Andrea Lawrence has a master's in creative writing. She studied fiction, poetry, playwriting, and screenwriting.
Exploring John Keats' Famous Poem
Every word in John Keats’ ballad, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” overflows with a romantic and ethereal quality. The poem is a masterpiece; in words, it paints a vivid image of medieval lore.
- Keats uses an abundance of sensory words, showing how the senses can be overindulged by tangible and physical pleasures. The knight is in tune with his senses; he craves more pleasures in order to keep and feed his elated feelings.
- The knight is deeply intoxicated with the essence of the “faery’s child” (Keats line 14); when she abandons him, he is engulfed by despair. He wallows in misery while waiting for the otherworldly woman's return.
Taking a classical fairy tale approach, the poem fabricates a dreamlike world but one the reader can relate to—the reader will come across images found in nature and universal themes about love. On the dark side, the poem is about hedonism and destructive forces that at first glance seem angelic.
La Belle Dame sans Merci ("The Beautiful Lady Without Merci")
1819, revised in 1820
Title derived from a 15th-century poem by Alain Chartier.
12 stanzas of four lines each in an ABCB rhyme scheme.
"La Belle Dame sans Merci" begins with an unknown speaker who pries into the life of a crestfallen knight. The narrator inquires into the knight's sad state. The first stanza foreshadows what will come in the poem:
O what can ail thee, knight-at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing! (Keats 1-4)
The speaker asks “What can ail thee, knight-at-arms?” (Keats line 1). It's important to note that throughout the entire poem, the reader is left to speculate about the knight and his sorrowful condition. Through the tone, and the question that is asked in the first stanza, the narrator appears to be concerned about the knight. The speaker refers to the person they found as an “Alone and palely loitering” knight (Keats line 2).
We can assume the speaker is young or innocent because they come off inexperienced to the kind of heartache the knight is experiencing. In another interpretation, the speaker could know exactly how the knight feels, but by asking the knight about his miserable state, the narrator is able to open up a conversation and, ultimately, share some of their wisdom.
The poem’s setting gives the impression of a fantasy world; it is possible that the speaker has a mythical form—such as a fairy. Within the text, a melancholy tone is painted through such words as “ail,” “alone,” “palely,” and “withered” (Keats 1-3). All of these words have elongated vowels, which stress a mournful sound. The choice in vowels helps portray the knight's suffering.
The narrator makes further observations about the knight’s surroundings: “The sedge has withered from the lake, / And no birds sing” (Keats 3-4). (On a metaphorical level, this could mean the knight is without song as if all joy has been robbed from him).
The setting is a metaphor for the knight's innermost state. In the second stanza, the speaker continues to inquire into the knight's condition: “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, / So haggard and so woe-begone?” (Keats 5-6). The speaker anticipates the knight’s reply and, burning with wonderment, the narrator looks for other clues to figure out what is wrong. The narrator observes nature: “The squirrel’s granary is full, / And the harvest’s done” (Keats 7-8). Everything is shifting to winter; there is a sense that the year is coming to a close and that things are over. There is finality. Whatever the knight encountered, it has ended.
The harvest is done; throughout nature, creatures have stored up enough food to sustain themselves through the challenging season, but the knight is too sad to recognize the seasonal changes. He is in grave danger because he hasn't stored anything to survive the miserable cold. (Winter is often seen in literature as a symbol for death: the knight only has so much time to wake from his stupor before he'll come face to face with Death.)
In the third stanza, the fairy-like speaker “see[s] a lily on [his] brow; / With anguish moist and fever dew” (Keats 9-10). Amaranth is frozen on the man’s face. A dead lily is fading, and it's on his forehead. The knight is so in love with whatever memory he holds onto that he is refusing to let it go, even at the expense of “anguish” and “fever” (Keats 10).
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His cheeks are described as having a “fading rose” (Keats 11), indicating that perhaps someone once adorned his face with kisses, but it “fast withereth too” (Keats 12).
In the fourth stanza, the knight begins to tell his tale to the inquisitive speaker. The tone shifts from dejection to elation. Things switch from the cold and decaying setting to a memory of a beautiful “lady in the meads” (Keats 13) with long hair and wild eyes, delicate care with each footstep, and the most striking feature of all: she appeared to be a sprite, as though she were a “faery’s child” (Keats 14).
The passion the knight uses to describe her reveals how intoxicated he is with her beauty. He describes her from an intimate memory:
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.
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. (Keats 17-24)
With each word, the knight reveals how his senses were once mesmerized by the lady. In the previous stanza, he loved her graceful walk, that “her hair was long” (Keats 15), and that “her eyes were wild” (Keats 16). Now, in stanzas five and six, he elaborates, with great detail, how he constructed a “garland for her head” (Keats 17), and how the fragrance of her made him fall in love. He proceeded to take her with him by placing her on his “pacing steed” (Keats 21). The "pacing steed" line is definitely meant to be taken as sexual; the steed isn't just a horse.
Instead of directly describing the sexual interactions of the couple, Keats uses metaphors, puns, and allusions to lightly address their connection. The rendevous with the sprite touched the knight's heart, and he vividly remembers what took place between them.
While they traveled through the meadow, the woman charmed the knight by singing “a faery’s song” (Keats 24). I would argue the song was comparable to the Sirens in the Odyssey. (In the Odyssey, the Sirens lured sailors with their exotic voices. Odysseus ordered his crew to put wax in their ears, so the crew could pass the Sirens' island instead of crashing into rocks and falling into their trap.) In the poem, the woman's song was pleasant to the knight's ears, and it could have been associated with her being pleased by his touch.
In the next two stanzas, the poem explores the realms of taste and touch. With sweet rhapsody, the knight begins to taste the compelling situation. They eat the “roots of relish sweet” (Keats25), wild honey, and a lost relic since the time of Moses, “manna dew” (Keats 26).
Such strange items perpetuate the eclectic form of the poem. With her enchanting ways, she speaks in her own strange language to him, and in his illusion, since the language is foreign to him, he believes that she tells him “I love thee true” (Keats 28), and then under this strange bewitchment, the faery leads the knight “to her elfin grot” (Keats 29).
Perhaps, at this point, she wants to invite the knight into her own world by introducing him to her family. Regardless of her intentions, by bringing him “to her elfin grot” (Keats 29) she is bringing more intimacy to their relationship by revealing something personal of hers. Her emotions abruptly unravel; she bursts into tears “and sigh’d fill sore” (Keats 30).
There is no indication that the knight understands her despair, but he does hope that this will end in love, not disconnection. With passion, which is revealed by using the word “wild” (Keats 32) twice, he attempts to comfort her... by closing her sorrowful eyes “With kisses four” (Keats 32).
In the ninth stanza, the knight is “lulled asleep” (Keats 33), where suddenly he no longer indulges in a meadow full of honey and flowers—nor a faery goddess. The tone takes a dramatic shift from warmth and ecstasy inspired by a meadow and a beautiful lady, to a cold melancholy hillside full of longing. He then begins to dream his “latest dream” (Keats 35).
His dream is similar to the melancholy tone in the first stanza. He sees “pale kings and princes too, / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all” (Keats 38). All of them were in agony from being enthralled by the elfin woman for “They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’” (Keats 39). (In English, this means “the beautiful lady without mercy.”)
The knight wakes from the nightmare of their “horrid gaping mouths” (Keats 40) only to find that he was only on the “cold hill’s side” (Keats 44) and that the faery that he loved... was gone.
This is why the knight is crestfallen in the first stanza: after waking up from a nightmare, he found that his lover had disappeared. He was “alone and [pale]” (Keats 46). He loved her so immensely that he couldn't bear to continue his life without her. He was enticed with her every movement—down to her “fragrance” (Keats 18).
He drowned in his loneliness; to him, nothing seemed greater than the woman he encountered. His paleness connects him with the “pale kings and princes” as well as the “Pale warriors” (Keats 38). This connection shows that whenever a man falls for the “faery’s child” (Keats 14) he won't be able to carry on with his life. He'll become obsessed with the feelings he felt with the elfin woman.
The charms of the faery caused the knight to become seriously ill; he lost his will to live and then he stayed in the same place hoping for her return. He became deathly pale for his chivalrous patience, and he withered. The color of his skin was losing fervor because he was so adamant about staying on the “cold hill’s side” (Keats 44); he was starving himself to death because he refused to leave. He wouldn't receive the sun’s light, causing him to have a “death[ly] pale” (Keats 38) complexion.
The last three lines of the final stanza are exactly the same as the final tercet of the first stanza, so as to bring the poem to a full circle to answer why he is alone, and what he is awaiting. The faery’s return seems unlikely; the knight himself says he “has withered from the lake, / And no birds sing” (Keats 47-48).
The entire poem attests to sensational moments brought on by lovers and their secrets, and how this effect can bring unimaginable woe when it has ended. The poem is about those who have tasted love only to find it fleeting. Failed relationships, or even failed courtships, can easily put people into a depressive state.
The notion of failure is enough to keep people stuck in one place, hoping that one day they will get a second chance at the same type of moment. On a similar note, they're too afraid to move forward out of fear they'll be rejected a second time.
In “La Belle Dame sans Merci” the knight becomes so intoxicated with love that he is unable to cope when his love disappears.
The truly intriguing part is the faery child’s unknown intention. It is unclear whether she was sincerely able to have a relationship with him. There is a possibility that she yearns for a relationship herself when she has come across so many failures because she is unable to fully be with a human. And maybe this is why she weeps in the eighth stanza. On the other hand, maybe she is a seductress who charms men of noble caliber for her own sick enjoyment.
Any number of theories could be made as to the true intention of the faery child, but unfortunately, the point-of-view is limited to the knight’s and how he retells the story after being questioned by an unknown speaker.
The knight himself is left to ponder the faery’s intentions. He'll keep pondering this while he stubbornly stays on the same “cold hill’s side” (Keats 44) where she vanished.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing. (Keats 45-48)
According to E.R. Friedlander, “In giving in totally to the experiences and sensations of the moment, without reasoning everything out” (Friedlander) is exactly how a fool falls in love. “A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways” (Friedlander) is a time when the heart is tested to its breaking point.
The knight of the poem, in all his sadness, faces a paradox: his encounter with the faery child could be an entirely worthless moment that he has fixated too much time on which destroys him in the end, but at the same time, it is one of the greatest moments of his life, giving it meaning.
Since he was so sensitive to her beauty and allowed the experience to reveal truths to him, he has let the moment shape him as an individual.
Maybe the friend who came to him—whether it is a fairy or a poet taking his last words—will be able to cure the knight of his sorrow. The knight is able to live in two worlds at once while secluded and in despair. He is showing signs of death, remorse, and suffering while waiting for his lover to return.
Yet he is still alive because his desires to see the woman fuel him. He doesn't want to die, at least not intentionally. He just can't bear to leave the last spot where he saw his love; it would be too painful if she returned, and he was gone.
The poem only gives a snapshot of the knight's psychosis. Ultimately, “our understanding of a ‘text’ is shaped by the context in which we see it” (Lynn page 9). There is only so much context that the poem provides.
“La Belle Dame sans Merci” deals with the universal struggle of failed relationships, and it also goes much deeper to show how a failed relationship causes an individual to be divided against one’s self.
- Friedlander, E.R. "Enjoying "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", by John Keats." Pathguy. Jan. 2005. Brown University, Department of English. 9 Mar. 2008 <http://www.pathguy.com/lbdsm.htm>.
- Keats, John. "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature 7th. Bedford and St Martin's, 2005. 976-977.
- Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory. 5th ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2008.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Andrea Lawrence