I'm rereading the Chronicles of Amber, and this line in the fifth book, The Courts of Chaos, has me entirely stumped. It comes just at the end of Corwin's encounter with "Lady."

I'll include a few extra lines to put it in context; the part I'm baffled by is in bold.

"Come to my pavilion now," she said, taking my hand, "where we will wile pleasurably the hours that remain."
"Thanks," I said. "Another time and that wiling would have been a fine dessert to a grand meal. Unfortunately, I must be on my way. Duty nags, time rushes. I've a mission."
"All right," she said. "It is not that important. And I know all about your mission. It is not all that important either, now."
"Oh? I must confess that I fully expected you to invite me to a private party which would result in me alone and palely loitering on the cold side of some hill sometime hence if I were to accept."
She laughed.
"And I must confess that it was my intention to so use you, Corwin. No longer, though."
"Why not?"
I finished my wine. She moved to pour me more and I stayed her hand.
She looked up at me. I smiled.
"You almost persuaded me," I said.
Then I closed her eyes with kisses four, so as not to break the charm, and I went and mounted Star. The sedge was not withered, but he was right about the no birds. Hell of a way to run a railroad, though.
"Good-bye, Lady."

I am used to Zelazny's sometimes oblique references, and to the flowery comparisons that aren't references to anything in particular, but this one entirely escapes me.

Can anyone explain it? Is it perchance a reference to Beowulf?

(By the way, "sedge" is a grass-like plant.)

3 Answers 3


It is a combination of two somewhat-well-known quotes:

The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing!

from Keats' 1819 ballad "La Belle Dame sans Merci"; and

This is a hell of a way to run a railroad,

said by Leonor Lee, giving his assessment of the Kansas City Southern Railroad as he took over as its head.

"La Belle Dame sans Merci" ("The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy") tells the story of a knight caught up in the wiles of a beautiful woman by a lakeside—who may or may not actually be a fairy—but who definitely wants to distract the knight from his quest. This rather mirrors the position Corwin finds himself in. The reference to the birds is, in Keats' usage, there to emphasize the unearthliness and aura of death surrounding the lady. It symbolizes that for Corwin as well, although it also ties to the fact that the one bird who plays a major role in The Courts if Chaos ends up being killed and eaten by the protagonist. Zelazny's ,"Then I closed her eyes with kisses four," is also a reference to another quote from a later stanza,

And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.

The quote from Lee simply indicates that Corwin is not pleased with the way things have been going. In this sense, it is a standard, if not particularly common, expression. However, the railroad imagery also alludes to the fact that Corwin is following the Black Road, which manifests itself in different forms in the various worlds that he passes through.

  • 1
    "Merci" is normally translated to English as "thanks", "thank you", or similar--not related to "mercy" at all. Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 20:20
  • 9
    @JerryCoffin Not as a noun. Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 20:57
  • 2
    @Jerry Coffin: "The Beautiful Lady Who Never Says Thank You"?? Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 17:25
  • "Then I closed her eyes with kisses four" also references the lines "And there I shut her wild wild eyes. With kisses four" in the same poem. Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 23:44

It's a reference to "La Belle Dame sans Merci" by John Keats:

What can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.

The implication is that Lady is a similar faery-type character to the one in the poem, or perhaps the very person referenced.

As for the bit about running a railroad, it's just an old idiom indicating that something (a system, a way of managing things) is complicated or unsuitable.

  • I just found that; after posting the question I realized I should have searched more widely online. However, I still have no idea what is meant by the comment about the railroad. Can you explain that part?
    – Wildcard
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 6:37
  • @Wildcard -en.wiktionary.org/wiki/way_to_run_a_railroad
    – Adamant
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 6:38

As to the "kisses four, so as not to break the charm", it may be a reference to a Scottish charm, as in the ballad Kemp Owyne (http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/folk-song-lyrics/Kemp_Owyne.htm):

Her mother died when she was young
Which gave her cause to make great moan
Her father married the worst woman
That ever lived in Christendom

She served her with foot and hand
In everything that she could dee
Till once in an unlucky time
She threw her in ower Craigy's sea

Says, Lie you there, dove Isobel
And all my sorrows lie with thee
Till Kemp Owyne come ower the sea
And borrow you with kisses three
Let all the world do what they will
Oh borrowed shall you never be

In this case, "borrowed" apparently means "taken with the intent of returning", so she says that Kemp Owyne will not be able to return her stepmother from Craigy's sea. The sense of threat seems apt for Zelazny's passage.

  • 2
    Interesting but "kisses four" is also found in "La Belle Dame sans Merci".
    – richardb
    Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 15:03
  • 2
    Ye-e-es, together with the cold hillside and withered sedge (poetryfoundation.org/poems/44475/…). Another attractive hypothesis killed by an inconvenient fact! He made sure to kiss her four times in order to match Keats' poem. Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 17:12

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