'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'- John Keats

Basic information

  • Ballad in quatrain form, with an ABCB rhyme scheme.
  • Title translates to "The beautiful lady without mercy".
  • Written in 1819, following Keats' loss of his brother to TB and worries regarding his blossoming relationship with Brawne.
  • Title is appropriated from an early-15th century French poem by Alan Chartier: "Belle Dame Sans Mercy"
  • The power balance in the poem is chiastic.
  • Shortening the last line in a stanza to two stresses and usually only four syllables creates a sense of the Knight's dissatisfaction and loss.
  • Terse use of language also juxtaposes Keats' usual verbose lexical mode to convey the destruction of romance and courtly love.
  • The poem ironically parallels the Arthurian legend of Merlin and the Lady of the Lake.
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Poem overview:

An unidentified speaker asks a knight what afflicts him. The haggard knigh tells his tale: he fell in love with a beautiful but mysterious woman who led him to her grotto. She lulled him to sleep and he had terrible nightmares of the men enslaved before him. He then awoke alone on the hillside.

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Stanzas I-III

  • Allusion to humours in the adjective "palely" enhances the idea of an Arthurian setting as a result of the melancholic traits described in Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy".
  • Pathetic fallacy and end-stopping enphasise the bereft atmosphere: "The sedge has withered from the lake / And no birds sing".
  • Repetition of the question "O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms" acts as a conduit which creates pathos for the knight.
  • Repetition of the adverb "so" enforces the knight's misery- Thomas Keats succumbed to TB in 1818, and John Keats began showing early symptoms in 1819, so recognition of the knight's decline alludes to keats' own deterioration. 
  • The metaphor "The squirrel's granary is full, / And the harvest's done" foreshadows death through pathetic fallacy and end-stopping.
  • "I see a lily on thy brow"- Lilies metaphorise death as they were popular contemporary funeral flowers
  • "And on thy cheeks a fading rose"- Metaphoricises fading life, as roses symbolise love and passion. 
  • Alliteration of soft "f" sounds imitate shivering from cold: "fever-dew...fading...fast"
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Stanzas IV-VI

  • The use of the typical chivalric trope creates irony as the knight is decieved: "I met a lady in the meads"
  • Semantic shift to positivity from bereftness creates pathos.
  • "faery's child" is ironic because beautiful people were thought to have been left by fairies.
  • Caesura after "faery's child," creates irony. 
  • Polysemantic lexicon alludes to sensuality, fragility and freedom, while ironically conveying the common Romantic trope of evil women having "wild eyes", as used by Wordsworth. 
  • End stopping after "Her hair was long, her foot was light / And her eyes were wild." creates foreboding.
  • Ironic tricolon implies imprisonment as the knight thinks he holds the power: "I made a garland for her head, / And bracelets too, and fragrant zone".
  • "She looked at me as she did love"- the use of past tense and the preposition "as" conveys the woman's ambiguity.
  • "pacing steed" is an ironic symbol of sexual euphamism and masculinity. 
  • Adverb "sidelong" alludes to deception, as does the verb "bend" due to connotations of falsification. 
  • "A faery's song" alludes to the deadly and deceptive song of sirens.
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Stanzas VII-IX

  • Direct reference to Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'- written in an opium dream- foreshadows the influence of magic: "She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild".
  • "Manna-dew" is ironic as the knight is enslaved and being led to death, not freedom.
  • "And sure, in language strange" : The knight's conviction creates pathos through the adverb "sure", and foreshadows the woman's true nature.
  • Power shift as the woman is no longer passive: "She took me to her elfin grot".
  • Keats tended to portray elfin characters as suspicious, as in 'Lamia'.
  • "And there she wept and sighed full sore": Negative capability enhances tragedy as it appears that the woman has to commit evil to survive.
  • "And there I shut her wild eyes / With kisses four"- Ironic as shutting eyes is what you do to the dead, and the number four symbolises completion and stability in earth symbols, as well as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
  • The connotations of the verb "lulled" juxtaposes the knight's reality.
  • The archaic interjection and caesura convey horror and the medieval setting: "Ah! Woe betide!-"
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Stanzas X-XII

  • Repetition of the adjective "pale" in a procession of medieval men alludes to the fourth horseman of the apocalypse in the Book of Revealation: Death.
  • Reference to high ranking men- "Pale kings and princes too / Pale warriors"- creates an Aristotlian tragedy as they have a height to fall.
  • The polysemantic verb "thrall" creates irony for the knight, as he is infatuated and enslaved.
  • The grotesque semantic field juxtaposes earlier Romanticism to convey downfall: "starved lips in the gloam / With horrid warning gaped wide".
  • Anaphoric repetition of "On the cold hill's side" enhances barreness. 
  • Ambiguity of the knight's death furthers tragedy as it implies purgatorial suffering: "I sojourn here". 
  • Anaphoric repetition of the refrain creates a cyclical structure and implies that the fairy will continue to prey on men: "Alone and palely loitering / Although the sedge is withered from the lake / And no birds sing". 
  • No resolution creates acute suffering.
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