La Belle Dame sans Merci, one of John Keats last works, is a ballad which tells the story of a knight who fell in love with a mystical creature, and now suffers the aftermath of a broken heart.
The poem starts with the poet finding a solitary knight stumbling around the countryside. The scene of autumn is described: No grass grows on the river banks, the chirping birds are absent, squirrels and other animals have hoarded food to sustain them throughout winter, and the harvest season is over. The poet wonders what sickness has gripped the knight, making him look so exhausted and miserable. He seems to be in a terrible condition: the color is fast fading from his cheeks and his forehead glistens with sweat, contrasting with his increasing pallor. An aura of mystery surrounds the scene, and one cannot help but wonder what a knight, a man used to action and surviving in harsh conditions, is doing walking aimlessly around the moor, and what is it that has befallen him to reduce him to such a pitiful state.
With the fourth stanza the knight starts to tell his tale: He had met a beautiful maiden in the meadows. She was the most beautiful thing he had cast eyes upon, with long flowing hair and a soft unearthly grace which led him to believe that she must be a fairy treading the earth. Her eyes however had struck him as sad and doleful as if she was mourning something.
He tells the poet how she joined him on his horse and they rode together. He had eyes only for her and did not notice anything else, for she was receptive of his attentions and sang to him sweetly. He tried to woo her by making garlands and bracelets out of flowers and she gazed at him lovingly, giving him delectable things to eat such as sweet roots and wild honey. She spoke in a different dialect yet he was sure that she told him that she loved him with all her heart.
The sense of suspense and mystery is further elevated in the reader by now: although one had expected a lady to feature prominently in the Knight’s endeavors, it was not common practice for upper class ladies to be wandering around the countryside without an escort, and be as forthcoming and immodest as to sing and moan to a stranger whom she has just met. Who is this woman and where did she come from?
Some questions are answered when the knight mentions that the lady then took him to her elfin grot, and the reader realizes that the lady is an actual fairy, a supernatural being that the knight has fallen in love with. The knight remembers that she looked at him sadly as he kissed her wild troubled eyes to sleep. As they slept together on the hill side, the knight had a dream: he saw the deathly visions of kings, princes and warriors, with gnarled lips and ghastly figures. They all cried out to him, warning him that the lady has no mercy and he is in her trap now as well. That is when he awoke and found himself alone and on the verge of death, without any sign on his lover in sight. He has been wandering the land ever since, hoping either for his lady to return or for death to embrace him.
Thus the knight’s story comes to an end and his state of depression and sickness is explained: he has fallen victim to a lover’s betrayal and abandonment. But the lady remains still an enigma, both to the poet and the reader. Though on first look, the woman appears to be the classic example of the attention seeking selfish lady who mercilessly leads unwary young men to believe that she loves them and then deserts them, alone in their grief. But on deeper study it’s found that there’s a lot more to her character: her eyes are sad and wild, her sighs sorrowful and her gaze mournful. Could it be that she is as unfortunate as her victims, bound by fate to travel the earth and fall in love with mortals again and again only to have to desert them as they could not be her match? The beauty of the story is that this question remains forever unanswered; one can derive one’s own analysis about her, but never know for sure who she really was.
Other than the constant creation of suspense and the thick aura of mystery which drapes the ballad and its characters, Keats has also used other figures of speech to further intensify the exquisiteness of his poems. In relating the sickness of the knight he compared he metaphorically describes his pale complexion as a ‘lily on his brow’ and his fading color as a ‘fast withering rose.’ The first few stanzas are also rich with imagery as the poet draws the autumn scene of the desolate and lonely moors and the solitary knight in the reader’s head.
The most basic ‘moral’ of this story of woe is the dangers of heady, passionate love in which one can get carried away and the imminent heart break which follows every such transient affair. The knight was too impulsive in falling head over heels for a strange woman, and he had to pay the price for his impetuosity.
However, one could also argue that Keats wrote this poem as a dedicated tribute to absolute beauty. The knight had no desire to live on after once finding and losing the epitome of beauty in the lovely enchantress. Materialistic beauty is captivating yet ephemeral, and every being that strives to find it, has to be prepared for losing it too, that is the revenge of time. Those who fail to realize that soon find out that no meaning remains in anything else afterwards.
Another quite somber interpretation of the poem is that it shows the outcome of every idealist romantic who believes in true and eternal love, casting a harsh light on the fact, that love is, no matter how pure, never immortal. It cannot last forever and has to eventually bow down before either time or death.
This poem is, not unlike most of Keats’s work, a personal favorite both for being gorgeous in its language and story, and thought provoking in its poetical philosophy.
Tags: La Belle Dame sans Merci; John Keats Poems; suspense and mystery; ballad; poetic philosophy
Le Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats: Summary and AnalysisLe Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats is a narrative poem which means the beautiful lady without mercy. It is composed in the spring of 1819, is an exquisite ballad, recapturing, as it does, the simplicity, the spontaneity, the directness, the vividness, and the graphic force of the ancient models. It is John Keats’s finest ballad in English literature. Le Belle Dame Sans Merci is a ballad, a form of medieval art, which is revived by John Keats.
He uses a number of the stylistic features of the ballad, such as simplicity of language, repetition, and the absence of details and supernatural elements. The title is taken from a medieval French poem by Alain Chartier in which the speaker is mourning his dead mistress.
The poem narrates a sad and tragic love, betrayal of a mortal being who falls in love with a fairy. Just as the knight in the poem could not get the love of his beloved fairy, Keats also could not get success in love with Fanny. In this sense, this poem to some extent is an autobiographical poem.
The poem narrates a story of a knight's disappointed love with a fairy who is a mysterious lady. Once a knight was wandering about in a sad and dejected mood by the side of the lake. Someone or the poet asked the knight why he was so pale and haggard. The knight replied that he had met a beautiful lady in the meadows and was fascinated by her looks and beautiful features. She also fell in love with him. They both rode on a horseback, till they reached the cave of the fairy. There the lady expressed her love for him and lulled him to sleep. He saw a dream. In the dream he saw pale kings and warriors. All of them told him that the beautiful lady without mercy had captivated him. Their manner of warning terrified him. He woke up. Instead of finding himself in the cave of his lady-love, he found himself by the side of the hill. This was the reason why he was pale and haggard. Frustration in love made him sad, dejected, pale and haggard-looking.
It is a romantic ballad as much as it deals with the theme of love and also because it depends for its inspiration upon the medieval world of knights and elves, and of weird enchantment. The theme of a fatal, magical love luring a man to his doom is found in folk literature of the middle ages. The Romantic Movement revived an interest in such themes, and Keats succeeds in creating through an atmosphere of medieval romance a mood of psychological terror and desolation.
In La Belle Dame Sans Merci the Medieval revival reaches its culmination. The depth of passion which it expresses, or rather implies, the intense lyrical feeling, the exquisite art by which every detail of the weird landscape contributes to the general effect of mystery and of desolation, produce together an effect unequaled in the poetry of romance. It creates an atmosphere of the middle Ages with its atmosphere of enchantment, knight-errantry and the wasting power of love. The poem shows Keats's curious power of entering into the thought and sentiment of the middle Ages.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a literary ballad, that is, a poem written in imitation of a folk or traditional sense telling a story. But this ballad is not a mere literary experiment. It is in a sense a cry from the poet's heart, a tale of disillusionment told by a man whose dream of love has faded, leaving behind a taste dust and ashes in the mouth. The poem reminds us of Keats's bitter experience of the agony of love. He fell headlong in love with Fanny Browne, His ardent and hopeless passion for this woman is one of the most pathetic and poignant episodes in literary history. This poem, then, is not a mere literary experiment: it is 'a throne of the heart' of Keats.
Dramatic and narrative in form, it is in its spirit intensely lyrical, setting forth, under the guise of old-world symbols, the anguish and devastation of the poet's own soul. The poem is written in the traditional ballad stanza form of four lines. The first three verses in every stanza are iambic tetrameters; the last line of every stanza is an iambic diameter, with an occasional extra-syllable at the beginning. The poet used a single rhyme in each stanza, so that the second and the fourth lines rhyme. The first and third lines are left unrhymed.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci is an example of his disciplined art avoiding ornament which is in keeping with the simple ballad style. It is a superb example of the narrative art which has all the simplicity and directness of the best ballads. It is an instinct with keen imaginative power. Its weird intensity, the conciseness and purity of its poetic form, and the wild, yet simple magic of its beats—these lifts the poem into the region of great literature.