The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a remarkably evocative poem attaining subtle effects of mood and music in the short space of forty-eight lines. The twelve stanzas consist of three tetrameter lines followed by a concluding line of only two stresses. The title is taken from a medieval French poem by Alain Chartier in which the speaker is mourning his dead mistress. Other than the title, John Keats’s poem has nothing in common with Chartier’s.
The poem opens with an unnamed speaker asking a knight at arms what ails him, since he is all alone, pale, and wandering about aimlessly in a barren, desolate landscape. For the first twelve lines the speaker pointedly and persistently questions the knight, describes the landscape, and comments on the knight’s physical appearance in a brutally frank and tactless manner. The melancholy tone is created immediately by the speaker’s opening words: “O what can ail thee, . . .// The sedge has wither’d from the lake/ And no birds sing.”
Beginning with stanza 4 and continuing to the end, the knight tells his strange story, one unlike any other in English poetry. In the flowering fields he met a young woman of supernal beauty, “a fairy’s child” who in reality is a femme fatale. The knight came immediately under her spell, perhaps hypnotized by her powerful eyes, losing awareness of all but her. Although he could not understand her strange tongue, the two communicated in other ways. Reminiscent...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
This poem draws on a long tradition for much of its power and many of its effects. Ballads are divided into two categories: folk/popular and literary. Folk ballads appear early in a country’s literature. They are anonymous and originate as songs. Literary ballads, on the other hand, come only after a literary tradition has been well established, and although they are modeled on a primitive poetic form, they are usually sophisticated compositions in their use of rhetorical devices to create subtle effects. Both categories of ballad share certain characteristics, many of which are evident in Keats’s poem. As short narratives rarely exceeding a hundred lines, ballads relate a single event with no background or explanation. The language is simple to the point of starkness, and there is much use of dialogue, refrains, and repetition. Violent and supernatural occurrences are commonplace, and moral commentary is noticeably absent.
Although this poem was only a single evening’s work (April 21, 1819), its stanzas, as Walter Jackson Bate has written in John Keats (1963), “have haunted readers and poets for a century and a half.” Keats had become accustomed to writing iambic pentameter, so the meter here was an experiment. Much of the haunting effect that lingers in the mind long after the poem has been read comes from the stanza form of three four-stressed lines followed by a line of two stresses. The attenuated finality strikes a mournful chord....
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John Keats is considered one of the central figures in the English romantic movement. Romanticism was a philosophical and artistic ideal that spread across Western civilization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It sprang from the ideas of French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Rousseau, a major figure in the Enlightenment, wrote eloquently and convincingly about theories of social equality. At the time, most governments were arranged in a system that divided the opportunities for social success available to commoners from those available to people considered to be of noble birth. Rousseau’s writings presented society as a corruption of humanity’s natural state. His theory that every citizen participates in society willingly, as part of an implied “social contract,” created a cult of individual freedom that celebrated the human spirit and led to the French Revolution in 1789. The Revolution’s ten-year struggle to overthrow the monarchy and the nobles was one of the most direct influences on the romantic movement.
Goethe was trained as a lawyer, but he became a celebrated poet, playwright, and novelist. In 1775 he, along with German philosopher Johann Gottfriend von Herder and historian Justus Möser, published a collection of essays called Of German Art and Style. Their theories about art’s relation to traditional folktales and about the place of love...
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“La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a ballad, an old form of verse adapted for singing or recitation. The ballad form originated in the days when most poetry was memorized rather than written, and the typical subject matter of the ballad reflects a folk sensibility. Ballads are usually narrative, or storytelling, poems, and early ballads often addressed themes important to common people: love, courage, the mysterious, and the supernatural. Though the ballad is generally rich in musical qualities such as rhythm and repetition, it often portrays both characters and events in highly dramatic but simplistic terms.
Additional characteristics of the typical ballad include a set rhyme scheme and alternating line lengths. Formally, the ballad stanza is a quatrain, or a group of four lines, in which the first and third lines contain four stressed syllables while the second and fourth lines contain three stressed syllables. “La Belle Dame sans Merci” consists of twelve such stanzas, with a slight variation: the last line of each stanza contains only two stressed syllables, creating a dramatic suspension between stanzas. Aside from this, the quatrains exhibit the typical ballad stanza pattern of rhyme: the second and fourth lines are set in perfect end rhyme with one another, giving the poem the musical sound most ballads feature.
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Compare and Contrast
1819: America is a small, new country with only twenty-two states. The nation battled Great Britain for its freedom in the American Revolution from 1776 to 1783, and fought them again for maritime rights in the War of 1812, which lasted until 1815.
Today: America is an economic superpower, and Great Britain is one of its closest allies.
1819: The entire population of England is around 21 million, leaving much open, unpopulated land.
Today: The population of England is around 46 million. With about 917 people per square mile, it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
1819: England has the world’s greatest navy, making it one of the most powerful countries in the world.
Today: The Royal Navy is thirteenth largest fleet in the world and second largest in Europe (after Greece).
1819: Ordinary people rely on poetry to convey physical experiences.
Today: Technological advances in photography, sound recording, and computer-generated virtual reality make it possible to give people experiences without using words.
1819: Vast areas of the globe, such as the two poles, have not yet been explored.
Today: Any areas not currently populated are monitored from the ground and from space.
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Topics for Further Study
Find a contemporary song you think has the same message as Keats’s poem. Compare the song with the poem to comment on the ways people of the nineteenth century and the twentyfirst century view love.
Research why it is significant that Keats wrote the title of his poem in French. Based on your research, do you think the French title has the same significance now that it would have had when Keats were living? Why or why not?
Write a sequel to this poem, explaining what will happen when the spring comes again. Will the lover return to the knight? If not, will he continue waiting, or will his attention fade as the seasons change?
Keats used a supernatural setting to explain his idea of romance. Find a folk story from a non- European culture that involves lovers in a supernatural setting and explain what the supernatural elements tell you about each culture.
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A reading of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is available on a compact disc called Conversation Pieces, released in 2001 by Folkways Records. This recording was originally released in 1964 in LP format by Folkways.
A compact disc named Songs, released in 2001 on the Hyperion label, has a version of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” set to music and sung by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.
Lexington Records released a recording of Theodore Marcuse reading “La Belle Dame sans Merci” along with others by the same author on an LP called The Poetry of Keats and Shelley, produced in 1950.
The 1996 two-cassette set The Caedmon Collection of English Poetry features various poetic masterpieces, including “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” read by famous actors such as Sir John Gielgud, Richard Burton, James Mason, and Boris Karloff.
Sir Ralph Richardson reads “La Belle Dame sans Merci” on a 1996 Caedmon audiocassette release called The Poetry of Keats.
HighBridge Co. of St. Paul, Minnesota, includes “La Belle Dame sans Merci” on John Keats, Poet, a reading of Keats’s poems by Douglas Hodge. It was released on audiocassette in 1996 as part of the HighBridge Classics series.
Listen Library Inc. included “La Belle Dame sans Merci” on its 1989 audiocassette The Essential Keats. Poems for this recording were selected and read by poet Philip Levine....
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What Do I Read Next?
All of Keats’s poetry is available in one volume entitled The Complete Poems. This book is edited by John Barnard and was published in 1977 by Penguin. The Modern Library also has a volume entitled The Complete Poems of John Keats, published in 1994, but it uses a revised version of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” that almost no other publisher uses.
Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe was published the same year as “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” It is a tale of knights and sorcery set in the Middle Ages and began a trend in historical fiction that has come to characterize the romantic movement.
Since Keats presents his knight as turning pale and drawn, literally dying of lovesickness, students might want to read Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking 1978 essay “Illness as Metaphor.” It was republished in 2001 by Picador USA in one volume with the sequel essay, “AIDS and Its Metaphors.”
Keats’s own death at the young age of twentysix is the subject of John Evangelist Walsh’s 1999 book Darkling I Listen: The Last Days and Death of John Keats, published by St. Martin’s Press.
Andrew Motion’s acclaimed biography Keats provides one of the most thorough portraits of the poet available. It is available in a 1999 paperback edition from the University of Chicago Press.
Keats’s name is almost always mentioned along with that of his friend and fellow romantic poet Percy Bysshe...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Caine, T. Hall, “That Keats Was Maturing,” in Tinsley’s Magazine, Vol. XXI, August 1882, pp. 197–200.
de Reyes, Mary, “John Keats,” in Poetry Review, Vol. III, No. 2, August 1913, pp. 72–82.
Ward, Aileen, John Keats: The Making of a Poet, The Viking Press, 1963, p. 273.
Bostetter, Edward E., Romantic Ventriloquists: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, University of Washington Press, 1975. The method used here is primarily biographical with relationships drawn between the poet’s life and the poem. Bostetter shows how Keats’s mistress, Fanny Brawne, fit the love pattern he describes in this poem.
Evert, Walter H., Aesthetic and Myth in the Poetry of Keats, Princeton University Press, 1965. Evert analyzes the attempts of critics to determine the “source,” or inspiration, of this poem. Examining different theories, he finds substantial evidence that the theme of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” was drawn from a sub-theme in his earlier work, Endymion.
Grant, John E., “Discovering ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci,’” in Approaches to Teaching Keats’s Poetry, edited by Walter H. Evert and Jack W. Rhodes, Modern Language Association of America, 1991, pp. 45–50. This brief analysis was written primarily to help instructors make the poem more understandable for students.
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. Includes a very shrewd and suggestive interpretation of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” that looks carefully at what Keats himself said about it as well as comparing it with other Keats poems.
Gittings, Robert. John Keats. London: Heinemann, 1968. Perceptively describes the autobiographical sources of the poem.
Kelly, Theresa M. “Poetics and the Politics of Reception: Keats’s ’La Belle Dame sans Merci.’” In John Keats, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom. Updated ed. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. Reads the poem as a response to the critical reception of Keats’s earlier works, which shaped his attitude toward and use of poetic conventions.
Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. New York: Viking Press, 1963. Complements but also contrasts with Gittings’s interpretation of the poem as Keats’s personal statement.
Wells, Marion A. The Secret Wound: Love-Melancholy and Early Modern Romance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007. Extended study of the medieval tradition to which Keats’s poem responds. Discusses the poem itself in the work’s conclusion.
Whale, John. John...
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