‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ by John Keats and ‘Sonnet 116’ by William Shakespeare speak on love through two very different lenses. The two poems address the power of love through varying patterns of rhyme and rhythm and a contrasting emphasis on language. They are concerned with the same themes but come to very different conclusions at the end.
Themes of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’
While these two pieces are similar in the fact that they both deal with love and time, they address these two themes in very different ways. Within ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ the speaker has come to an overwhelmingly negative conclusion about love and its ability to last. He has been cast aside by the “lady of the mead” and left alone in the withering grass of the field. Time comes into play with the emphasis placed on the symbols of death and paleness.
They are seen through the absence of animal life and the withering “Sedge” in line three. Additionally, the knight specifically mentions the “paleness” of the kings and princes in his dream. They represent death and the dying of his prospective love affair with the “lady in the meads.”
Themes of ‘Sonnet 116’
Within ‘Sonnet 116’ the speaker also deals with love and time, but in a much more optimistic way. Shakespeare was interested in elevating love above the ravages of time and change. In the ninth line, he refers to love as “not Time’s fool.” It is not dictated or controlled by the passage of time. It remains as strong in one moment as the next, a very different mindset from the knight in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’
To the speaker of ‘Sonnet 116’ love has a power that can never be altered or removed. It “bears…out even to the edge of doom.” Love is seen as an unalterable positive here. The speaker is happily controlled by it and so sure of its power that he states that “no man ever loved” if the words he spoke are wrong.
Rhyme and Rhythm in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’
In regards to the structure of these two poems, they are similar in some ways, but divergent in others. While composing ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ Keats chose to separate the poem into twelve stanzas that are divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a rhyme scheme of abcb, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza.
The second and fourth lines always rhyme, while the first and third do not. This gives the poem a recognizable rhyme without becoming too sing-song-like. A reader should also take note of the alternating indentions. There is unity in the rhymed and unrhymed lines in that they are lined up. This forces the reader’s eye back and forth through the text creating a swaying movement.
It is also important to keep in mind the metrical pattern at play in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’ Keats chose to structure the first three lines of each stanza in iambic tetrameter and the last line in iambic dimeter. Once again there is a pattern but not an overwhelming one.
Rhyme and Rhythm in ‘Sonnet 116’
In regards to the rhyme scheme of ‘Sonnet 116,’ Shakespeare followed what has come to be known as a “Shakespearean” pattern. This means that the fourteen lines contain a rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg. They are also made out of iambs, just like the verses of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’ But in the case of ‘Sonnet 116’ the lines contain five sets of two beats meaning it was written in iambic pentameter.
Shakespeare did not utilize vast alterations in indention as Keats did. Instead, the only notable change is in the final (and only) couplet. These lines are indented in further than the rest. This separates them and emphasizes the concluding remark made by the speaker.
It is also interesting to take note of the choice of narrator in these two-piece. Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ is spoken from a first-person perspective. The speaker has experienced the wonders of love and is conveying them directly to the reader. On the other hand ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is told from the perspective of a listener. This person is retelling the story of the knight and the lady.
He heard it from the knight’s own mouth as he lay in sorrow in the grass. This creates a separation from the true pain experienced by the knight. The speaker is only able to relay what he heard. He is unable to get into the knight’s head and truly shows the depth of his pain and confusion.
Within ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ John Keats makes use of flowery language and powerful metaphors to tell his story of a love gone wrong. This is in direct contrast to the way in which Shakespeare wrote ‘Sonnet 116.’ It is much more direct and to the point, containing little to no extraneous or imagistic phrases.
Language in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’
Concerning La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a reader should take note of the mood conveyed by the general storyline. The relationship between the knight and the “lady in the meads” is overly dramatic. It immediately calls to mind Arthurian legends and fairytales. This allows for the lady’s magical persona. It is unclear what exactly she is.
The knight tells of how she sings a “faery’s song” and resides in an “Elfin grot,” or a home related to elves or magic. The woman is also said to have the ability to “lull” the knight to sleep. His mind becomes filled with images of “pale kings and princes” they are all horrified to behold and all close to death. When the knight wakes up he is alone on the hill where the speaker found him.
The language that Keats uses throughout this piece, with phrases such as “So haggard and so woe-begone?” And “there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!” help to emphasize the outlandish nature of the story. One is immediately taken into this alternate world retold by the narrator. It is convincingly depicted through linguistic choices.
Other elements of this piece that are important to the overall mood are the pervading feeling of a dream-sequence. The entire narrative is relayed to the speaker by a knight who is still in the grass where he woke. The strangeness of the events might lead one to the conclusion that it never really happened at all. Keats uses the phrase “Hath thee in thrall!” towards the end of the knight’s dream. The consonance in this line acts as a shock to the knight who is immediately roused.
Language in ‘Sonnet 116’
In contrast to the opinion held by the knight in La Belle Dame Sans Merci,’ in ‘Sonnet 116,’ the speaker could not be more optimistic about love. Shakespeare’s use of language is also very different from Keats. He did not choose to engage in overly complicated metaphors. Instead, those he did use are very clear, even to a contemporary reader.
Of particular note is line seven— here Shakespeare’s speaker compares love to a star that helps to guide a “wandering bark” or ship. Love is the guiding light in his life that leads him out of the dangerous seas and back to land. Time is even more prominent in ‘Sonnet 116’ than in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’ Where it appears in the sonnet “Time” is capitalized. It is personified and given agency in the world as if it actively seeks to change “Love” (also capitalized) but is unable. The speaker states that “Time” is male and that “Love” does not bend to the “hours and weeks” set out by “Time.” These constructs mean nothing.
In conclusion, these two poems both reference love and the way it has over one who experiences it. That being said, they are polar opposites in their final conclusions on what love is and how much value it holds. Within Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ a reader is encouraged through the positive experiences of the narrator to look for love and know the same joy the speaker felt. After reading ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ though one might hold a more jaded opinion of what love is and be more aware of the chances of abandonment.