La Belle Dame Sans Mecri

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Symbols and analysis - Dramatic flowers

Line 9: Lilies are often associated with death in Western culture, so the "lily" on the knight's forehead doesn't bode well for him. The speaker is employing a metaphor when he says that he "see[s] a lily on thy brow." Besides the association with death, lilies are pale white, so a slightly less morbid reading of this line would be that the knight isn't dying, but is just sickly pale.

Line 11: Roses are often associated with love in Western culture, but the knight's "rose" is "fading" and "wither[ing]." Sounds like a pretty clear metaphor for the end of a romantic relationship. But like the lily, the rose describes the knight's complexion. The rose is "fading" from the knight's "cheeks." So the rose metaphor is doing double duty – it's describing both his "fading" love affair, and his increasingly pale complexion.

Lines 17-18: The knight makes a flower "garland" and "bracelets" for the fairy lady. He decks her out in flowers. If the knight associates flowers with love and life the way we usually do, it's pretty clear that he's totally in love (or at least in lust) with her.

Line 18: A "fragrant zone" is a flower belt – it's another string of flowers that the knight offers the fairy lady. But it could also be a euphemism for her anatomical "zone" right underneath the belt.

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Seasons and cycles

The beginning and end of the poem seem to take place during autumn or even early winter, but the sequence with the fairy lady seems to be during spring or summer. Does the fairy lady control the seasons? Or does her beauty make the knight think that winter is summer?

Lines 3: "Sedge" is a grass-like plant that grows in marshy, wet ground close to lakes. If all the "sedge" is "wither'd," it's probably close to autumn. We usually associate images of autumn and fallen leaves with old age and imminent death, so this doesn't bode well for the knight.

Line 4: Birds; their absence makes the landscape of the poem seem even more desolate than the "wither'd" "sedge."

Line 7: A "granary" is a barn or warehouse used to store grain. The "squirrel" in this line probably doesn't have a literal building to store its nuts, so "granary" is a metaphor for the squirrel's hiding places that personifies the squirrel by associating it with characteristics and activities usually reserved for humans.

Line 8: If all the crops have been harvested, then the fields are all empty and deserted. If the "sedge" is dead, the birds are gone, and all the crops are harvested, does that mean that the knight and the unnamed speaker are the only two living things in the landscape?However, "harvest" suggests planting, fertility, and the cycle of life.

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Paleness

Line 2: The unnamed speaker says that the knight is "palely loitering." We get the point that he's hanging out by the lake without an obvious purpose, and he's "pale." Read this line out loud: notice the repeated L sound in "Alone and palely loitering"? The consonance of the L sound makes the line sound musical (think, "tra-la-la-la-la-la!"), but it also draws our attention to those words, especially to the unusual use of "palely" as an adverb. The word "palely" also creates an internal rhyme with the words "ail thee" from line 1. Associating those words makes it clear that the knight's paleness has to do with whatever it is that is "ail[ing]" him.

Line 9: We hear more about the paleness of the knight when the unnamed speaker uses a flower metaphor to point out the "lily" whiteness of the knight's face.

Lines 37-8: The knight uses the word "pale" three times in two lines. He's describing the dream he had in the fairy lady's cave, and the "pale kings" and "pale warriors" that he saw. They're all "death pale," so now paleness is being explicitly associated with death.

Lines 37-40: The repetition of the word "pale" in this stanza brings out the similarity between that word and the words "all," "belle," and "thrall." This consonance, or repeated sound, associates those words as we read them, making the reader pause to consider how the "belle dame" might be responsible for the "pale[ness]" of "all" the knights she has had "in thrall."

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Dreams and sleeping

The entire poem could sound like a dream sequence or a fantasy, with all the fairy ladies and "elfin grots." But there's an explicit dream sequence described by the knight at the close of the poem, which brings up questions about consciousness and the nature of reality, and other things that keep us up at night.

Line 33: The word "lulled" is such a sleepy-sounding word that it's almost onomatopoeia: it sounds like what it's supposed to mean.

Lines 34-5: The word "dream" gets repeated three times in two lines. This can't be an accident. Is the knight wanting to insist that the vision he saw was, in fact, a dream, and not a real event? Is he insisting too much?

Line 40: The harsh repetition of the th sound in this line is enough to wake anyone up. The consonance of "Hath thee in thrall!" is what ends the knight's dream. In the next stanza, he sees their mouths open after having "cried" their "warning," and then he wakes up.

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Dew and water

Medieval romances often associate women with water, so it's no surprise that Keats borrows from that tradition in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The problem with women and water, though, is that men who mess around with women end up getting all soggy and wet. According to this symbolic tradition, men are weakened by their contact with women.

Line 3: Already in this line, the speaker is associating death and "wither[ing]" with a body of water: the "lake." And it's not just any body of water. Lakes, unlike springs or rivers, don't flow (or at least, don't flow quickly), so the water in them stagnates and can grow nasty algae and pond scum.

Line 10: The unnamed speaker notices that the knight's face is "moist" with "fever dew." OK, so he's sweating because he has a fever. But where did he catch the fever? Look where that word "dew" is repeated…

Line 26: The knight says that the fairy lady fed him "manna dew." "Manna" is the heavenly food that the Jewish Scriptures say that the Israelites ate in the wilderness after they escaped from slavery. But why, "dew"? Why is the manna in liquid form? It seems likely that the answer is connected with the rest of the complicated system of metaphor around water and dew in this poem.

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Form and meter- Ballad, Iambic Tetrameter Quatrain

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is divided into twelve four-line stanzas, called quatrains. Each of those quatrains rhymes according to an ABCB pattern. For example, take a look at the first stanza: the second line rhymes with the fourth: "loitering" and "sing."

The basic meter of the poem is iambic tetrameter. In the fourth line of each quatrain there are only three stressed syllables in the fourth line of each quatrain. This isn't a mistake on Keats's part. The fourth line is consistently shorter. Even if you're not used to counting stressed and unstressed syllables, you can tell just from looking at the page that the fourth line is always shorter. What's the effect of this shift in the rhythm? It's an open question. Feel free to come up with your own answers.

Furthermore, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is a ballad, which is an old-fashioned, folksy style of poem that typically tells a story. Ballads use simple language that would appeal to less educated people, like farmers and laborers. Ballads were primarily an oral form – people would memorize them and pass them on to their friends and family by memory, rather than from a book. Poets like Keats tried to mimic this style in their written works. Many of the Romantic poets liked the deceptively simple form of the ballad. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously kicked off their careers with their collection of poems called Lyrical Ballads.

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setting

Reading "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is like walking into a classic fairy tale. No, we don't mean the Disney kind, with happy, singing mice and twittering birds. We mean the old-school, medieval kind, with bleak landscapes, knights, fairies, and witches. The unnamed speaker at the beginning of the poem seems to have wandered into someone else's fairy tale, too. He's just out on a walk, enjoying the late autumn by a lake, when he sees a "haggard" knight who seems sick and depressed. He asks the knight what's up, and the knight launches into a long story about how he met a fairy lady in the fields somewhere. Is the knight's story all just a dream? Does the poem take place in a fairy tale, or in the real world? If it takes place partly in both, where's the border? The poem's setting seems designed to throw you off.

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John Keats

John Keats was an English Romantic poet. He was one of the main figures of the second generation of Romantic poets, along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, despite his work having been in publication for only four years before his death.[1]

Although his poems were not generally well received by critics during his lifetime, his reputation grew after his death, and by the end of the 19th century, he had become one of the most beloved of all English poets. He had a significant influence on a diverse range of poets and writers. Jorge Luis Borges stated that his first encounter with Keats's work was the most significant literary experience of his life.[2]

The poetry of Keats is characterised by sensual imagery, most notably in the series of odes. This is typical of romantic poets, as they aimed to accentuate extreme emotion through the emphasis of natural imagery. Today his poems and letters are some of the most popular and most analysed in English literature.

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John Keats carried on

His parents were unable to afford Eton or Harrow, so in the summer of 1803, he was sent to board at John Clarke's school in Enfield, close to his grandparents' house. The small school had a liberal outlook and a progressive curriculum more modern than the larger, more prestigious schools.In the family atmosphere at Clarke's, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would stay with him throughout his short life. The headmaster's son, Charles Cowden Clarke, also became an important mentor and friend, introducing Keats to Renaissanceliterature, including TassoSpenser, and Chapman's translations. The young Keats was described by his friend Edward Holmes as a volatile character, "always in extremes", given to indolence and fighting. However, at 13 he began focusing his energy on reading and study, winning his first academic prize in midsummer 1809.

 

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John Keats carried on

His parents were unable to afford Eton or Harrow, so in the summer of 1803, he was sent to board at John Clarke's school in Enfield, close to his grandparents' house. The small school had a liberal outlook and a progressive curriculum more modern than the larger, more prestigious schools.In the family atmosphere at Clarke's, Keats developed an interest in classics and history, which would stay with him throughout his short life. The headmaster's son, Charles Cowden Clarke, also became an important mentor and friend, introducing Keats to Renaissanceliterature, including TassoSpenser, and Chapman's translations. The young Keats was described by his friend Edward Holmes as a volatile character, "always in extremes", given to indolence and fighting. However, at 13 he began focusing his energy on reading and study, winning his first academic prize in midsummer 1809.

 

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John Keats carried on

In April 1804, when Keats was eight, his father died. The cause of death was a skull fracture, suffered when he fell from his horse while returning from a visit to Keats and his brother George at school. Thomas Keats died intestate. Frances remarried two months later, but left her new husband soon afterwards, and the four children went to live with their grandmother, Alice Jennings, in the village of Edmonton. In March 1810 when Keats was 14, his mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the children in the custody of their grandmother. She appointed two guardians, Richard Abbey and John Sandell, to take care of them. That autumn, Keats left Clarke's school to apprentice with Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary who was a neighbour and the doctor of the Jennings family. Keats lodged in the attic above the surgery at 7 Church Street until 1813. Cowden Clarke, who remained a close friend of Keats, described this period as "the most placid time in Keats's life."

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