One of the most notable things about John Keats’s ballad “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is the sly way it presents one of the key issues of romantic philosophy, that of objective versus subjective reality. The quick, simple understanding—the encyclopedia version—is that romantic poets favor subjectivism, particularly those who, like Keats, wrote at the height of the romantic period and helped define the movement, but also those aligned with romanticism to this day. Their world view is generally characterized as a writer focusing on his or her own experience, with no regard for the variety of perspectives that can occur when other points of view are considered.
The central figure in “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a medieval knight-at-arms who has suffered one of the worst relationship scenarios imaginable. As he explains it, he met a woman and they fell in love, leading to a brief, passionate romance. After he fell asleep, the unreality of the situation assaulted him in two ways. First, he was visited in his dream by figures who warned him the lady was insincere in her love, and then their warning proved true when he woke up and found her gone.
All of these events, the disappearing lover and the warning he received about her, could just be in the knight’s mind. Keats, however, establishes a level of objective reality in the poem by opening it with a second character who meets the knight in the woods and talks with him. It is the interplay between reality and fantasy, and the poem’s refusal to clearly define what is and is not real, that makes this one of Keats’s most compelling works.
Another poet might have used the uncertain existence of the phantom maiden herself as a test case for reality. There is, after all, no proof she ever existed anywhere but in the knight’s imagination, while at the same time there is much evidence that she did not. To begin, she appears to the knight in the wilderness, where no one else could experience her. He describes her as a “faery’s child,” giving her, at the very least, mythical antecedents. The romance that transpires between them is too perfect too quickly to be thought of as the type of relationship that might develop in the “real” world. But, this poem does not really make much of the unreal aspects surrounding the woman and her sudden appearance and disappearance; they are taken as a given, as the natural course of the mysterious ways of love. It is a fairly standard conceit in romanticism to identify love as a part of the internal self, as more a matter of one person’s mind than as a meeting of two. In terms of human relationships, this poem makes no effort to focus on more than one person’s perspective, and so the mysterious nature of the faery child is not very telling. She might be a figment of the main character’s imagination, or she might just be the catalyst that inspires it, but the reader can presume from the tone and from Keats’s other works that this is always the case when one is in love.
The basic story of the poem could easily have been conveyed by the knight narrating his experience directly to the reading audience, if all that Keats were trying to do was to capture the dizzy high and unexpected plummet that can happen when one is in love. Instead, he adds another character, one whose worldly existence is never questioned. This second character defines the reality that surrounds the knight, giving readers another philosophical level against which to compare the love relationship.
Readers are not given any details about who is speaking in the first three stanzas of “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and so this speaker can hardly be thought of as a character in the poem. While undeveloped, this stranger adds several vital elements to the poem. First, having another person in the real world offers the poet an opportunity to give readers a visual description of the knight. This is important because it gives details about the knight’s state of mind that would not otherwise come out. The knight’s attitude is more optimistic, or at least defiant, than his looks reveal: he himself is not aware of...
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With an inimitable magic Keats depicts another cheated soul in “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Flight into visionary experience and back again is expressed by means of the well-known motif (to be used once more in Lamia) of a mortal’s ruinous love for a supernatural lady: a knight encounters and falls in love with a beautiful “fairy’s child”, dreams in her “elfin grot” of “pale kings, and princes” and “Pale warriors”, and wastes away “On the cold hill’s side.” The poet may have dashed off this masterpiece of the literary-ballad genre straight into the journal-letter on 21 April 1819, which gives us the version usually preferred to the one printed in Hunt’s Indicator in May 1820. (The latter, among other things, substituted “wretched wight” for the “knight at arms” of the first line, and in stanza eight omitted “kisses four,” the expression Keats singled out for the banter quoted in chapter 2.) Whether Keats was most inspired by Spenser, the popular ballad “Thomas Rhymer,” Dante, vampire literature, Celtic lore, Wordsworth and Coleridge, his own earlier poems, a painting by William Hilton, or his relationship with Fanny Brawne is less important than the skill with which he conjures the most diverse elements into a unified impression of spellbinding mystery.
The poem comprises three concentric dream circles. The outer frame (dream 1) consists of a weird encounter between the poem’s first speaker and a haggard knight on whose cheek the rose is fading, while the knight’s ride through the mead and the kisses in the grotto form an inner frame (dream 2) to the dream about the pale kings with the starved lips (dream 3). The aura of a transcendental experience which pervades the meeting with the fairy lady (dream 2) is undermined by the knight’s dream of the death-pale kings and warriors (dream 3) with its suggestion of mortality and betrayal. This dream within the knight’s dream in the dream poem—this third dream of the starved lips and horrid warning—comes true when the knight awakes on the cold hillside pale and enthralled as the dream prophesied. The realization of this dream of deathly pallor and starvation has moved in the opposite direction from Endymion’s and Madeline’s dreams, where fulfillment signified a shift from the actual to some ecstatic transcendental realm. Within the overall dream frame of the first speaker’s words to the fantastic knight-at-arms and the latter’s reply, the transition from the dream within a dream in the supermortal elfin world to the world of the withering sedge (from dream 3 to dream 1) has a touch of harsh reality. On the other hand the entry into, journey through, and sojourn in the elfin world itself remains pure dream throughout (dream 2). This dream comprises the poem’s six central stanzas from the knight’s encounter with the fairy’s child till she lulls him to sleep; and the encroaching domination of the fairy world is reflected in the transfer of the initiative from the knight’s “I” in stanzas four to six to the lady’s “she” in stanzas seven to nine. The lady’s ambiguity (does “as she did love” in stanza five mean that her love is true or sham? is she a flirtatious seductress or a caressing mother-figure?) and eccentricity (her sidelong bending, unusual food, strange language, and sore sighing), though explicable in a supernatural and perhaps even a natural context, yet create an atmosphere of dreamlike vagueness. The knight has evidently never entered a grotto and never left “the cold hill’s side,” for here, we are told, he dreams “The latest dream”, so that instead of awaking in the grot he finds himself in the setting of...
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It would be difficult in any reading of Keats’ ballad not to be enthralled by the haunting power of its rhythm, by its delicate intermingling of the fragile and the grotesque, the tender and the weird, and by the perfect economy with which these ef- fects are achieved. Snared by the sensuous workings of the poem, one is greatly tempted to evaluate it entirely as a poem whose function is not the expression of human values, but whose end is attained when it fulfills its own stylistic requirements. Nevertheless, out of the dim sense of mystery and incompleteness that its artistry arouses there rise not only richly suggestive overtones, but also dark hints of a meaning that might be available to us could we penetrate its mystery. The...
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