La Belle Dame sans Merci

by John Keats
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What are the features of Romanticism in John Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"?

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John Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is often considered a prototypical poem of the Romantic movement. Its features both conform to and set a pattern for a certain type of Romantic lyric poem

In terms of form, the ballad structure was used by many of the Romantic poets....

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John Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is often considered a prototypical poem of the Romantic movement. Its features both conform to and set a pattern for a certain type of Romantic lyric poem

In terms of form, the ballad structure was used by many of the Romantic poets. In contrast with the more regular and formal heroic couplets favored by the Augustans, the ballad is more fluid and allows greater room for variation. It is also a popular form as opposed to one grounded in educated literature, and this sense of folk tradition was also prized by Romantic poets and critics. The vocabulary, with its mixture of simplicity and archaism and use of loose rather than periodic sentence structure, is also typically Romantic.

Another Romantic feature is the medievalism of the poem. Many Romantic poets admired the medieval period and wrote about knights and other elements from medieval romance. The supernatural and folkloric elements are also typical of Romanticism, including the presence of fairies. Another typically Romantic feature is the pastoral setting of the poem, with a natural landscape remote in place and time from the urban environments in which many readers lived.

In terms of emotional tone, the poem is also Romantic in its sense of melancholy. The knight is not only weeping over a lost love, but there is no sense of a possible positive resolution.

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Much of the Romantic movement was rooted in an obsession with a legendary past, and the remoteness it represented from the modern, rational world. Keats's "La Belle Dame sans Merci" is set in this mythical land. It re-creates both the atmosphere and the theme of the medieval ballad "True Thomas." In this we can see two seemingly contradictory trends of Romanticism: the effort to create a folk-like, purportedly unsophisticated type of art (as Wordsworth did in a different way from Keats and the others of the second generation of Romantics), but simultaneously the use of mannered, partly archaic language to produce an atmosphere of mystery and remoteness from ordinary life.

Romantic literature, both poetry and prose, often takes the form of an adult fairy tale, with supernatural elements as in children's stories, but grim, pessimistic, and even shocking themes. Keats describes the beautiful lady as a "faery's child" who sings a "faery's song." Note the archaic spelling, and the use of other phrases with an olden-time ring, such as "she made sweet moan," "she sigh'd full sore," and "I saw their starved lips in the gloam." This is the same darkling forest to which the lady is leading the knight that beckons Keats in the "Ode to a Nightingale." It is a primeval place, irrational and forbidding, but inviting at the same moment.

Much of Romanticism is pessimistic, viewing man's destiny in a quite different way from the previous era of optimistic enlightenment and reason. Keats's knight is an emblem of man alone, victimized by hostile surroundings. The obsession with love, also typical of the Romantics, is portrayed negatively here, as the knight is victimized by the lady—much as Keats saw himself victimized by the rejection of Fanny Brawne, the girl with whom he had become obsessed. It is the same negativity and destructive sexual force we see elsewhere in Romantic literature, in works as diverse as Byron's Don Juan, Shelley's play The Cenci, and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

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Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" has several elements of Romanticism. First, there is an element of fairy tales, as the narrator meets a fairy-like woman in the fields. His ride with her has the feel of a fairy tale, as it is atmospheric and dreamlike, and they travel by horse to an elf's grotto. The fairy tale becomes somewhat eerie and supernatural, which is another element of Romanticism, as the narrator falls asleep on the hillside and dreams of princes and princesses, who warn him about the fairy woman he has fallen in love with. The use of dreams and the experience of somewhat supernatural states are present in Romantic literature, as is the sense that nature is imbued with a mysterious element. The fairy woman herself seems to arise from nature, as she lives in the mead and finds wild roots and manna for the narrator. At the end of the poem, the narrator feels alienated and forlorn, another sentiment often expressed in Romantic literature. 

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Romantic poetry tends to show a strong appreciation for the power of nature on humans and focuses on the emotional impact of experiences.  It also tends to fondly recall the ideas of the past, appreciate the power of the human imagination, and respect innocence.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" draws on the Romantic idea the importance of the past.  Keats is using one of the oldest forms of poetry, the ballad, to tell the story of the knight and the lady.  The ballad opens with the description of the lonely knight -- evoking a somber sad mood as it describes the passing of the season into fall -- a stock metaphor for the middle to late stage of life.  Once he meets the beautiful lady, the mood and images of the poem become more positive with references to flowers and beauty.  Nature, and the love he feels for the lady seem to restore him spiritually and emotionally.

Once the knight is lulled to sleep he tells of his dream -- his imagaintion at work.  Unfortunately his dream is a nightmare of deathy pale men.  When he awakes, he is alone, exactly where he started.  The positive emotion of the experience is gone, leaving him with only the memory of the lady who came, but without mercy, left him. 

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