Romantic literature, such as La Belle Dame Sans Merci, was a literary movement that had arisen to counter the theories of the Age of Enlightenment – to bring back imagination, beauty, and art to a culture that had become science-based, theoretical, and realist. Romantic writers saw the violence of the French Revolution as proof of the failure of science and reason, and the suffocation of human spirit.
Most of John Keats’ prolific works were written in 1819, shortly after he met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, and contracted a mortal disease. His works focus on a return to beauty: Greek myth, fairies, idealism, nature, and individualism are all prominent themes in not just Keats’ work, but of Romantic literature as a whole.
Summary of La Belle Dame Sans Merci
La Belle Dame Sans Merci was written in the summer of 1819, in Wentworth Palace, the home of his friend Charles Armitage Brown. At this point, Keats was already aware that he would die, likely from tuberculosis, which had killed his brother earlier on in his life. Their neighbours at Wentworth Palace were Fanny Brawne and her mother, and because they lived in the other half of Wentworth Palace, they saw each other daily. After a while, Keats fell in love with Fanny Brawne, though being poor, he could not marry her.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci is Keats’ life and emotions set into verse. It is a story of unrequited love, illness, and the impossibility of being with whom one cares for when they are from different social classes.
Although La Belle Dame Sans Merci is quoted in full below, you can also read the poem here at Poetry Foundation.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci Analysis
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.
The first three stanzas introduce the character of the Unidentified Speaker, and the knight. The Unidentified Speaker comes across the knight wandering around in the dead of winter – the sedge has withered from the lake / and no birds sing. – in a barren, bleak landscape. The cold has chased away the birds, and yet the Unidentified Speaker notices that the Knight is suffering from a fever. During the summer of 1818, Keats’ younger brother Tom succumbed to tuberculosis. In the very same year, Keats began exhibiting symptoms of the disease, and thus impending death was heavy on his mind.
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.
In Stanzas 4-9, the Knight responds to the Unidentified Speaker, telling him how he met a lady in the meadows – ‘full beautiful, a faery’s child‘. It is important to point out the traditional form of this poem: Keats wrote this in the style of a ballad, an outdated form of poetry that capitalizes on simple language and imagery to bring across its story. By utilizing the ballad form, it lends the poem an air of timelessness, and of an almost novelistic approach to imagery. Even the story itself is evocative of the ballad tradition. Ballads were used as entertainment, and their length was supposed to keep listeners engaged, as the ballad was a form of oral poetry.
Here, Keats’ language sweetens. The first three stanzas of La Belle Dame Sans Merci were bitter and devoid of emotion, but the introduction of the Lady in the Meads produces softness in the language of the Knight. He reminisces on the Lady’s beauty and on her apparent innocence – her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild – and on her otherworldliness, as well.
The reference to ‘language strange’ is yet another evidence of the Lady’s unnatural lineage.
The Knight talks about his sweet memories of the Lady: feeding each other, making the Lady presents, travelling with her, and being together.
With the introduction of the eight stanza, the Lady weeps for she knows that they cannot be together – she is a fairy, and he is a mortal – and lulls him to a sleep out of which he does not immediately wake. Scholars are divided on the precise motives of the Lady: while classes of scholars believe that the Lady’s weeping in the Elfin grot does bring up the ideas of undivided love, there are several scholars who believe otherwise. For the purposes of this analysis, I would say that it is the latter: the Lady understands that they cannot be together, and chooses to leave him to sleep.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee 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.
In his dream, the Knight sees pale people – kings, princes, and warriors – who tell him that he has been enthralled by the Woman without Merci (La Belle Dame Sans Merci). The Knight wakes up from the nightmare alone, on the cold hill side. He tells the Unidentified Speaker that that is why he stays there: wandering, looking for the Lady in the Meads.
Although the language used is simple, Keats manages to create two parallel universes: the real world, where the Knight is found alone, and palely loitering, is dark and dismal and wintery. The other world, where the Lady lives, seems exotic and beautiful, with such glorious foods as honey wild and manna-dew. The nightmarish imagery that exists between the worlds can be taken to be part and parcel of the Lady’s world, as it is she who whisks young men away – willing or unwilling – to their doom. The end of the stanza leaves the fate of the Knight ambiguous.