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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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
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....
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