Essays and Criticism
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...
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Dying into Life: The First Hyperion and ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’
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...
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La Belle Dame sans Merci
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 imagination, for example, seizes upon the sedge that has withered from the lake and upon the absence of the birds’ song, and elaborates the pictorial connotations of these stark images into all barren and desolate autumnal scenes that ever were. And yet, one senses an insufficiency in these affective and image- making energies of the poem, for the overtones also drive the mind to ask questions of conceptual intent. What, one wonders, is the larger meaning couched within the absence of song? why a knightat- arms and an elfin grot? and what are the significances of the cold hill side and the pale warriors?
Nor are these probings of the mind without justification, since the poem contains within itself the power of compelling us...
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