La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Notes on La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

Narrative story in form of a ballad… Knight and Damsel in distress kind of idea.
Keats dug da French revolution– important to remember that.

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

Alone: Vulnerable, isolated
Palely: Keats suffered from TB– ironic. Purity or just dull?
Question asked, as though the reader is an observer of the situation
The stanza is dark and eerie and powerful. Gives a feeling of unease– suggests foreboding and evil to come.

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.

Autumn, things die, slow, shut down

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.

Idealistic Romantic description

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look'd at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

‘she looked at me as she did love’- she doesn’t say it– ambiguous– holding back, silent.
The bracelets and garland are trusty stuff that he made.

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."

The gifts she has for him are suspicious– sweet and sickly. Could be drugs (wild and dangerous)- echoes their relationship

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh'd fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

When she cries, it could make us feel sorry for her because she’s guilty about what she’s doing OR (and more likely) it could be emotional blackmail.
She’s got him right where she wants him

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream'd - Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill's side.

Latest dream: been done before– could happen again
The last line of each stanza is shorter– unexpected; don’t know what’s going to happen next.
It also disrupts the rhythm with the short line– echoes a kind of sinister feeling.

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!"

In this stanza, we learn there are other victims

I saw their starved lips in the gloom,
With horrid warning gaped 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 wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.

This last stanza is an echo of the first stanza and it answers the question asked at the start.

Pale + death semantic field

The title of the poem means ‘beautiful lady without merci’
-She represents women in general in Keats’ point of view.
-Also represents what he finds illusive about love

However, there are questions left unanswered in this poem– we don’t know what happens next– to him or her.
Also, is the knight in this poem dead or alive when he’s writing it?

The knight is scared of rejection and false promises, and the woman is in control.


La Belle Dame sans Merci - More Notes

"La Belle Dame sans Merci" or "The Beautiful Lady without Pity" is the title of an early fifteenth-century French poem by Alain Chartier which belongs to the tradition of courtly love. Keats appropriates this phrase for a ballad which has been generally read as the story of a seductive and treacherous woman who tempts men away from the real world and then leaves them, their dreams unfulfilled and their lives blighted. For all the beguiling simplicity of the surfaces of this literary ballad, it is one of the most difficult of Keats's poems to explain, and open to many interpretations. It has been alternately suggested, for example, that it is about the wasting power of sexual love and / or the poet's infatuation with his muse. This particular analysis will examine the `La Belle Dame sans Merci' as a poem about a femme fatale and offer a feminist interpretation of the ballad. A femme fatale or fatal woman conventionally tempts man with her beauty and ultimately causes his destruction. There are many such figures in traditional supernatural ballads concerned with a faery's seduction of a human; notable examples include Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer.

That the knight-at-arms in this poem has been enchanted, enthralled, is immediately suggested by his wandering in a desolate wasteland where the plant life has withered and no birds sing. He himself is in a decline; he is pale and the rose in his cheeks, like the sedge, is withering. In trying to explain his state to his questioner, he makes us highly suspicious of the lady whom he encountered. What is there in his description that makes the lady sound dangerous?

To start with, he identifies her as a supernatural being, a `faery's child' with `wild wild eyes' suggestive perhaps of madness. She speaks a strange language, and in her elfin grotto she lulls him to sleep. There may be a suggestion here that she is potentially treacherous since `lull' can denote an attempt to calm someone's fears or suspicions by deception. The lady's responsibility for his condition seems to be confirmed in the dream he has of the death of pale kings, princes, and warriors who claim 'La Belle Dame sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!' `And this is why I sojourn here' he tells his questioner, apparently referring back to this 'horrid warning' of the dream. He stays because he is in thrall to the beautiful lady without pity.

A haunting ominous effect is created through Keats's use of the formal features of the traditional ballad. Frequent repetition is one such feature; in the original oral ballad form this would have been an aid to memory as well as emphasising particular points when the poem was recited. What is the effect of repetitions of words, phrases, and lines in Keats's literary ballad? Repetition is also found in the alliterative and assonantal effects of such lines as `Her hair was long, her foot was light', `made sweet moan', and `wild wild eyes'. Also following the ballad manner, the words are deployed tersely. Why might Keats choose such language in striking contrast to his more usual luxuriant mode? Although he follows tradition in using a four-line stanza or quatrain rhyming abcb, he makes one notable adjustment. Normally a ballad line has about eight syllables with four stresses in the first and third lines and three in the second and fourth. Keats shortens the last line of each stanza: it has only two stresses and usually only four syllables. This creates the effect of the stanza being abruptly cut off, of something being absent or withheld. So exactly what is being withheld in this poem?

We are, in fact, given very little information about anything. We know nothing about the speaker who interrogates and describes the knight. We know very little about the lady, only what the knight tells us; we are offered no interpretation of his experience; indeed, the knight's story opens up more questions than it answers. What is the significance of this lady and why should she want to enthral the knight?

Let us turn back to the "belle dame" then, but, rather than focusing on what he tells us she does to him, let us consider what he says he does to her. The knight is hardly just a helpless victim. He courts her, and creates garlands and bracelets and belts that can be seen not only to decorate but also to bind and enclose her. He claims possession of her: `I set her on my pacing steed'. As soon as they reach her `elfin grot', we are given the perplexing and unexplained suggestion that she herself is now unhappy. 'she wept, and sigh'd full sore'. The lady has been defined as a cruel enchantress, but does she actually do anything that can be said to be cruel or enthralling? Does she even seduce him? If she speaks in `language strange', how can he be sure she said "I love thee true". It would seem that he translates what she says into what he wants to hear. Once we question his translation of her words we are also forced back to question the lines 'She looked at me as she did love, / And made sweet moan'. How do we read the ambiguous syntax here: does he mean she looked at him while she loved him or she looked at him as though she did love him?

A feminist critic might point to the many ambiguities, contradictions and lacunae in the text to offer a counter-reading in which it is the lady who is, in a sense, the victim. Such a reading would focus less on her actual identity, which we can know little about anyway, and more on the patriarchal order which defines and interprets her identity. Are then any binary oppositions established in the poem which might fit with this set of oppositions?

Who defines the lady as 'la belle dame 'sans merci', as the femme fatale in this ballad? Keats places the definers and interpreters firmly within the patriarchal world. It is the knight who tells the story, who describes the lady for us and his questioner. The knight and the kings, princes and warriors who appear in his dream, belong to the masculine world of strife and action, government and politics. All have been attracted to the feminine bower world of the lady and her "elfin grot"; they have luxuriated in the pleasures she has provided. They have succumbed not so much to the lady but to something within themselves which desires to withdraw from the masculine world of duties and responsibilities. The lady provides the knight with sweet foods and lulls him to sleep. Now we are trying to see things from her perspective, we become more aware of the extremely ambiguous nature of that word 'lulled'. It can indeed mean to calm someone's fears or suspicions by deception. It can also, however, more innocently mean to soothe with soft sounds and motions, as a mother might soothe a child to sleep. We can assume that the pale kings and warriors with `starved lips' have had a similar experiences to the knight. In the lady's world they regress in an almost infantile manner. Then, recognising that the power and stability of the patriarchal world depends on the rejection of this, urge to withdraw, the kings, warriors, and princes have placed the blame squarely upon the woman, defined her as the temptress who has the knight in thrall. And the knight seems to authorise this definition: `And this is why I sojourn here', he tells his questioner. Wandering in this barren landscape, he is neither in the masculine world of strife and action nor the feminine world of the bower. In succumbing to his desire to withdraw from the duties and responsibilities of the former into the luxurious pleasuress of the latter he has undermined the definitions and assigned roles of male and female. Now neither is open to him; he is in limbo. A reading such as given above would fit well with Keats's general ambivalence concerning romance and the bower. Would it further illuminate such figures as the serpent woman `Lamia' and the `Fair plumed Syren' Romance in `On sitting down to Read King Lean once again"?


La Belle Dame Sans Merci

O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither'd 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 look'd 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 sigh'd fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four. And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream'd - Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill's side.
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 gaped 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 wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.



© Keats' Kingdom 2004 - - All rights reserved.
Feel free to use any content here for study purposes, essays, reports etc.
But if you farm any content for use on other websites, I will know about it. Trust me.