Context of the poem
Written on 21st April 1819, this poem is reminiscent of the nightmarish dream sequences of Spenser's 'The Faerie Queenie' and has the typical medieval flavors of chivalry, thwarted love, and supernatural characters. The title comes from an early fifteenth-century French poem written in the courtly love tradition, which is based on the convention that a mistress should accept graciously a knight's pleas of love and willingness to serve her. The Beautiful Lady without Merci, however, is a stereotype of the femme fatale, the destructive enchantress who leaves men desolate and captivated, doomed to a lifetime of questing for the unattainable. French was the language of love and of the nobility in Britain after the Norman conquest. It was (and still is) regarded as a more exotic and ****** language than English, and gives the lady a tantalizing foreignness, as well as anonymity, to suggest that she belongs to another world.
Tragic heroes and tragic victims
- If a tragic plot describes the disastrous downfall of the protagonist, it is easy to see that the knight-at-arms undergoes a disastrous downfall set up after his encounter with the faery child whom he places on his steed and how sings to him all day long.
- He ends the poem in a limbic condition, neither alive nor dead, neither up not down and capable only of relating his story to passers-by.
- For all this, Keats only allows us to guess at the knight's life before his encounter with the lady and hence at the height from which he has fallen.
- However, his status as a knight is key in establishing his degree and by associating his nobility.
- Keats contrives to create some rstoration of the social order in "Lamia" and in "Isabella" but in "La Belle" the despair is absolute: "And no birds sing" closes the poems's circle and leaves no room for hope.
Synopsis of La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- In stanzas 1-3 the poem’s speaker addresses a ‘knight at arms’ who is alone and in a poor physical state, asking him what has happened that has caused him to look ‘so haggard and so woe-begone’.
- The rest of the poem (stanzas 4-12) is the knight’s answer. He says that he met a beautiful lady in the meadows, was attracted by her and then started wooing her by making her a garland for her hair and allowing her to ride his horse.
- She returns his love, giving him sweet things to eat, talking to him in strange language and taking him back to her fairy cave. There the knight is lulled to sleep and has a bad dream about the kings, princes and warriors previously seduced by the beautiful lady. Her previous lovers are now all dead and they try to warn him that he has been enchanted by the lady.
- At this point the knight wakes up alone on a hillside. Now he waits, seemingly unable to leave, which accounts for the knight’s present desolation and deathly appearance.
Commentary on La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- This poem was written in April 1819. The poem’s title was taken from a medieval French poem by Alain Chartier and means ‘The Lovely Lady without Pity’.
- The strange, fairylike woman who attempts to seduce the knight is reminiscent of Morgan Le Fay in the Arthurian Romances. Morgan is a mysterious figure, usually represented as a sorceress in command of supernatural power. It is she who plots against King Arthur and once steals from him his sword Excalibur.
- Keats’ character is also much influenced by enchantresses found in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the long narrative poem which, above all others, inspired Keats to become a poet. Keats was almost certainly thinking of the seduction of the Red Cross Knight by the evil Duessa in Book One of Spenser’s epic.
- Keats’ ‘palely loitering’ knight also seems typical of those suffering from an excess of melancholy, one of the four humours of medieval medicine. Robert Burton (1577-1640), author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, describes typical melancholics as being ‘pale of colour, slothful, apt to sleep, much troubled with the headache…’.
- Keats will also have encountered various ballads, such as the thirteenth century Thomas the Rhymer, in which the Queen of Elfland chooses a poet for her lover. And, as far as the mysterious, supernatural ballad is concerned, Keats may well have been influenced by contemporary ballads such as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
- knight-at-arms: a medieval warrior, usually of aristocratic birth who fought on horseback. He would have worn a suit of armour and carried a sword, spear and shield.
- sedge: a plant associated with wetlands, looking like a cross between a grass and a rush lily
- rose: the mixture of white lily and red rose combined to form the ideally beautiful complexion. Lilies were also associated with purity and roses with the passion of love.
- meads: meadows fragrant zone: a perfumed belt made of flowers. It refers to the magical girdle of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.
- made sweet moan: sang or murmured sweetly
- manna: sweet-tasting food which, in the Bible (Exodus, 16) was miraculously supplied to the Israelites in the wilderness.
- grot: cave
- in thrall: enslaved
- gloam: twilight, dusk.
Language and tone - part one
The tone is haunting and often ominous. This effect is created partly through the use of frequent repetitions, such as the reciprocated structure: ‘And there she .. / And there I ..’ in stanzas 8 and 9, and the circular effect of almost exactly replicating the second to fourth lines of verses 1 and 12. There is also much alliteration and assonance in phrases such as:
- ‘Her hair was long, her foot was light’
- ‘made sweet moan’
- ‘wild, wild eyes’.
The tone is also created through the use of spare, terse language – very different from the sorts of luxuriant effects we find in poems such as the Ode to Autumn. Indeed this sense of mystery is produced just as much by Keats withholding information from us as by any descriptive detail he supplies. He never, for instance, tells us the significance of the lady or why she should want to enthrall the knight.
Langauge and tone - part two
Keats seems to take pains either to exclude information or to make it ambiguous. What, for instance, does Keats mean by ‘She look’d at me as she did love’? Does ‘as’ mean ‘while’ or ‘as though’? This uncertainty adds to the sense that the heart of the poem is unknowable. Keats’ use of language emphasises the absence of colour. In stanza 10 he repeats ‘pale’ three times in just two lines: ‘pale kings’, ‘pale warriors’, ‘death pale’. Repetition is also part of the poem’s dream-like nature. In fact, the word ‘dream’ is also repeated three times in two lines (34-35) which captures the knight’s insistence that the vision was not real but rather a nightmarish warning of the fate that could also have been his.
Structure and versification
Keats uses a variation of one of the commonest ballad stanza forms. He employs a four-line stanza (quatrain) which rhymes a b c b. As is frequently the case with ballads, the lines are not strictly regular but generally have eight syllables. In most ballads there are four stresses in lines 1 and 3 and three stresses in lines 2 and 4 (known as ballad metre). Keats breaks with this tradition making the fourth line shorter, giving it only two stresses and mostly only four syllables. This shortening of the final line gives each stanza a rather abrupt, slightly ominous ending, as if it were not quite finished. The question and answer form of the poem is found frequently in ballads, as are its quatrains (four-line stanzas) and iambic tetrameter metre. The structure is underpinned by the frequent repetition of words, phrases and even whole lines – another common feature of the ballad form. For instance, the first line of the first stanza is also the first line of the second. The first two words of stanzas 3 to 6 are ‘I’ followed by a monosyllabic verb: ‘I met’, ‘I made’, ‘I set’. The final stanza of the ballad is largely a repetition of the first.
Structure - part two
- The last two lines of the poem are repeated (taken from the start) to show how the knight is trapped, where death is shown yet again. Therefore, the structure of the poem shows a cycle in which the knight cannot escape, where the hero's journey is surrounded by suffering, a key aspect of tragedies.
- The fourth line being constantly shorter mirrors the events of the knight's love life and happiness being cut short. This unfortunate change from good fortune to bad fortune follows Aristotle's deductions which occurred to the knight. Additionally, by cutting each final line to half its expected length the reader is repeatedly taken by surprise. This leaves the reader with a sudden empty void which mirrors the emotions of the knight. This further entices the theme of tragedy as the hero, the "knight-at-arms", has fallen from a great title to someone who is mentally and physically showing qualities of weakness.
- The penultimate stanza uses imagery with nightmarish connotations to give us an insight into how abandoned the knight felt: "starved lips", "horrid" and "gaped wide".
- The end of the poem shows the despair is absolute - "and no birds sing" ends the poem in a circle as that line mentioned in the opening, leaving not room for the reader to hope. This shows the tragic element of the poem as we see there isn't a way for the knight to turn it around, so the pathos of this last stanza is immense.
- Mythical aspects - the imagery used in stanza seven suggests that the beautiful enchantress has created some kind of potion or concoction: "roots of relish sweet", "honey wild and manna dew" and then cast a spell over him "in language strange she said - 'I love thee true' ". This imagery enforces the ideas of witchcraft, myths, and magic, also showing how manipulative and siren-like it is of her to enchant him and lie about her love him. This shows how Keats was afraid of the power that women could hold over men with beauty and charm as strong as the magic and witchcraft in the poem.
- Gothic elements: The poem ties the form of gothic/medieval romance genre to the woman who seduces the knight in the poem. By presenting the “faery child”as almost tricking an innocent man into her trap, the theme of tragedy is further explored here. The tragic villain directly affects the fortune of the hero. It is almost like due to the enchanted and wickedness of women, men are fated to become destroyed by women, as it implies this is a women’s nature. “Sans Merci”gives the impression that the woman is lacking in both pity and gracious kindness. This evades the conventional stereotype of a lady. In conclusion, the form of gothic/medieval romance is used to show tragic and unrequited love.
Imagery and symbolism - part one
The poem abounds in flower imagery, most of which has a symbolic meaning. In line 9 the lily on the knight’s brow does not only mean that he is very pale. Lilies are often associated with death, so the image adds to the general sense of desolation and barrenness. Similarly roses are often associated with love, so the fact that the knight’s rose is ‘fading’ from his cheeks combines the idea of physical pallor with the idea that his love affair with the beautiful lady is fading. There are also ‘garlands’ and ‘bracelets’ in lines 17-18, symbols of love and the vital energy of the knight’s love for the lady. The ‘fragrant zone’ is a belt made from flowers, another image of love and one with perhaps a more sexual connotation. Time The time setting is also important in the poem. The immediate setting of the narrative is late autumn/early winter. The hillside is cold, all is pale and ‘the sedge has wither’d’ (l.3). There are no birds, the crops have been harvested and the fields are deserted, making the knight’s desolation even more complete. By contrast, life with the ‘lady’ is associated with summer: meadows containing flowers from which to make a ‘garland’ and bracelets, sweet sappy ‘roots’ and wild honey. All has been succulent and colourful, yet now the life has drained out of it, the rose of romance faded and withered.
Imagery and symbolism - part two
The time setting is also important in the poem. The immediate setting of the narrative is late autumn/early winter. The hillside is cold, all is pale and ‘the sedge has wither’d’ (l.3). There are no birds, the crops have been harvested and the fields are deserted, making the knight’s desolation even more complete. By contrast, life with the ‘lady’ is associated with summer: meadows containing flowers from which to make a ‘garland’ and bracelets, sweet sappy ‘roots’ and wild honey. All has been succulent and colourful, yet now the life has drained out of it, the rose of romance faded and withered.
The poem has caused much critical debate and fundamental questions remain unanswered. Is the Belle Dame deliberately cruel to the knight? Or is it the knight’s inability to maintain the vision which causes his return to the ‘cold hill side’?
The Lady has been variously identified with:
- The destructive power of love
- Death by consumption (the disease that killed both Keats and his brother Tom)
- The ‘thrall’ of poetry itself.
This last idea may seem far-fetched at first, but Keats was becoming more aware of the dark ironies of life. For him it was becoming increasingly obvious that evil and beauty, love and pain, are not so much balanced as interwoven in ways which defy understanding. The young poet was acutely aware that the more we try to imagine beauty, the more painful our world may seem. This deepens our need for art, which in turn opens us up to more pain. The poem’s tragic irony is that love and beauty have led to so much pain.
Tragic elements - part one
- The tragic flaw of the protagonist: The knight is easily seduced by the woman which leads to his downfall which is evidenced through the gifts he makes for her: "I make a garland for her head/ And bracelets too". This goes against a stereotypical view of a knight, showing the influence that the woman has on him.
- The theme of death: This is prevalent throughout the poem and the knight is described as "paley loitering" and having a "lily on thy brow". A lily is symbolic of death so this implies the knight will soon die, likely as a result of his encounter with the woman.
- Dark tones: The people described in the knight's dreams are "death-pale" with "starved lips". These people are implied to be the men of high status before him who were seduced by the woman. This dark tone of the poem contrasts with the light tone that the knight uses to describe his time with the woman. This is possible symbolic for the truth nature of the woman and that she is not as she seems.
- The setting: the bleak setting is created through the description of "the sedge has withered from the lake" and "the harvest's done" symbolizing how the knight feels heartbroken.
- Rhyme pattern: simple ABCB rhyme scheme where the meter is iambic tetrameter. With this, each stanza flows well until the fourth line, where it ends half way. It makes the end of each stanza feel incomplere, symbolic of the knight's heart.
Tragic elements - part two
- Fall from grace - the knight goes from of high status to existing in a desolate state, lost and trapped by his love for the lady who seduced him.
- Ballad form - complements the universality of the theme of unrequited love and the repetition throughout the poem shows how the tragic hero is trapped by the lady. The use of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines, which creates a romantic and lyrical style, like that of a song which appeals to all senses - an effect he wanted to create as he tried to write sensually. The quatrain of iambic tetrameter is a meter associated with lyricism nd adds to the romanticism and pathos of the narrative.
- The tone of the speaker - it is disapproving and is the voice of action. It seems to represent public disapproval as if the fact a man has succumbed to a woman's charm so completely is a travesty and implies he is pathetic. This presents the tragedy further as to the outside world he looks insane but he is so obsessed with this lady that he is paralysed by his love for her whereas she completely fabricated the romance.
- The knight as a victim - We see him first as a victim to the faerie but then to love, as he becomes static and trapped by it. In latter stanzas, the knight is given language that describes his state: "horrid", "cold" and "starved" = semantic field of lifelessness and hopelessness.
Tragic elements - part three
- Audience reaction - we feel empathy for him as he is left alone and depressed but also the reader knows he was foolish to fall for someone so easily. We see he is partly responsible for his fall as he let himself be charmed and seduced by her but just didn't anticipate the extent to which eh would fall in love, and ultimately fall from a revered knight to an empty-headed man lusting after a woman with no mercy.
- Nature - Before we mentioned the use of the lily to symbolise death which is an aspect of the tragedy that is important as the protagonist often dies. Previously, the anonymous speaker had described how all the "sedge was wither'd". This shows that it was nearly autumn, which is using pathetic fallacy, in keeping with his decline. Imagery such as fallen leaves and colder weather is associated with is season and this symbolises how his mind seems to be falling apart and almost freezing over as the lady has completely destroyed it and overtaken every thought.
More analysis - The lady part one
The Lady who the knight meets seems a rather mysterious and magical figure. Firstly, the knight says that she is a “faery's child” (IV), who makes a drink using “manna-dew” (VII) – a magical substance – before taking him to her “elfin grot” (VIII). These words all carry multiple connotations and interpretive possibilities: one can see fairies as benign and wonderful creatures, or dark and sinister supernatural beings. Once more, we can see traces of the Gothic elements we noticed in The Eve of St Agnes, except here the figure of power is the Lady.
The Lady's eyes are twice described as being “wild” (stanza IV), which is an ambiguous adjective. Wild can have positive associations, meaning free spirited and energetic, but it also carries the negative connotations of savagery and dementia. This would have been especially relevant in the early 19th century when human psychology was little understood.
More analysis - The lady part two
We gather a further sense of the Lady's potential insanity through the reference to her “language strange” (VII). It could be that she is talking utter nonsense. However, it could also simply be a foreign language the knight does not understand. It could also be a form of elf language, which (as we have already discussed) does not necessarily mean that she is dangerous.
It is incredibly difficult to fathom what Keats means when he writes that the Lady “wept and sighed full sore” (VIII) after taking the knight back to her home. Is she upset that he has invaded her privacy? That seems unlikely, given that she took him there. Perhaps this is an act which she does in order to attract his attention and his kisses? Maybe it is part of her spell/sexual ritual, which he agrees to. But if so, it's a rather bizarre attempt at seduction.
There is confusion surrounding why La Belle Dame lulls the knight to sleep and then disappears from the narrative. As in Lamia, the vanishing of the female has profound and potentially deadly influences for the male figure, which increases her power and role as a dominating figure.
More analysis - The knight
Why, exactly, is he 'sojourning' here? Is he perpetually trapped in this bleak, wintry location which is void of birdsong, or is it a place he can move away from whenever he chooses? We are not sure, and he offers us no real reason, except that he met this strange Lady there.
In many ways, the knight represents a complication of a typical figure in medieval literature. Normally, knights were presented as heroic, brave and independent figures. Here, however, he is weak, powerless and seemingly under the spell of a woman. This automatically inverts what the reader will be expecting, thereby tinting the narrative with strangeness.
More analysis - The location
The knight is located near a lake, on cold hills, with winter approaching. In Keats' time, loitering in wet meads and on cold hills throughout the day and night would often cause nasty illnesses; many believed that it could at least exacerbate the effects of tuberculosis, and Keats – whose family had suffered from this illness – would have been aware of this. In that case, the setting is not so much a beautiful woodland setting, but a location which carries deathly possibilities.
More analysis - ambiguity
This poem's message is deliberately equivocal: many different interpretations jostle in the reader's mind. None of them are conclusive, but all of them are tantalisingly within reach of our desire to give adequate meaning to the piece. There are few set answers to any of the questions I have raised above.
This, in fact, is one of the great achievements of the narrative. Critics have returned again and again, unable to move away from, or establish an unequivocal end to, the literary debate. Perhaps their inability to do so (a position they are put in by Keats' ambiguities) can be said to reflect the knight's situation? Perhaps the ambiguities serve to underline the way in which a single line or stanza of poetry can hold many different references and possible meanings at once, unlike science or a mathematical equation which only have one referent. Perhaps the ambiguities are used to make the entire poem seem like a dream which we see and experience but cannot interpret rationally.
More analysis - The Stanza Form
I cannot offer you a direct reason as to why Keats used this stanza form to create this effect. However, I suspect that it is to make us feel some of the strange, unsettling emotional state that the knight experiences as a result of the Lady.
Other critics suggest that the final line represents the act of interruption as it breaks the strong beat of the verse before allowing it to continue. Keats may be trying to reproduce the strange, unsettling feeling we get when someone or something interrupts us or breaks our daily routine.
Others suggests that it represents the suddenness and strangeness of death. The iambic beat is often known as the 'heartbeat', as it can sound like a heart beating (da-dum, da-dum, da-dum). As the final line cuts short the 'heartbeat' of the iambic line, it is almost like a jolt or death of the heartbeat.
More analysis - The Speaker and the Framing of the
One of the more subtle mysteries of the poem are the questions which surround who is speaking. Unlike many other of Keats' poems, there are no speech marks to show who is speaking at what point in the poem. The first three stanzas are clearly spoken by one person, who we assume is the narrator. In stanza IV we assume that the speaker has become the knight, although we cannot be sure as Keats does not include speech marks. Unlike other conventional framed narratives, we do not return to the narrator at the end of the poem.
Commentators suggest that Keats's personal relationship with Fanny Brawne is the reason behind the lack of punctuation: he wanted the reader to realise that it was he – disguised in this poem as the knight - who was going through the hardship and difficulties of being under a woman's spell. The lack of punctuation and the way that the poem's narrative does not return to the original speaker could be a way of showing this.
Another effect of the lack of punctuation marks and the disappearance of the narrator figure is to make it seem as if the knight has become alone and solitary as a result of La Belle Dame's powers. By removing the first speaker by the end of the poem, Keats seems to emphasise the knight's lonely existence.