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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With its forlorn, heartbroken narrator suffering the pangs of embarrassment, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” appears to tell readers about the universal situation known as unrequited love. While love felt equally by two parties is a celebrated event in stories and song, unrequited love occurs when the love felt by one person is much stronger than that felt by the person who is loved. The root “requite” comes from “to repay,” which indicates a balance that one expects in a love relationship and the sense of unfairness when one person “pays” love out but is not paid back.
In the poem the knight’s disappointment would be less severe if he did not believe from the beginning of their affair that the fairy child loved him in equal measure. As it is, she appears to fall in love with the knight just as he is falling for her. The look she gives him in line 19 and her “sweet moan” in line 20 might be read as signs of her love, and the presents she gives him are further proof they are equally balanced in their feelings for one another. She even takes him back to her home, her “elfin grot,” and makes him feel comfortable. It would be natural for him to assume she is as interested as he is in continuing their budding romance when he awakes.
It is unclear whether the knight’s intense feeling when he finds his lady gone is caused primarily by the loss of the woman herself. It could be that he is suffering...
(The entire section is 929 words.)