La Belle Dame sans Merci Questions and Answers
by John Keats

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What is the central idea of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"?

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Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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It is important to note that poems are not essays. They do not require a single controlling idea or any ideas per se. While they can be grounded in abstraction, most poems are organized around narratives, perceptions or emotions rather than ideas.

"La Belle Dame sans Merci" is a narrative poem telling the story of a traveler encountering a pale, sickly, melancholy knight. When the traveler asks what the knight is doing wandering around in the remote countryside, the knight tells a story of having been seduced by a female fairy or elf. After a ride and extended foreplay, they have a (discretely worded) sexual encounter and while the knight is asleep, the woman leaves. Since then the knight has wandered mournfully around the area of their meeting.

One can read the poem romantically, seeing the knight as a victim, seduced by the beauty of the fairy. The central idea can then be seen as focusing on the longing for beauty being fatal and destructive but still leading to moments of ineffable joy for which the romantic knight or artist sacrifices everything.

One could also look at the poem more realistically. First, the knight blaming the woman for his unhappiness and having him "in her thrall" can be seen as silly. He willingly slept with her. She left. Rather than indulging in melodramatic moping, one could argue that he should get back to his knightly duties. Thus we could also argue that another central idea is that romantic delusions interfere with getting on with one's daily life and duties.

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"The Belle Dame sans Merci" means, in French, the beautiful lady without mercy (pity). The central idea of the poem is that beauty and our own illusions about it can deceive us.

The knight in the poem comes across a woman, saying she was "full beautiful--a faery's child." He thinks she loves him, but this is his subjective interpretation of events. She looks at him as if "she did love / and made sweet moan." She also, "in language strange" says she loved him, or so the knight wants to believe.

In fact, beguiled by her beauty, the garlands she makes for him and the honey and manna she gives him, the knight misinterprets the beautiful woman's intentions. She is not in love with him, but has lured him into her trap, so that she can hold him in "thrall" or captivity, like the other ghostly knights he sees.

Keats says here that beauty is a trap that can hold us in thrall.

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