'La Belle Dame sans Merci' Analysis
'La Belle Dame sans Merci' is in the form of a folk ballad and relates the story of a man (a knight) and a beautiful woman (a faery's child), in what is a curious allegorical romance.
Many think John Keats got the idea for the title from a medieval French poem written by one Alain Chartier (in old French, 'merci' meant mercy, not thank you as it does today) and he could also have been inspired by the earlier Scottish story of Thomas the Rhymer, who is taken off by the beautiful Queen of Elfinland on a white horse.
There are some strong arguments for a later version of this story being of particular interest. Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border contained the original ballad of Thomas, written in rhyming verse, and Keats could well have come across it.
Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene' has also been cited as a possible influence. Published in 1590, it has a character called Florimell, a lady, 'Fair Florimell, beloved of many a knight.'
Other events in his life may well have contributed to the idea of an enigmatic and slightly disturbing romance in poetic form such as a ballad.
For instance, his brother Tom had died in the winter of 1818 of tuberculosis (which was to claim Keats himself in 1821) and during this illness, some cruel, deceptive letters from trickster friends purporting to come from a French woman Amena, who was in love with Tom, arrived, with Keats's brother on his death bed.
And Keats too had his own anguished relationship with Fanny Brawne to contend with. He was madly in love with her but hadn't the resources or good health to fully commit. His letters to her are painful and passionate, and he knew that he would never be able to fulfil his hopelessly romantic dream.
There is no doubt that he had difficulty expressing himself when in the company of women.
'When I am among women I have evil thoughts, malice, spleen - I cannot speak or be silent - I am full of suspicions and therefore listen to no thing - I am in a hurry to be gone...I must absolutely get over this - but how?'
Letter to Benjamin Bailey 1818
- So, La Belle Dame sans Merci is perhaps the result of emotional conflict merging with poetic craft. Keats created the poem using his imagination out of which came beauty and truth, contained in a dream-like and disturbing drama.
- In addition, the poem takes the reader into a supernatural world, where real or imagined experience morphs into fairy tale, where conscious control is lost to the seductive powers of a fleeting sensuality.
Is the Belle Dame a kind of femme fatale? A succubus of sorts? She seems to have a way with mortal men that's for sure. And the man? What were the occupiers of his dream warning him about? His impending destruction?
Just as in the first and second stanzas and that question 'O what can ail thee?', there are no definitive answers.
The poem first appeared in a letter he wrote to his brother, George, in April 1819. This version is the one shown below, as opposed to the second version, later published in The Indicator in 1820.
'La Belle Dame sans Merci'
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
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.
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.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
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.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
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!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Overview of the Poem
'La Belle Dame sans Merci', with its mysterious narrative and ethereal atmosphere, combines innocence and seduction in an unusual ballad form to produce a haunting story.
In one sense it's little more than man meets woman in the countryside, they have a fling and the man ends up dumped, by a lake. He doesn't know if he's been drugged or not but it certainly seems he has been intimate with this beautiful stranger.
It's up to the reader to fill in the details.
Perhaps this is why the poem is so successful in its portrayal of a relationship that came out of nowhere, progressed to a different dimension and had such a profound effect on the male, and probably the female too.
The reader is left hanging on, with a need to know more, thanks to the metrical pattern of the stanzas and the bizarre circumstances the man finds himself in.
- And in certain sections of the poem, there is the suggestion of a sexual liaison which is perhaps drug-inspired. Notably, stanzas five and seven stand out, with mention of the man making garlands and bracelets and a fragrant girdle (Zone) whilst the woman made sweet moan. And later she finds sweet roots, honey wild and manna dew (manna is the food from heaven as stated in the Bible), most certainly the food of love.
The other question that has to be asked is: Has this whole scenario been imagined by the speaker? Is it some sort of dream sequence based on the polarities of pleasure and pain?
Stanza by Stanza Analysis
The structure of this poem is more or less straightforward. The twelve stanzas are split:
- 1 - 3 stanzas... observations and repeated questions from stranger.
- 4 - 6 stanzas... the knight answers, repeating I met, I made, I set.
- 7 - 9 stanzas. the knight progresses, repeating She found, She took, And She lulled.
- 10 - 12 stanzas... the knight reverts, repeating I saw, I saw, I sojourn.
A stranger encounters a pale knight by a lake. There is something wrong with the man. Sedge grass has died, the birds are quiet - is this a winter scene or an integral part of the atmosphere?
The stranger repeats his enquiry. This knight looks miserable and sick. It's the back end of autumn, approaching colder weather.
There is a direct observation by the stranger. The lily and the rose are both symbols of death (in a Petrarchan sense). Is the knight so close to meeting his Maker?
The knight replies. He met a woman in the meadows (Meads), no ordinary woman but a beauty, an otherworldly figure.
The knight made love to her in the meadow. It was consensual.
Afterwards, he put her on his horse and he walked alongside as she sang her exotic songs.
She knew just where to look for sweet and heavenly foods. I ate them and she loved me for it, even though I didn't really understand what was happening.
She took me to her special place, deep in a grotto, where she became so emotional I had to reassure her, so wild were her eyes. I kissed them 4 times.
She calmed me down too, so much so I feel asleep and had a dream. There was trouble brewing. That was my last ever dream.
In the dream I saw pale kings, warriors and princes, near to death. They were warning me about the beautiful woman.
Their mouths were gaping open in that dreamy twilight gloom. Then I woke up on a cold hill side.
And so you find me here by the lake. I don't know what I'm doing.
So the cycle is complete, yet the reader is none the wiser about the woman's or indeed the man's, intentions or motivations.
Was she an evil entity set on absorbing the knight's life forces? A kind of vampire come to the human world to seek knowledge of flesh and blood? Or did he take advantage of the woman first, after which she wanted some kind of revenge?
Perhaps their chance meeting was a combination of wishful thinking on behalf of the knight and opportunity grasped by the beautiful if supernatural female.
The whole poem suggests that the borderline between reality and imagination is often blurred. We give ourselves up to ideals of beauty, then in a trice, it is gone, or we go through experiences that are not to our liking, that leave us spent, hollowed out.
As in a typical folk lyric ballad, there are several repetitions which place emphasis on certain lines and reinforce sub-themes:
O what can ail thee, knight at arms x2
Alone and palely loitering x2
The sedge is/has withered from the lake/And no birds sing.x2
On the cold hill/hill's side x2
And there x4.
What Is The Metre?
'La Belle Dame sans Merci' is a 12-stanza ballad, each stanza a quatrain (four lines), each quatrain having three lines of iambic tetrameter followed by a single line of iambic dimeter.
- The second and fourth lines are in full rhyme, so the rhyme scheme is abcb. (but note the slant rhyme woebegone/done in the second stanza).
This ballad has a classic iambic beat: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM with the stress on the second syllable in each foot:
O what / can ail / thee, knight / at arms, (8 syllables, 4 feet= iambic tetrameter)
Alone / and pale / ly loit / ering?
The sedge has withered from the lake
And no / birds sing! (4 syllables, 2 feet=iambic dimeter)
This tetrameter/dimeter contrast is unusual for the typical folk ballad so Keats must have wanted the change to place emphasis on that last shortened line in each stanza.
The last line of each stanza therefore creates a kind of suspension. The reader, being used to the longer tetrameter lines, is then faced with a missing couple of beats, which adds a sense of loss, which in turn suggests mystery.
In stanzas 2, 3, 4, 9 and 11 the last line has an extra beat, an anapaest foot (da-da-DUM) being employed:
- And the har / vest's done (5 syllables, 2 feet= anapaest + iamb)
- And her eyes / were wild
- On the cold / hill side
- On the cold / hill's side
Stanza 3 also has 5 syllables in the last line, a spondee foot (DA-DUM) and the following anapaest:
- Fast with / ereth too. (5 syllables, 2 feet= spondee + anapaest)
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
© 2018 Andrew Spacey