La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats is after the form of the lyrical ballad. Many well known poets of the romantic era used this form in their written works. This particular ballad has a meter and rhyme scheme that produces a flow that engages the reader. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is written in iambic tetrameter, which simply means that the stress falls on four words per line of this poem. The effect of this scheme is that it flows like a song, smoothly and with rhythm. Thus, it is called a lyrical ballad. The rhyme, rhythm, and tone are all designed to lure the reader in, just as the Knight in the poem was lured in by the beautiful fairy-woman. The tone and mood of La Belle Dame Sans Merci are also designed to help the readers to identify with John Keats’ feelings as he neared the end of his life. One could argue that the Knight in this poem is John Keats’ himself. Although there are some differences between Keats’ life and the Knight’s story, there are certainly plenty of similarities which would suggest that Keats uses the Knight as a speaker to proclaim to the world just what he feels as he neared his untimely death.


La Belle Dame Sans Merci Analysis

Stanza 1

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

With the opening stanza, the speaker sets up the scene and the subject of this poem. The speaker comes upon a Knight. The speaker knows that this man is a knight upon seeing him, but he quickly reveals that this knight is not behaving as one might expect a knight to behave. He does not seem brave and valiant. Rather, he is alone and “loitering”. He seems to be wandering about aimlessly. The speaker wonders why, and he asks. He also makes a remark about the time of year. He claims that “the sedge has withered from the lake, and no birds sing”. He is indicating that spring is over, and there is no lively singing or springtime beauty in the atmosphere. He wonders why the Knight would be wandering about, pale and lonely, during this time of the year. It is probably growing cold, as the birds have clearly flown south already. The speaker clearly finds it concerning that this Knight is sickly and alone, without shelter, at this time of the year.


Stanza 2

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.

With this stanza, the reader can grasp the full picture of what the Knight looks like. The speaker describes him as “alone”, “pale”, “haggard” and “woe-begone”. The setting is also described. The harvest is done. Therefore, the reader can imagine the bare, dry ground and the silence of nature after the birds have already flown south. Over all, this description gives La Belle Dame Sans Merci a very gloomy tone. The subject is clearly down-trodden, and nature itself seems stripped of all joy. The birds have ceased their singing and the squirrels have stored up enough food to go into hiding. Thus, the lonely knight is left utterly alone.


Stanza 3

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

In this stanza, the speaker informs the knight that he looks very ill. He tells him that his face is as pale as a lily, and that his face looks moist with sweat as if he had a fever. He tells him that all of his color is fading quickly from his cheeks. The speaker is apparently very concerned about the Knight’s health. He speaks to the knight to make sure he is aware of how ill he is. In the following stanza, the knight answers him.


Stanza 4

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.

Here, the speaker is now the knight as he gives answers to the concerns of the first speaker. He tells him of a lady that he met. He describes her long hair, and her light step. He also describes her eyes as “wild”. It is clear from this stanza, that the knight fell in love at the first sight of this lady he describes. He describes her as not quite human. He doesn’t refer to her as fully fairy, but he does call her a “faery’s child” which gives the reader the impression that she is at least half fairy.


Stanza 5

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

In this stanza, the knight describes his relationship with this lady. It appears that he won her heart. He made her a garland of flowers for her head. Then he made her bracelets from flowers. He also adorned her private parts with flowers. This is implied when he says that he put flowers on her “fragrant zone”. Then the Knight implies that he made love to this woman. He says that “she looked at [him] as she did love” and that she “made sweet moan”. This implies that the two were intimate with one another in this stanza.


Stanza 6

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.

This stanza can be read as an extension of the previous stanza, where the lady riding the Knights stallion is a metaphor for their continued sexual relations. On the other hand, it could be read literally. In this case, the Knight would have placed her on his horse, and watched her ride “all day long” while she sang. In either case, the Knight is so entirely absorbed with this woman that he sees and hears nothing else. He is devoted to her the entire day long.


Stanza 7

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

This stanza continues to describe the fairy-woman’s supernatural qualities. She feeds him sweet roots, wild honey, and manna. The sweet roots refer to her human qualities, but the manna and the wild honey are symbolic of her supernatural qualities. In the Jewish religion tells of the way that God fed the Israelite’s bread from heaven called manna. This same God promised the Israelites a land flowing with milk and honey. Thus, the fact that the fairy-woman was able to feed him bread from heaven, wild honey, and roots suggests that the fairy is part human, part supernatural.


Stanza 8

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.

The Knight continues to describe the fairy-woman’s qualities. He describes her cave, or “grot” as something elf-like in nature. Then, he gives her human characteristics once again when he says that “she wept and sighed full sore”. He does not explain why she cried, but he does imply that he wiped her tears away with his kisses. This occurrence between the Knight and the fairy-woman allows the reader to understand the depth of their relationship. Earlier in La Belle Dame Sans Merci, they clearly connected physically. Here, they connect emotionally as the Knight is there to wipe away her tears.


Stanza 9

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

With this stanza, the reader can begin to feel a little uncertain about this fairy-woman. The readers should question why she is lulling this Knight to sleep. In the previous stanza, she cried, and there was offered no reason for her tears. Now, she lulls him to sleep. The Knight has a dream. It is clearly a nightmare. For in his recollection of this dream, he cries out “Ah! Woe betide!” which suggests that this dream was woeful in nature. Then the Knight says that this was “the latest dream I ever dreamt” which suggests that it was the last dream that he would ever dream. He does not explain how he knows that this was the last dream he would ever have, but he seems so confident of it that the reader does not question. Suddenly, this poem has taken a turn for the worse. Something awful has happened, and the reader can begin to understand that the fairy-woman is at fault, but there are no specifics given just yet.


Stanza 10

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!’

At this point, the knight begins to describe the “pale kings and princes” that he saw in his dream. In this case, “pale” is a symbol for death. Since La Belle Dame Sans Merci has already introduced biblical symbols of the supernatural, it is not too far-fetched to conclude that the pale warriors and princes and kings are all after the likeness of the pale horse in the book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. The pale horse and rider of the Bible symbolize death and bring destruction. This poem continues to become more and more nightmarish as it continues. All of the pale kings, princes, and warriors cry out “La Belle Dame sans Merci”. This, of course, is the title of the poem. It is in French, and it translates to read “The Beautiful Woman without Mercy”. Suddenly, in the midst of his dream, the Knight becomes aware of what is happening to him. He has been seduced by a woman who would show him no mercy. Not only that, but he is one of many who have come to ruin at the hands of this fairy-woman.


Stanza 11

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.

In this stanza, the Knight comes to the full realization of what has happened to him. Every man that the fairy has ever seduced has died. He describes these dead men that were in his dream. They have “starved lips” and they looked at him “with horrid warning” but it was too late. The Knight had already been seduced, and as a consequence of his moment of pleasure, he now faces death. When he awoke from his dream, he found himself “on the cold hill’s side” with no fairy-woman in sight. From the original description of the Knight, the readers can conclude that he is in fact dying.


Stanza 12

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

In the final stanza of this poem, the Knight finally answers the original question of the first speaker. He claims that because of being seduced by the fairy-woman, he know sojourns “alone and palely loitering” in his near death state. He ends La Belle Dame Sans Merci with the line with which the first stanza ends. He repeats the first speaker’s observation that “the sedge is withered from the lake, and no birds sing”. The readers are left to grieve the loss of the Knight. He dies alone with no one to comfort him in his last moments. Not even the birds are there to sing a song to offer comfort in his death. He is utterly alone in his last moments, and all because he was seduced by that beautiful fairy-woman without mercy.


John Keats and La Belle Dame Sans Merci Historical Background

The Speaker wrote La Belle Dame Sans Merci when he was dying from tuberculosis. He had already seen his mother and brother die from this terrible disease before he contracted it himself. It is likely that the knowledge of his own imminent death inspired this poem. While Keats’ mother died in 1810, Keats contracted the same disease in 1819. He had seen the effect that the disease had on his mother and his brother, and he knew what was to come for himself. Even more tragic than his contraction of tuberculosis is that he was newly engaged and desperately in love. He claimed that he could bear to die, but he could not bear to leave his love. It is not difficult to make a connection between this poem and Keats’ life. Although he does not appear to view his real life love as the cause of his death, there still remain striking parallels. Both the Knight in this poem and John Keats himself fell in love shortly before death. Both were unable to enjoy love for very long before death became imminent (John Keats). Sadly, John Keats died at the young age of twenty five. Having studied some medicine, Keats knew his symptoms well enough to know that his time was limited. Just as Keats had found love, and just as his poetry was beginning to be noticed, he faced his own early death. Being fully aware of his symptoms and the result of his disease (John Keats), Keats also faced depression. He saw that his life was to end just as it was beginning. He left behind a fiancee whom he desperately loved, and a plethora of poems that would eventually become some of the most renowned and beloved poems of all time.

Works Cited

  • “John Keats.” A&E Networks Television, 2016. Web. 18 May 2016.

To view the first analytical interpretation of this poem, please click ‘Previous’ or page 1.

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