Lady Weeping at the Crossroads

In this song, Carla Bruni sings the well-known poem by W.H. Auden.  It is a captivating poem and very atmospheric.  Dialogues on the Internet show some students struggling to find its meaning.

A number of literary commentators believe that Auden was consciously writing his own version of John Keats’s poem to which Keats gave a French title: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”.  (I have printed this poem at the end of this post.) 

Keats’s poem, like Auden’s was given a Romantic setting and the events of the tale were in the realms of fantasy.  The theme is the same in both poems - the destructive potential of deliberate deception in human love.

There is a difference however.  After the knight’s fantastical  journey with the beautiful lady it is he who is destroyed.  Auden’s poem has a surprise twist at the end.  The lady may be weeping at the crossroads, but for lovers she has the choice of the social elite, who ride to the hunt with hawks and sleek thoroughbred hunting greyhounds.  She is totally controlling.  On her mystical journey, she is able to bribe the birds and outstare the sun and exploiting her fatal female charm, she is able to bend the most forbidding of men to her will.  However at the end comes a shattering self-revelation that by the perfidious exercise of her powers she has made herself worth nothing and earned only an ignoble death.

One commentator says that this is a very misogynistic poem.  We should not assume that Auden hated all women, but we know that at the end of this Romantic, haunting poem, there is red-hot anger directed at some-one, woman or man, for perceived deception and betrayal.

YouTube Video



Lady, weeping at the crossroads

Would you meet your love

In the twilight with his greyhounds

And the hawk on his glove?

Bribe the birds then on the branches

Bribe them to be dumb

Stare the hot sun out of heaven, yeah

That the night may come

Starless are the nights of travel

Bleak the winter wind

Run with terror all before you

And regret behind

Run until you hear the ocean's

Everlasting cry

Deep though it may be and bitter

You must drink it dry, drink it dry

Wear out patience in the lowest

Dungeons of the sea

Searching through the stranded shipwrecks

For the golden key


Push on to the world's end

Pay the dread guard with a kiss

Cross the rotten bridge that totters, yeah

Over the abyss

There stands the deserted castle

Ready to explore

Enter, climb the marble staircase

Open the locked door

Cross the silent empty ballroom

Doubt and danger past

Blow the cobwebs from the mirror

See yourself at last, see yourself at last

Put your hand behind the wainscot

You have done your part

Find the penknife there and plunge it

Into your false heart

Lady weeping at the crossroads

Would you meet your love?

(My own French version)

La dame pleurant au carrefour

Voudrais –tu rencontrer ton amour

Avec ses chiens, au crépuscule

Le faucon sur son gant.


Achète donc le silence

Des oiseaux sur les arbres

Fixe le soleil, chasse- le du ciel

Pour que tombe la nuit


Les nuits de voyage n’ont pas d’étoiles

Le vent d’hiver est morne

Cours, avec terreur tout devant toi

Et le regret qui te suit


Cours que tu entendes de l’océan

Le cri éternel

Bien qu’il soit profond et amer

Tu dois en boire chaque goutte, chaque goutte


Use ta patience dans les cachots

Marins les plus bas

Fouillant partout dans les épaves

En quête de la clef d’or


Va jusqu’au bout du monde

Paie le garde atroce avec un baiser

Traverse la passerelle pourrie vacillante

Au dessus de l’abîme


Voilà le château fort désert

Prêt à explorer,

Entre, monte l’escalier en marbre

Ouvre la porte fermée


Franchis la vide salle de bal morte

Le doute et danger partis

Enlève les toiles d’araignée du miroir

Regarde-toi enfin, regarde-toi enfin


Mets la main derrière le lambris

Tu as joué ton rôle

Y trouve le canif et plonge-le

Dans ton cœur perfide


La dame, pleurant au carrefour

Voudrais-tu rencontrer ton amour ?

 The following is a reading of Auden's poem on YouTube

YouTube Video

Compare the above poem with John Keats's of the English Romantic School :La Belle Dame Sans Merci"

La belle dame sans merci by John Keats

O, what can ail thee, knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O, what can ail thee, knight at arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.

I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful - a faery's child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone,
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery's song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said -
I love thee true.

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed full sore:
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dreamed, ah woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dreamed
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all:
They cry'd - "La belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!"

I saw their starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Hear Ben Wishaw recite the above poem:

YouTube Video