Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The first three stanzas of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” pose the speaker’s questions to a melancholy knight who looks lonely, listless, and ill. The sedge, a grasslike plant that thrives in wetlands, has dried up, and the knight, as if in sympathy with this arid setting, appears depleted both physically and emotionally.
In stanza four, the knight begins to answer the speaker’s questions, reporting that he met a beautiful, fairylike lady in the meads (meadows). Enchanted by this beautiful figure, the knight describes her graceful movement, her alluring long hair, and her lively appearance, apparent in her wild eyes.
In stanza five, he makes a garland (a wreath of intertwined flowers) for her head and bracelets that enhance her natural perfume. She is responsive to his loving tribute, and her sweet moaning signals that she is falling in love with him. In stanza six, enraptured with his newfound love, the knight places her on his horse and follows her all day as she looks down as him and sings a fairy song, while in stanza seven she gathers and feeds him sweet roots and delectable foods to express her true love for him.
In stanza eight, the mood of the poem shifts back toward melancholy, when the knight relates how the woman took him to a grotto, a sort of magical space the knight associates with fairy creatures such as elves. In this setting, the delicate, fleeting nature of the lady’s feelings suddenly erupts with her tears,...
(The entire section is 1167 words.)
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The ballad consists of two parts of dialogue, each uninterrupted by the other and each uncouched by the normal story-telling mechanisms for identifying speakers (“I said,” “he said,” etc.). Because of this, the identity of the first speaker, whose part is completed in the first twelve lines, remains cryptic. Though he (or, it could equally be argued, she) reveals the identity of the other (the “knight-at-arms”), the first speaker says nothing, at least directly, about himself. He does, however, give plenty of information about the situation of the poem. The time is late autumn, the annual grasses having already “wither’d” and the birds having departed on their winter migration. The place, one can infer, is not always as forbidding as it seems to be now—its desolation is simply due to the time of year. There has been a “harvest,” but it has ended. There is latent life present around the two characters: “the squirrel’s granary is full.” Therefore, if the setting symbolizes the knight’s emotional desolation, one must understand it as a function of an individualized circumstance: of a very specific but not necessarily permanent condition. Come spring, after all, the cycle of the harvest will begin again. Yet, this seems little consolation to the knight the speaker describes. He is “alone and palely loitering,” “so haggard and so woebegone.” His pallor is described metaphorically in terms of a “lily” on...
(The entire section is 1282 words.)