Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“La Belle Dame sans Merci” has been the subject of considerable critical attention. Bate remarks on the wide range of sources that contributed to the poem, to which may be added the strange folk ballad “Thomas Rhymer.” The beautiful lady is obviously a femme fatale, an archetypal figure originating in early myth and continuing to the present in the popular image of the vamp. Bate believes the central influence to be Edmund Spenser’s Duessa, who in The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) seduces the Red Cross Knight. Other models readily available to Keats of warriors brought low by the wiles of beautiful women are Samson and Antony.
The identification of a specific femme fatale appears less important, however, than relating the knight’s experience to the long tradition of a mortal entrammeled by a beautiful female who may possess supernatural powers. The reader is reminded of the plight of Odysseus’s mariners who are bewitched by Circe in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). They temporarily lose their human appearance. Keats’s knight fares much worse. He may be drained of his blood—he is “death-pale,” as are the kings, princes, and warriors of his dream—in which case he would be the zombie victim of a vampire. He is definitely drained of his will. The irony of a knight at arms being reduced to a slave is strong indeed. His “sojourn,” or rule, extends merely to the circumscribed area of...
(The entire section is 507 words.)
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