I" of stanza four-responds to the questioning "I" in stanza three by describing his encounter with la belle dame whose "eyes were wild"-a portrayal that suggests an unrestrained, uncivilized gaze (16). In the next stanza, the knight makes a "garland," "bracelets," and a "fragrant zone" for la belle dame that draw her "wild" eyes to his own: "She look'd at me as she did love" (19). Responding to his own sense of her gaze, in stanza six the knight sets "her on my pacing steed/ And nothing else saw all day long" (21-22). Throughout their ride in this stanza, the knight remains enthralled by her look even as she sings and gazes "sidelong" at him (23). The knight's certain/uncertain knowledge of her "language strange," exotic gifts, and sighted love is further blurred in la belle dame's "elfin grot" by her weeping in stanza eight. That weeping prompts the knight to "shut her wild wild eyes/ With kisses four" (31-32). In response to the knight's four-fold, eye-closing kisses, la belle dame closes off his sight of her-"there she lulled me asleep"-which leads to, "Ah! woe betide!/ The latest dream I ever dream'd" (35-36). Stanzas ten and eleven both begin with "I saw"-a double testimony that points the knight's retelling of that vision of entrapment. What the knight "saw"-the "starv'd lips" and "horrid warning gaped wide" of "death-pale" kings, princes and warriors-recalls his own paleness, observed in the first stanza, and reworks the tense of stanza three's "I see." This pro- and analeptic seeing, interleaved with a vivid nightmare warning-"'La belle dame sans merci/Hath thee in thrall!'"-awakens the knight back to empirical sight: "and I awoke and found me here." In the wake of that return to sight within his tale, the knight turns back to the questioning I/eye of the frame narrative and offers a summative explanation: "And this is why I sojourn here." The place deictics "this" and "here" indeterminately ground the knight's response and point the possibilities for the knight, his questioner and readers to believe "this" visionary explanation "here," which lies betwixt and between the blended points of view in the poem.[xvi] Though the knight remains psychologically entrapped by his nightmare vision and enthralled by la belle dame's vanished eyes, his "sojourn" in the frame narrative concludes indefinitely as his wandering eye takes on the now vanished questioning I's language and point of view.

7> As this brief reading demonstrates, singling out reliable points of view in the poem is a vexed process wrapped up in the poem's rhetorical capacity to enthrall, entrap and repeat. Peters's and Cohn's respective poetry comics both engage and circumvent that process by illustrating shifts in point of view as a function of timely reader participation. Peters's version treats the first three stanzas of the poem as a frame narrative viewed through the eyes of an unseen interlocutor—this single-camera viewpoint is also readers'—who approaches a seated knight leaning against a tree. In the remainder of the poem, the knight tells his story in response to this interlocutor's questioning observations. By contrast, Cohn's companion comics initially place readers in a multi-angle, third person, cinematic remove from the characters illustrated in the poem. Version one portrays la belle dame as the interlocutor who questions the knight so that the poem's frame narrative blends together with his ensuing story. Version two plays out a more complex psychological and aged physical portrayal of the knight who questions his own reflection in the lake and then responds with his story. While the opening page of Peters's adaptation presents the first four lines of Keats's poem, each of Cohn's versions has a before-words page that leads into the following pages' image/text framings of the poem. All three versions expressly emphasize who sees what in the poem; however, each of them prompts readers toward markedly different acts of what Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics calls closure: the "PHENOMENON OF OBSERVING THE PARTS BUT PERCEIVING THE WHOLE" (63).[xvii] Peters's version appears below on the left, followed by the first page of Cohn's versions one and two.

8> Through aspect-to-aspect transitions that set in motion a "WANDERING EYE ON DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF A PLACE, IDEA, OR MOOD," Peters's three panels draw readers toward what can no longer be seen (McCloud 72). Each panel conveys a sense of stopped time that can only be put in motion by the left-to-right and top-to bottom movement of readers' eyes shifting from panel to panel while reading specifically placed lines of Keats's first stanza that convey their own sense of spoken duration. Through these three image/text framings, Peters both follows and stretches Keats's ballad stanza—rendered here in six lines—as a two-line unit followed by a horizontally divided third and fourth line. The background details in the first large panel encourage readers to linger around the poem's initial two-line question-situated in the pathway toward the knight—and weigh the significance of the knight's partially shielded vantage point, which overlooks a lake partly ringed by trees and distant mountains. The third, sub-divided line of the poem appears in the gutter space below the first and above the second panel. That poetry line draws readers' eyes down to the left, through the gutter, to a panel that depicts a horizontal view across the lake. Immediately to the right, the third panel provides a closer-cropped, vertical look at the tops of barren trees. Placed on the same horizontal plane as the third line of the poem, the final line of Keats's stanza pulls readers inside that third panel to a brief, four-syllable line—"AND NO BIRDS SING"—that hovers just above those trees, as if the words stand in place of vanished bird song. Peters's transitions set up acts of closure that lead from a panel emphasizing the distance between the questioner, the two-line question, and the knight to a guttered third line that connects with the surrounding scene below it and moves toward a parallel poetry line—in frame—that emphasizes what is mis-"sing" from the knight's "loitering."

9> In contrast to Peters's left-to-right, top-to-bottom panel transitions, each of Cohn's before-words pages presents five panels with a visual pace and tone that engage readers in moment-to-moment and subject-to-subject transitions from left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and right-to-left. [xviii] While version one sets readers up to encounter the externally visible aspects of Keats's ballad, version two prepares readers for a psychological journey into the invisible workings and cyclical passage of time in the poem. Both versions begin with four panels in the left column that descend downward and lead to a fifth, vertically elongated panel in the right column that shows the outcome of these four, sequenced actions. In each version, the first panel depicts a close-up of feet in motion that shifts in the second frame to a close-up of eyes looking to the right of the frame. Panel three in version one pans down and out from the female eyes in panel two to show a woman's covered legs stopped behind a shadowy, prone body. The fourth panel pans out further to reveal her kneeling in front of that body, amidst a wooded scene bordered by a lake. The elongated fifth panel stills the simulated motion in these small action frames by depicting the knight's groggy eyes looking searchingly at her while she holds his head. By contrast, version two moves from aged, male eyes in the second panel to a kneeling, shadowy torso below those eyes in panel three to a panned out panel four that shows the man kneeling at the edge of a lake amidst that wooded scene. The elongated fifth panel shows a close-up of the knight's upside-down image as he peers into the lake. Both versions set up right-to-left movements from the searching eyes in the fifth panel that look back to the nearly parallel eyes in the second panel. In version one, the woman's eyes make contact through the gutter with the knight's and vice-versa while in version two the man's framed eyes oversee through the gutter his own self-reflective look. The subject-to-subject transition in version one maintains reciprocal eye contact between the woman and man. Version two's subject-to-subject transition creates a retrograde chain of distended eye contact that points the way toward dislocated introspection. The second pages of Cohn's versions appear below.

10> Similar to Peters's first page, each of Cohn's pages has three panels. Unlike Peters's panels, which involve aspect-to-aspect transitions from top-to-bottom and left-to-right, Cohn uses top-to-bottom, moment-to-moment transitions that incrementally pan in on faces searching for meaningful eye contact. Though each panel has two lines of poetry, the transitions between panels create a sense of time speeding up in the second, slightly smaller panel, and slowing down in the final, larger panel because of the emotional intensity and proximity of the faces' searching, reciprocal gazes. In contrast to Peters, Cohn downplays the significance of the knight's surroundings and the unity of Keats's four-line stanza by opting to focus, as in his previous page, on six lines (here rendered as twelve lines). The unified eye contact accompanying these lines intensifies the question from panel one that is partially repeated in panel three. Cohn's panels place Keats's lines in the service of a visual trope—connective eye contact—yet to be fully enacted in the poem.

11> Notably, Peters's second page and Cohn's third pages double the number of framed transitions and increase the narrative pace while further stretching Keats's four-line stanzas. Though all three of these pages have six panels that involve subject-to-subject and moment-to-moment transitions, the varying panel sizes, placements, and number of poetry lines in each version create different narratives about the knight's point of view and prospects for emotional connection. Peters's second page renders nine lines from the poem—stanzas two, three and the first line of stanza four—while each of Cohn's versions renders six lines—the last two lines of stanza two and all of stanza three. By including this many lines of the poem on a single page, these artists invest Keats's poetry with the bulk of narrative telling and, consequently, free up their illustrations to depict the knight's physical and emotional responses during this encounter. These comics also strategically place Keats's lines on the page to shape paths of reading that draw attention to the knight's responses and yearning for connective, eye contact.

12> Peters's version dramatizes the knight's moment-to-moment, emotional vacillations as he considers the interlocutor and decides whether to respond to this questioning I/eye. Through shifting eye contact in four of the six frames, the knight reveals his difficulty in deciding whether to tell his story to his questioner. While the first seven lines—presented as twelve lines—appear above and below the first two panels, the last two lines appear inside the fourth and sixth panels. Reading from left to right across the first two panels involves a set of subject-to-subject transitions that includes the surrounding, top-bottom placement of Keats's rhyming stanza. While the lines around the first two panels create a distanced narrative effect, the next four, tightly-grouped panels highlight the incremental, emotional shifts between the last line of stanza three and the beginning of the knight's story in the first line of stanza four. The fourth panel frames the stanza's last line, "FAST WITHERETH TOO." That framing situates the interlocutor's previously distant words in intimate proximity with the knight's face and suggests the power of those three words to sway the knight's downcast, distracted look. The fifth panel captures that emotional sway by fixing the interlocutor's gaze more closely on the knight's now returned gaze. Because this panel has no words connected with it, the knight's direct eye contact connects with another wordless path of reading above that stretches down the left column from the first to the third to the fifth panels. These three panels redouble attention to the stages of the knight's eye contact, which change from a listless acknowledgment to a blank stare to a wary, but beseeching, search for understanding. In the last panel on the page, the knight speaks the beginning of his story proper, the first line of stanza four: "MET A LADY IN THE MEADS,". His first words are the last on the page, suggesting enigmatically that the past tenseness of his words begins, ends and encapsulates his story.

13> Unlike Peter's third page, which begins with a question and ends with the knight's opening statement, Cohn's third pages begin and end with declarative statements. In both versions, the small first panel frames the last two lines of stanza two, thus diminishing the importance of those lines in contrast with the lines placed amidst four of the next five larger panels. Version one sets up moment-to-moment transitions through panels two, three and four that pan in on la belle dame's sympathetic hand and eye movements toward the knight's head and eyes. The second and third panels share the line, " I SEE A LILY ON THY BROW," which creates an image/text connection that draws together her illustrated hand, eye, and brow through the worded description of the knight's brow. Panel three also includes parts of the next line, "WITH ANGUISH MOIST AND FEVER DEW," concluded in panel four. That co-framed line further shows how la belle dame shares in the knight's fevered anguish. This quickened, moment-to-moment connection of body parts and sympathetic responses, through a written line, slows down in the fourth panel when the knight gazes up at la belle dame whose hands and lines of poetry frame his face: "AND ON THY CHEEKS A FADING ROSE". Similar to Peters's bottom-left panel on page two, Cohn's bottom-left panel in each version has no words and focuses solely on eye contact. In version one, this elongated panel shows a close up of the knight's brow and one of his eyes. That panel also spatially divides Keats's third line in panel four from the last line of the stanza—"FAST WITHERETH TOO"—in panel six. This spacing, which moves readers downward through panel five, creates a visual echo that prompts a return to the lady's brow and eye in panel three before proceeding to the page's last panel. Moreover, the lady's fully-pictured face in panel six offsets the knight's fully-pictured face in panel four. That juxtaposition obfuscates the withering she describes and suggests a restoration of the faded rose she cites. The seeming borders of the sixth panel also extend up around the top of the fifth panel, underlining the first panel in a thick black gutter that opens up a negative space yet to be fully-filled by the first, second, fifth and sixth paneled images on the page.

14> Cohn's second version depicts the aged knight in panel one looking up into his surroundings as he speaks his two-line declaration. The moment-to-moment transitions in the next three panels situate Keats's lines in the same places as in version one. Through these panels, Cohn draws out the length of the knight's searching, self-reflective gaze. The second panel focuses on a fragmented close up of his hand resting beneath his chin at the edge of the lake, the third panel depicts a close up of his eye, and the fourth panel pans out to show the knight bent over his reflection. Panel two's and three's shared line has a different pace and halting significance than it does in version one. Version two's images give this line a tone of uncertainty and disbelief that stretches the amount of time readers might linger to process these panels. Moreover, panel four prompts a quicker movement than version one does through its panned-out scene and lines of poetry toward the fifth panel's close up—seen from the perspective of the knight's reflection—of the knight's face back—lit by a sky with companion birds. Like panel five in version one, this fifth panel has no words connected with it. That lack of words disrupts the time sequencing in the previous panels and focuses on an emergent, single tear that, in the next panel, runs down the knight's face as he delivers the stanza's final line with bowed head and closed eyes. Far from the restorative image in version one of la belle dame's fully-imaged face, which distinctly informs the tone of that line, this image of the knight's falling tear dramatizes how long this withering has lingered and the depth of its effect on him. While Peters's page leaves readers to ponder the connection between the first line of the knight's story and the frame narrative, each of Cohn's pages encourages readers to pause and reflect on the enduring effects and affects of the frame narrative's last line.

Re-Envisioning Closure

15> Last lines are central to Keats's ballad. In most printed versions of "La Belle Dame," the final dimeter (or one-off dimeter) line in each stanza stands out in contrast to the preceding three tetrameter (or one-off tetrameter) lines.[xix] Even though the fourth, end—stopped line in each stanza concludes the narrative arc of the three preceding lines, those concluding lines also announce their narrative primacy through their declarative, spatial brevity. Keats's fourth lines offer both simple and enigmatic ways of seeing the under-explained beginnings to the poem's multiple encounters. In their placements of the poem's fourth lines, Peters and Cohn emphasize the fine lines separating stanzaic endings and beginnings. By reordering Keats's last and first lines, these adaptations create kairotic moments that prompt readers to see beyond the chronicity of the narrative and explore how particular panels figure what Frank Kermode describes as "the present of things past, the present of things present, and the present of things future" (50). For example, Peters's second page (discussed above) disrupts the pattern of last-ness in Keats's four-line stanza by having the first line of the knight's story end the page. That placement creates narrative suspense for readers, who must turn to the third page to see more of the knight's story, while also connecting the knight's initial response with the frame narrative's chronological, reality principal. Peters's image/text disruption of Keats's stanza emphasizes how chronological ordering in the poem energizes and destabilizes its narrative progression and rhetorical effects. In all three poetry comics, these enthralling, entangled divisions come to rest on la belle dame's eyes. Peters's page three and both of Cohn's fourth pages appear below.

16> Through aspect-to-aspect transitions, Peters's version plays out the initial scene of the knight's encounter with la belle dame's worldly/other-worldly physicality. In the large first panel, readers look past the foregrounded knight and his horse toward the lady's full-figure image amidst a field of flowers. Peters renders Keats's second line in the stanza at the beginning of the page—"FULL BEAUTIFUL—A FAERY'S CHILD,"—so that it floats to the left of her head, immersed in the trees above and behind her. This line placement connects spatially with the first line of the stanza spoken by the knight on the previous page while also suggesting her attachment to something above/beyond the terrestrial world. Next, Peters divides the third line so that readers focus separately on her body parts. The first panel shows her hair, which turns through the guttered words below—"HER FOOT WAS LIGHT,"—to the next panel's close up of her foot above one of the field flowers. The third panel intensifies this blazon of her hair and the stilled movement of her foot with a spell-binding view that illustrates the last line of the stanza, "AND HER EYES WERE WILD." This catalogue of her body parts suggests a chronological progression between panels while also playing out, in the third panel, a trebled return to her eyes in the first panel. Appearing above this fourth line, three pairs of her eyes dizzyingly draw and stand in the way of the knight's and readers' approach so that time seems to stand still in the midst of her eyes in the fore-, back-, and middle ground.

17> In Cohn's version one, three waterfall panels that duplicate the lady's image from the previous page multiply her increasingly magnified panel-to-panel image without creating a distinct chronological progression. The third panel of the lady blends into the knight's large, unframed head-in-profile. Her/his head precipitates the knight's story, which begins in the middle of the page where the knight gazes toward his own words in the black space separating the page's top and bottom frames. Moreover, in the third panel, the lady's single eye—the other eye seemingly merged with the knight's head—gazes directly at readers as if attempting to precipitate them as well. In version two, the initial three panels create a sense of chronological time measurable by the knight's tear falling into water—a movement that begins on the previous page. While in version one the third panel of the lady blends into the knight's head, in the second version the aged knight's reflected head appears alone and spatially disconnected from the first line of his story proper. This second version also provides a connective visual transition from the frame narrative to the story proper through rippling water that juxtaposes the aged knight's rippled reflection in panel four with the rippled images of la belle dame in the last three panels. In both versions, the first two lines of the fourth stanza are placed together as four lines so that the knight's initial encounter and description of the lady merge together. Moreover, the increasing close-ups of the lady's eye in the last two panels draw readers quickly through the bottom left panel, which shows her upper body and the whole third line about her hair and foot, to the fourth line, "AND HER EYES WERE WILD." Cohn's versions create a lingering suspense that follows Keats's fourth line with a wordless panel that shows a close-up of the lady's eye. Even though the knight has begun his story, Cohn's final panel intensifies and delays that story-world beginning until the next page. That final panel builds on the two previous panels and harkens back to the lady's eyes on previous pages in version one and the man's eye on previous pages in version two. Instead of simply pointing the way forward chronologically, Cohn's page layout creates visual paths of return to already figured eyes. In the midst of these returns and the projected turn forward into the knight's story, her solitary eye becomes an absorbing and compelling entrance point to the next page.

18> In both Peters's and Cohn's versions, the further the knight's story progresses, the more their comics' pages reorder the beginnings and endings of Keats's four-line stanza. Most of the panels in their ensuing pages use action-to-action transitions that require very little of readers to make sense of the chronological progression. For example, Peters's page four follows the logic of Keats's stanza by rendering all of stanzas five and six. However, pages five and six complicate page four's stanzaic pacing by ending with the first line respectively of stanzas eight and nine: "SHE TOOK ME TO HER ELFIN GROT," and "AND THERE SHE LULLED ME ASLEEP." By placing these first lines amidst these pages' concluding panels, Peters emphasizes the significance of scene-to-scene shifts that involve the knight traversing different environments, states of consciousness, and senses of time. Instead of moving directly to the next lines of each stanza, readers are prompted to linger over these two lines in kairotic moments that connect previous, illustrated lines on the page with the knight's future. Page seven further disorders Keats's four-line stanza by ending with the second line of stanza ten: "PALE WARRIORS, DEATH—PALE WERE THEY ALL." Even more unsettled than the previous two examples, page seven concludes with this second line and suggests how deeply the knight has been moved from his arrival at the "grot" to losing consciousness in that grot to entering a dream-vision. These re-figurations of Keats's stanza propel readers forward into the knight's unfolding narrative while also folding his lines back on themselves so that the seeming beginning of a new scene offers an enigmatic conclusion to the preceding stanza's actions. Through the opening lines of pages six, seven, and eight, Peters creates an increasingly paradoxical sense of beginning anew while already having been "THERE."

19> Cohn's versions intensify that type of analeptic and proleptic seeing by, at times, adding wordless panels after Keats's fourth lines—for example on page five after the line "A FAERY'S SONG." That extra panel focuses on the knight's and lady's shadowy horse ride, which shows the horse moving out of the background toward a middle ground traversed by flying birds. The simultaneous cross-movements of the horse and birds disrupts the pace of readers who are left to await the arrival of the horse riders while following the birds' flight to the right of the page. That set of cross purposes creates a kairotic moment that involves the lady's present "faery song" and recalls the lack of bird song at the end of stanza one. On page six, instead of ending with the final line of the seventh stanza, "LOVE THEE TRUE.", Cohn offsets the large spatial divide between that last line and the previous line, which appears in the upper-left hand corner, with two top-to-bottom panels that conclude with the second line of stanza nine, " AND THERE SHE WEPT, AND SIGH'D FULL SORE,". This left-to-right juxtaposition sets that line up as a direct extension of the previous stanza's last line, "I LOVE THEE TRUE." On page seven, Cohn's first panel without words and second panel (featuring the final two lines of the stanza) run together, "AND THERE I SHUT HER WILD WILD EYES WITH KISSES FOUR.", so that the only other line on the page, " AND THERE SHE LULLED ME ASLEEP," appears as a consequence of his four-fold kisses and not, as in Keats's stanzas, the beginning of a different stanzaic set of actions.[xx]

20> Peters' and Cohn's adaptations particularly emphasize how the last two stanzas of "La Belle Dame" call into question what will last—meaning what will remain—at the close of the knight's tale and the frame narrative. Similar to Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," their poetry comics show how the last lines of the poem point back to the opening stanza while also dramatizing what can last within the spaces and vanishings of the poem's endings and beginnings.[xxi] Peters's pages eight and nine appear below.

21> Page eight begins in the gutter with "THEY CRIED—", the first two words of stanza ten's penultimate line. Those words appear outside and above the stanza's remaining enjambed lines. This separation of a two-word narration from the actual words cried out inside the panel creates a double cry that echoes from the elongated first panel through the remaining four panels on the page. What the knight "SAW" in the second row redounds with that echoed cry into the knight's shocked awakening in the bottom row, which divides the penultimate line of stanza eleven: "AND I AWOKE" "AND FOUND ME HERE,". That line division juxtaposes the first three words in the gutter above the fourth panel with the last four words within the fifth panel. The fourth panel focuses solely on the knight's bewildered face as he returns from his shocking nightmare to empirical, chronological reality while the last panel shows him looking into the distance as he attempts to reconcile the act of finding himself anew "HERE." While this "HERE" is not the place of his nightmare (though it is the place he has been dreaming), the in-frame placement of "HERE" recalls the in-frame cry from panel one—all of which suggests that he finds himself in both places, betwixt and between "HERE" and the place of that nightmare.

22> The first panel on page nine further draws out the time and space that the deictic "HERE" spans. Similar to the previous page's last panel, this frame shows a panned-out view of the knight in a seated position, looking around his environment above the final, in-frame words of stanza eleven: " ON THE COLD HILL'S SIDE." Through this page-to-page transition, readers must wait to round out the chronological movement in the narrative from "HERE" to "ON" while lingering over the seemingly conclusive "HERE," which yokes together the knight's present, past in the present, and future in the present. Following this kairotic stay of chronological time, the last three panels return to the frame narrative by reestablishing the returned eye contact from page two. The first of these panels renders the first two lines of the last stanza in which the knight offers his questioner a summary response, marked by the deictic "THIS." What "THIS" refers to remains unclear; nonetheless, the next panel, which shows the knight with closed eyes, suggests that "THIS" cannot be found in the "HERE" repeated in the present moment. The knight's eye shutting and fading body signal his disengagement from his present encounter with the interlocutor, even as his spoken words repeat the questioner's phrasings. The turn in the final panel to a sidelong view of the vanishing knight who sits against the tree harkens back to page one's first panel. That ending return to the beginning is punctuated by the final line of the poem, which is also the final line of stanza one: "AND NO BIRDS SING." Readers are left to wonder whether the knight's encounter with his questioner has led to a transcendence of his story's entrapping chronology that leads back to "HERE"; or, whether he is fading into the dream-state denoted by his closed eyes on the top of page seven; or, whether he has missed the possibility of escaping from the cyclical repetition of his encounters. The last panel shows the knight with eyes open, gazing off again into his surroundings. That return to seeing the empty place of vanished bird song suggests his continued entrapment in the chronological repetition of his story. In that case, the knight has missed "THIS" moment or—to return to the imagery in the first two stanzas—the season for forging significant connections between his present "HERE" and retold past that might transform his future. The knight's vanishing at the close of Peters' poetry comic shows a lack of self-presence that coincides with the interlocutor's disappearance and follows la belle dame's vanishing act. In this rhetorical schema where "NO BIRDS SING", there can be no kairotic growth for the knight—only a vanishing back into the cyclical repetition of chronological encounter and disappearance.

23> Both of Cohn's versions also emphasize the temporal significance of "HERE" by rendering only the last two lines of the eleventh stanza on the tenth page. Version one returns to the young knight in the large first panel by repeating his horror struck expression from the nightmare warning in the previous page's last panel: "WITH HORRID WARNING GAPED WIDE,".

24> The three panels in the top half of the page play out moment-to-moment transitions that show the knight's reaction to his awakening. To the right within the large first panel, the second panel shows a close up of the knight's eyes that depicts his continuing shock while also revealing a softening of his initially horrified eyes and arm that reaches out to stave off or possibly grasp his nightmare vision. The third panel shows his now recovered empirical sight searching his surroundings. Together, these three panels depict a progression: from an initial horrified reach that obfuscates where "HERE" is in relation to a nightmare past, which gives way in the second panel to his initial sense of "HERE," which turns in the third panel to a present scanning of "HERE." This gradual relaxing from horror into his present surroundings continues in the next panel through a distanced view of the knight sitting to the left of the fourth line, "ON THE COLD HILL'S SIDE." The moment-to-moment transitions from the previous panels turn in the final two panels to aspect-to-aspect transitions that prompt readers to linger over the knight's words above a wordless, nighttime sky. On the eleventh page, that wordless expansion contracts through two small panels in the upper-left corner that show close ups of: first, the knight's hand in his lap and, second, his eyes. To the right of those panels, the knight speaks the first line of the final stanza, "AND THIS IS WHY IS SOJOURN HERE,". With this large panel and framed line, Cohn reestablishes Keats's first to last stanza line order. Cohn's illustration of the knight's facial expression in that panel gives the stanza's first line a contemplative tone that each of the three remaining panels develops singly in conjunction with one ensuing stanza line. The first panel shows the knight from an aerial view—"ALONE AND PALELY LOITERING;"—while the second and third panels depict moment-to-moment close ups of the knight's face in profile that imply a dawning realization about how to reconcile "THIS" and "HERE." The knight's downcast look in the final panel below his words—"AND NO BIRDS SING"—further suggests an emerging understanding of what has past and of a possible future latent within his retold past.

25> In version two, unlike the young knight's awakening from his dream vision, the aged knight awakens "HERE" without the horrified expression of his younger self from the previous page. His kneeling position also recalls his posture on pages one and two. Gazing down at his own reflection in the first panel, the knight registers no initial shock at moving from his nightmare vision to "HERE." His reaction throughout the first three panels suggests that he already has been "HERE" before, at the point where nightmare gives way to his future in the present. The close up in the second panel of the knight's gaze into his own reflection shifts in the third panel to him scanning his surroundings—a fleeting search that seems to confirm the fourth panel's distanced view of the knight and the resigned tone of the accompanying words, "ON THE COLD HILL'S SIDE."

26> In order for readers to move from the first three panels to the fourth, which contains the last line on the page, they must pass downward through the lake into which the knight has been staring. In conjunction with the night sky in the final panel, that watery abyss of present, past, and future encompasses this final line and connects the coldness of its terrestrial ground with the passage of his story's time and the reflected, nebulous time of the cosmos. Following this mirrored expansion of time, Cohn's next page reestablishes the first-to-last order of Keats's final stanza. Before moving readers back into that order, however, Cohn, as in version one, provides two panels in the upper-left corner that further still time through aspect-to-aspect transitions that pan in on the knight's hand in lap and eyes. The large panel with the knight's spoken words—"AND THIS IS WHY I SOJOURN HERE,"—sets up a transition to the next panel that once again moves readers through the reflective lake to the night sky. In the context of these redounding images, the knight's use of the deictic "THIS" suggests his resignation about being trapped "HERE" on the "COLD HILL'S SIDE" between reflective water and nighttime sky. Far from providing a reconciliation between "THIS" and the repeated "HERE," the three ensuing frames imply the unbridgeable gap between these deictic placeholders. In place of reconciliation, the knight is left with his own rippled reflection and the resounding notion that "THIS" and "HERE" point to irreparable disappearances, marked by the repetition from stanza one of "AND NO BIRDS SING."

27> Each of Cohn's after-words pages draws out the significance of the poem's last line through four panels that further illustrate "HERE" while recalling past eye contact and the cross-patterned flight of birds. Version one presents a "HERE" that becomes a shared proximal space filled by the return of the woman's eyes from both the frame narrative and the knight's story. Version two presents a "HERE" that is bereft of eye contact, including the knight's own self-reflection.

28> Though the end of version one may imply that la belle dame has returned to torture the knight with a renewal of the same story cycle, the specific images in the final panels suggest otherwise. Panels two and three offset the knight's downcast face with the return of images from page one—the lady's feet, followed by a close—up shot of the lady's eyes looking toward the knight's shadowed body. The birds flying above and to the right of the lady's magnified eyes and the knight recall the birds on page seven during the knight's and lady's horse ride, as well as the birds on pages one and two, which pass by during their initial physical contact. The flying birds on the last page suggest a celebration of the knight and lady's reunion and a possible new life for the knight that marks his escape from the circular, chronicity of his story. "THIS" and "HERE" become one in this reunion scenario, which transforms the past in the present and brings to fruition the knight's (and potentially readers') wish fulfillment that his "SOJOURN" has purpose. By contrast, version two's initial three panels depict the knight at the point of giving up as his sequenced closed eyes, lying down, and listless gaze disconnect him from his reflexive story-telling about the past, present and future. In this paneled scenario, readers are left to turn from the knight's listless gaze toward the watery abyss in the foreground while above him birds fly out of frame. Their flight suggests that the knight's last hope for her song—embodied in the bird flight on page five, as well as in the bird flight of the frame narrative on pages one, two and three—has fled. In this redounding visual panoply, "SOJOURN" becomes an inapt description of the knight's forlorn "LOITERING", which is caught up in vanished bird song and crossed by continually disappearing bird flight.[xxii]

29> Peters's and Cohn's poetry comics give readers invigorating reasons to sojourn in the spaces of Keats's ballad. They emphasize key visual elements in the poem that have been overshadowed by much of the textual scholarship over the last fifty years, and they provide readers with multiple ways to participate in the poem's temporal-spatial design. Readers can train their eyes on the present and absent I/eye contact in these comics and engage in acts of closure that strikingly bring together the knight's past, present and future. When read together, Peters's and Cohn's poetry comics illustrate how much Keats's poem relies on readers to frame its narrative possibilities in time and space. The enthralling results reward the eye that wanders back and forth, between "THERE" and "HERE" and "THIS."


[i] Canonical refers to how long and widely Keats's poem has been taught and anthologized at the university level. My use of canonical also refers to the longstanding scholarly preference for Keats's April 1819 epistolary, "knight-at-arms" version over his May 1820 Examiner, "wretched wight" version.

[ii] See https://www.youtube.com. For another recent production, see Christopher Smith's short, silent movie Arterial (2014) https://vimeo.com. YouTube is host to several low-budget, movie adaptations of the poem. For examples, see John Keats-La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Short Film https://www.youtube.com and La Belle Dame Sans Merci-Short Horror Film https://www.youtube.com. See also a version of the poem read by Ben Wishaw with a slide show from Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009): https://www.youtube.com. According to Suzie Grogan, a new film adaptation by Michael Groom called Merciless Beauty is in pre-production: https://wordsworth.org.uk. A noteworthy precursor to these short films is Jonathan Glendening's 1996 six-minute, movie adaptation.

[iv] See volume two of the English and French versions of Russ Kick's edited collection, The Graphic Canon (NY: Seven Stories Press, 2012). Cohn's version two of "La Belle Dame" appears in the English publication while Peters's adaptation appears in the French publication. Peters's adaptation also has been shown in Rome's Keats house and can be found on his website: http://julianpeterscomics.com. For a recent interview with Peters, see: http://www.eyeartcollective.com. Cohn's versions can be found through links on his visual language lab website: http://www.visuallanguagelab.com. Poetry comics have been published since at least the 1960s in collections such as Joe Brainard's C Comics (NY: Boke Press, 1964), which involves several New York poets. In the 1980s Dave Morice published several poetry comics collections, beginning with Poetry Comics!: A Cartooniverse of Poems (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1982). The 21st century has seen a significant surge in published print and digital poetry comics, including Ink Brick, an electronic journal devoted to theorizing about and publishing poetry comics: http://inkbrick.com/. For an interview with the editors of this journal that deals with definitions, theories, and examples of contemporary poetry comics, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com. The following article also provides a survey of contemporary poetry comics artists: http://comicsalliance.com.

[v] These differing versions illustrate Linda Hutcheon's claim that with adaptations, "we seem to desire the repetition as much as the change." See A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd ed. (NY: Routledge, 2006), 9.

[vi] See "Deforming Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,'" Romantic Circles (October 2003): https://www.rc.umd.edu. Poetry comics necessarily involve ekphrastic and synesthetic forms that figure time as space. On Keats's poetics and ekphrasis, see Grant F. Scott's The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts (Hanover, NH: U. Press of New England, 1994), as well as Theresa Kelley's essays "Keats, Ekphrasis and History" in Keats and History, ed. Nicholas Roe (NY: Cambridge UP, 1995), 212-237 and "Keats and Ekphrasis" in The Cambridge Companion to Keats, ed. Susan Wolfson (NY: Cambridge UP, 2001), 170-185.

[vii] Numerous Romantic period scholars have examined the poem's textual histories, performative qualities, readerly appeals, ballad character, and un-fixability. Whether the April 1819 epistolary version (transcribed separately by Charles Brown and by Richard Woodhouse), or the May 1820 Examiner version-an un-decidability has kept many Romantic period scholars betwixt and between versions, which has led to the publication of both versions in many Romantic period anthologies. Increasingly, the poem's versions have come to define its anthologized, virtual life. See in particular, Jack Stillinger's The Hoodwinking of Madeline and Other Essays (Urbana: U. of Illinois Press, 1971) and The Texts of Keats's Poems (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974); Stuart Sperry's Keats the Poet (NJ: Princeton UP, 1973); Jerome McGann's "Keats and the Historical Method of Literary Criticism," Modern Language Notes 94.5 (1979): 988-1032, andThe Beauty of Inflections (NY: Oxford, 1985); Theresa Kelley's "Poetics and Politics of Reception: Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci," ELH 54.2 (1987): 333-362; Marjorie Levinson's Keats's Life of Allegory (NY: Blackwell, 1988); Karen Swann's "Writing the Female. Harassing the Muse" in Romanticism & Feminism, ed. Anne Mellor (Bloomington: Indian UP, 1988), 81-92; Andrew Bennett's Keats, Narrative and Audience (NY: Cambridge UP, 1994); and Chris Jones's "Knight or Wight in Keats's 'La Belle Dame,'" Keats-Shelley Review 19 (2005): 39-49.

[viii] See "The Enigma of 'La Belle Dame sans Merci," Romanticism 17.2 (2011): 195-208.

[ix] Following in the tradition of S.T. Coleridge's and William Wordsworth's encounter poems, "La Belle Dame" depends upon what Susan Wolfson has called the questioning presence-both in the poem and in its readers. See The Questioning Presence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1986). In Keats's Life of Allegory (85-87), Levinson convincingly relates Keats's "La belle dame" to Wordsworth's poems of encounter. On the virtual life, bodily movement, and affective experience of reading Keats's poetry, see Jonathan Mulrooney's "Keats's Avatar," European Romantic Review 22.3 (2011): 313-321.

[x] I follow Frank Kermode's definitions of kairos in The Sense of an Ending (NY: Oxford UP, 1966) in which he discusses a tick-tock sense of time and juxtaposes chronos (successive, passing time) with kairos. For Kermode, kairos is an escape from chronological time, as well as a "significant season…poised between beginning and ending" that is meaningfully "charged with past and future" (46).

[xi] The exception to this print paradigm has been the anthologizing of paintings of the poem by John Waterhouse, Arthur Hughes, and Frank Dicksee. For an example of Dicksee's painting of the poem, see the cover image on Susan Wolfson's John Keats: A Longman Cultural Edition (NY: Pearson, 2007).

[xii] See "Language Strange: A Visual History of Keats's 'La Belle Dame sans Merci,'" Studies in Romanticism 38.4 (1999): 503-535. Notably, Scott points out that at the tail end of these visual adaptations, Germaine Dulac produced, in 1920, an eighty-minute silent film adaptation of the poem.

[xiii] Lithography is a printing process that reproduces oil-based, acid-resistant images and/or words from a smooth copy plate that has been etched with an acid that cuts into the areas on that plate not protected by the oil base. The result is a negative space that will bind with water but not with ink. After the entire surface of the plate is wetted with water, a new oil coating is rolled over the plate, resulting in the oil sticking to the already existing oil images on the plate and not to the negative area. That new oil coating can then be pressed onto a blank sheet of paper, producing a copy of the original plate. This extraction through water and oil plays out a chemical process that traces and reproduces the already visible anew. Without the interaction of these repellent forces, lithographic replication is not possible.

[xiv] Grant Scott mentions a pen and ink fan design, created in 1907 by Jessie King, as "the only rendering that conceives the ballad as a sequence" (532).

[xv] All quotations from "La Belle Dame" are from Jack Stillinger's John Keats Complete Poems (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978).

[xvi] On deictics in Keats's poetry, see Mark Bruhn's "Place Deixis and the Schematics of Imagined Space: Milton to Keats," Poetics Today 26.3 (2005): 387-432.

[xvii] See Understanding Comics: The Invisible Arts (NY: Harper Perennial, 1994). McCloud's theorizing about comics builds on Will Eisner's Comics & Sequential Art (Tamarac, FL: Poorhouse Press, 1985). For a more recent study of comics history and poetics, see Charles Hatfield's Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (Jackson: U. Press of Mississippi, 2005).

[xviii] For a discussion of visual rhyming that concerns these companion pages, see Cohn's http://www.visuallanguagelab.com.

[xix] Typically, the second and fourth lines are indented.

[xx] Of further note is how Peters' and Cohn's versions illustrate the lady's "language strange" and the words "I love thee true."

[xxi] For a satirical comics adaptation of Coleridge's poem, see Hunt Emerson's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (London: Knockabout Comics, 1998).

[xxii] On the significance of birdsong and bird flight in Keats's poetry, see Andrew Lacey's "Wings of Poesy: Keats's Birds." Keats-Shelley Review 25.1 (2011): 13-19.


Brian Bates teaches at Cal Poly State University. His publications include a monograph, Wordsworth's Poetic Collections, Supplementary Writing and Parodic Reception (2012), and essays about Romantic Period authorship and poetics, performativity and parody, book history and media studies.

Poetics & Poetry / Literature & Culture

Volume Six (2020)
Artifacts & Works / Communities & Fields

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