John Keats - La Belle Dame sans Merci

Summaries of each stanza. 

Title

La Belle Dame Sans Merci A Ballad

= Translates to - the beautiful woman without pity.

= Alludes to a 'femme fatale' a dangerous woman who doesn't care who she hurts, as long as she gets what she desires. 

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Stanza 1 summary

Opens with a question from unnamed speaker to the knight:  

"what can ail thee, knight-at-arms," 

The knight is "alone and palely loitering" around the edge of a lake.

The "sedge has withered"  (plants) have all died around the lake, and "no birds sing." Setting = late autumn, time of things dying, England during Age of Chivalry. (a time of knight in shining armout & damsels in distress) 

 

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Stanza 1 analysis

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake 

And no birds sing. 

"the sedge has withered...no birds sing" = pathetic fallacy - foreshadows knights death, the landscape is dying, bleak & wintery location.

"knight at arms" = imagery of medieval fairy tales with knights and women in towers - relates to Age of Chivalry. 

"Alone and palely loitering" = symptoms of the knight suffering - why? 

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Stanza 2 summary

First part of stanza repeats first line of the poem. The knight doesn't answer immediately, so the unnamed speaker repeats the question.

 Two more adjectives to describe the knight =  "haggard and so woe-begone." The knight is both sick and depressed.

Last two lines of the stanza = the squirrels have finished filling up their "granary," or storage of food for the winter, and the crops have already been harvested, reinforces late autumn setting.

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Stanza 2 analysis

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, 

So haggard and so woe-begone?

The squirrel's granary is full,

And the harvest's done. 

"ail...haggard...woe-begone" = terse language (aburpt & sparse) adds to the pain of the knight. 

"The squirrel's granary is full," = juxtaposition between the knight & the squirrel - the squirrel has everything it needs vs the knight suffering. 

 

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Stanza 3 summary

The speaker continues to address the knight. He asks about the "lily" on the knight's "brow," = suggesting that the knight's face is pale like a lily.

The knight's forehead is sweaty, "anguish moist" and with "fever" so he's sick (Symptom of tuberculosis*)

Last two lines of the stanza describe how the healthy colour is rapidly "fading" from the knight's cheeks, "fading rose".

*Keats died from an early death in 1821 from tuberculosis, he nursed both his mother & brother who both died from the same disease. Keats would have been aware of the serious nature of his illness when he wrote the poem, this may have influenced the subject & tone of the poem.

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Stanza 3 analysis

I see a lily on thy brow, 

With anguish moist and fever-dew

And on they cheeks a fading rose

Fast withereth too.

"fever-dew...fading rose fast" = the repitition of the 'f' sound and alliteration of "fever-dew" reinforces how close to death the knight is.

The unamed speaker becomes increasingly worried at the symptoms of the knight illness. The negative imagery used here contrasts the knight's language in the following stanzas. 

 

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Stanza 4 summary

This stanza changes point of view from the unamed speaker to the knight; this is established through the pronoun "I".

The knight fnow answers the unnamed speaker's questions.

The knight says that he met a beautiful, fairy-like "lady" in the "meads" or fields. She had long hair, was graceful, and had "wild" eyes. 

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Stanza 4 analysis

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. 

 "beautiful..her eyes were wild." = enchanting imagery, the intense description of the woman, she is "beautiful" but perhaps even deadly, "wild" perhaps foreshadows her later actions, her eyes could almost be a symbol of warning? 

"a faery's child" = direct/mythological reference, he is perhaps under a spell & juxtaposes the previous opening stanzas with strong death imagery, this stanza has life. 

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Stanza 5 summary

The knight made a flower wreath, "garland" for the lady, along with flower "bracelets." The knight gave the lady gifts, does he want to impress her or was he enchanted to do this? 

 

 

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Stanza 5 analysis

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. 

"she looked at me as she did love," = she never said she loved him, she just looked like she did - did he dream that? 

"fragrant zone...and made sweet moan" = "fragrant zone" could also be a reference to intimacy, this interpretation is emphasised by the last line in the stanza,  "and made sweet maon" hint of passion - suggest of sexual climax. The rhyming of "zone" and "moan" may also suggest that the couple are in harmony - is this sexually or true love? Is he imagining their harmony? 

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Stanza 6 summary

The knight puts the lady on his horse, "pacing steed", to take a ride. 

The knight is so absorbed with ith this fairy lady that he doesn't notice anything else "nothing else saw all day long." Is this because he is blinded by love or lust?

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Stanza 6 analysis

I set her on my pacing steed

And nothing else saw all day long

For sidelong would she bend, and sing

A faery's song

 "nothing else saw all day long," = blinded by love, heightens the intensity of his affection. Also furthers the earlier argument that he is enchanted by the lady. 

"pacing steed" = some may interpret this as sexual imagery, furthering the argument of the sexual intimacy between the two. 

"A faery's song" = could imply a spell that has enchanted him - suggests she's dangerous & intense. The knight is intoxicated with his fasinaction of the lady, is he intoxicated by his love & therefore dying? 

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Stanza 7 summary

The fairy lady found the knight "honey wild...manna-dew" to eat.

"Manna" = food that the Jewish scriptures say that the Israelites ate when they were wandering around the desert after Moses freed them from slavery in Egypt. It's supposed to be food from heaven, so this word makes the fairy lady seem supernatural and perhaps even divine.

Alternatively, the association could be with the slavery from which the Israelites had just been freed. The knight does become enslaved to the beautiful fairy lady. This allusion becomes even more potent when it's associated with the "honey wild" that the fairy lady fed the knight. (The Israelites were trying to find the Promised Land, which would flow with " honey.")

The fairy lady tells the knight that she loves him, but she says it "in language strange." He doesn't say what language it is, or how he's able to understand her. We can speculate that he's hearing what he wants to hear, or maybe her magical influence has enabled him to understand her "language strange."

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Stanza 7 analysis

She found me roots of relish sweet, 

And honey wild, and manna-dew, 

And sure in language strange she said - 

'I love thee true'.

"manna-dew" = The knight recalls what the woman gives him, she delights him with things mentioned in the Bible, natural delights -  romanticist ideas of the offering of nature.

"language strange" = perhaps has negative connotations - does she lie or is he blinded by love & dreaming about his ideals and what he wants her to say? Reader will question, to what extent is the knight wishful thinking?

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Stanza 8 summary

The fairy lady takes the knight to her "elfin grot." = elf grotto/cave 

Once they're at her fairy cave, she cries and sighs loudly "she wept and sighed full sore". The knight doesn't say why she's crying, and we never find out.

The knight kisses her weepy eyes four times, "with kisses four." We can question why the number four, three is usually the 'magic number' in fairy tales. 

Again, her eyes are described as wild, "wild wild eyes."

Wild connotations = living in natural enviroment, not tamed/domestic, unrestrained.

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Stanza 8 analysis

She took me to her elfin grot, 

And there she wept and sighed full sore,,

And there I shut her wild wild eyes

With kisses four

"there she wept...with kisses four." =  the woman becomes emotional, the knight supports her with kisses - but why is she crying?

repitition of "wild" = wild connotations - living in natural enviroment, not tamed/domestic, unrestrained.

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Stanza 9 summary

The fairy lady "lulls" the knight to sleep like a baby in her cave, and he starts to dream.

He interrupts himself with a dash "–" and exclaims "Ah! woe betide!" because even the memory of the dream is horrible as he repeats it to the unnamed speaker.

"Woe betide!" is an archaic exclamation used to express extreme grief or suffering. It was old-fashioned even when Keats was writing. 

The knight's use of this expression emphasises the medieval romance setting.

The knight's dream in the fairy cave is the "latest," or last, dream he'll ever have, foreshadows his death.

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Stanza 9 analysis

And there she lulled me asleep

And there i dreamed - Ah! Woe betide! - 

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side

exclamantion marks (!) = signal how passionately he can recount what happened, hypens (-) adds to sense of disruption of thoughts & intensive recollections.

"dream...dreamt" = repitition of the idea of dreaming, was this all an illusion or is it based on genuine reality?

"the cold hill side" = is this his reality? Was the lady all a dream? 

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Stanza 10 summary

The knight describes the dream he had: he saw "kings...princes...warriors" they were all "death pale" Pale is repeated 3 times in the stanza. 

The pale warriors, princes, and kings all cry out in unison that "La belle dame sans merci" has the knight captured/mesmerised "in thrall."

The title is French: "La belle dame sans merci" = "the beautiful woman without mercy."

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Stanza 10 analysis

I saw pale kings, and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!'

 repitition of "pale" = 1. absence of colour, turning grey & brutal 2 .almost hallucinations & ghost like. This procession of "pale" men could be an allusion to the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse that gets described in the Book of Revelation in the Christian bible. The fourth horseman is Death, and he rides on a pale horse.

"pale kings...They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci Thee hath in thrall" = these apparitions (ghost-like) tell him the woman has him in her control "thrall" further proves the danger of the woman, the knight is powerless like all those under her spell. 

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Stanza 11 summary

The knight continues to describe the pale warriors from his dream – in the "gloam," or dusk, all he can make out are their "lips."

Their mouths are "starv'd" and hungry-looking, and their mouths are all open "gaped wide" as they cry out their warning to the knight.

Gloam sounds very similar to gloom, it may not be a coincidence that Keats used "gloam".

"gloam"  =  dusk or twilight

"gloom" = state of depression

The knight wakes up from the dream alone and cold on the side of a hill.

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Stanza 11 analysis

I saw their starved lips in the gloam, 

With horrid warning gaped wide, 

And i awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill's side.

"starved lips...horrid warning" = Grotesque imagery - infatuation as pain."starved" suggests death, the woman causes people to suffer, the people are hungry, emotionally starved as they cannot be with the woman who they are fasincated by even though she causes them pain.

"cold hill side" = repitition from earlier stanza, makes the reality more painful.

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Stanza 12 summary

The knight has finished his story. He tells the original, unnamed speaker, that this is why he's "loitering" by himself, even though it's so dismal outside.

The knight repeats the unnamed speaker's words from the first stanza, so that the poem ends with almost exactly the same stanza with which it began - "alone and palely loitering, Though the sedge is withered from the lake, And no birds sing."

Perhaps the knight's feelings of being "alone" comes from Keats' own experiences of losing his mother and brother. 

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Stanza 12 analysis

And this is why I sojourn here

Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.

near repitition of opening stanza = cyclical structure almost, brings us back to reality & adds to how unfortunate his fate is. The reader feels sympathy towards the knight. 

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Rhyme Scheme & Structure

Ballad form = illustrates the truth of love, ballads are often used when writing about love &often have a cyclical element

Iambic Tetrameter, 8 syllables per line. 

last stanza = four stresses on lines 1 & 3, three stresses on lines 2 & 4 - abrupt ending. 

Structure/rhyme scheme = echoes the eeria tone of poem, abrupt & melancholic speaker at the end. 

Themes/ideas = intensity of passion & infactuation and perhaps hallucinatory desire.

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