La Belle Dame sans Merci

by John Keats

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Subjective Reality

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One of the most notable things about John Keats’s ballad “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is the sly way it presents one of the key issues of romantic philosophy, that of objective versus subjective reality. The quick, simple understanding—the encyclopedia version—is that romantic poets favor subjectivism, particularly those who, like Keats, wrote at the height of the romantic period and helped define the movement, but also those aligned with romanticism to this day. Their world view is generally characterized as a writer focusing on his or her own experience, with no regard for the variety of perspectives that can occur when other points of view are considered.

The central figure in “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a medieval knight-at-arms who has suffered one of the worst relationship scenarios imaginable. As he explains it, he met a woman and they fell in love, leading to a brief, passionate romance. After he fell asleep, the unreality of the situation assaulted him in two ways. First, he was visited in his dream by figures who warned him the lady was insincere in her love, and then their warning proved true when he woke up and found her gone.

All of these events, the disappearing lover and the warning he received about her, could just be in the knight’s mind. Keats, however, establishes a level of objective reality in the poem by opening it with a second character who meets the knight in the woods and talks with him. It is the interplay between reality and fantasy, and the poem’s refusal to clearly define what is and is not real, that makes this one of Keats’s most compelling works.

Another poet might have used the uncertain existence of the phantom maiden herself as a test case for reality. There is, after all, no proof she ever existed anywhere but in the knight’s imagination, while at the same time there is much evidence that she did not. To begin, she appears to the knight in the wilderness, where no one else could experience her. He describes her as a “faery’s child,” giving her, at the very least, mythical antecedents. The romance that transpires between them is too perfect too quickly to be thought of as the type of relationship that might develop in the “real” world. But, this poem does not really make much of the unreal aspects surrounding the woman and her sudden appearance and disappearance; they are taken as a given, as the natural course of the mysterious ways of love. It is a fairly standard conceit in romanticism to identify love as a part of the internal self, as more a matter of one person’s mind than as a meeting of two. In terms of human relationships, this poem makes no effort to focus on more than one person’s perspective, and so the mysterious nature of the faery child is not very telling. She might be a figment of the main character’s imagination, or she might just be the catalyst that inspires it, but the reader can presume from the tone and from Keats’s other works that this is always the case when one is in love.

The basic story of the poem could easily have been conveyed by the knight narrating his experience directly to the reading audience, if all that Keats were trying to do was to capture the dizzy high and unexpected plummet that can happen when one is in love. Instead, he adds another character, one whose worldly existence is never questioned. This second character defines the reality that surrounds the knight, giving readers another philosophical level...

(This entire section contains 1690 words.)

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against which to compare the love relationship.

Readers are not given any details about who is speaking in the first three stanzas of “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” and so this speaker can hardly be thought of as a character in the poem. While undeveloped, this stranger adds several vital elements to the poem. First, having another person in the real world offers the poet an opportunity to give readers a visual description of the knight. This is important because it gives details about the knight’s state of mind that would not otherwise come out. The knight’s attitude is more optimistic, or at least defiant, than his looks reveal: he himself is not aware of the toll that his ordeal has taken on him. In another type of poem, it might be possible for the knight to tell readers what he looks like without even being aware of how worn out he is. There are ways for a writer to have a character think about his own appearance, by seeing his reflection or by feeling his face with his hands. But in this case, having the knight take time from his brokenhearted misery to think about his own looks would have toned down the intensity of his love. His role in the story is to concentrate on his lover, not himself. While it is important for the poem to show what the knight looks like, that description has to come from someone who is not as deeply immersed in the situation as the knight is; therefore, the stranger is necessary.

The stranger’s objectivity is also important for letting readers know just how odd the knight’s behavior is. As is always the case in issues of subjectivity and objectivity, there is no way of knowing, from just one point of view, if the events are mundane, shocking, or just as they should be. If the knight’s perspective were the only one given in the poem, readers could come away from it thinking that the quick romance was sad, unfortunate, but in some respect normal. Keats starts the poem with someone expressing shock at the knight’s pale complexion and at the fact that he is loitering around the empty forest. The knight can express the agony of love, but he by himself could not put this agony into a social context without the presence of another person.

In addition to the knight’s subjective view of his situation and the objective perspective the stranger gives to the same situation, the poem also provides several other elements to blur the line between internal and external reality. One seldom noted element is that the poem takes for granted a relationship between mental and physical wellbeing. The knight suffers in romance, and as a result, he is dying. His emotional turmoil leaves him pale and sweating, the color draining from his face. The images of dying nature that surround him can be accounted for easily enough if one believes that, in his misery, he would choose to pass his time in a miserable setting. Even though psychologists believe that mental states affect one’s health, the relationship between the two is not generally considered as direct as Keats presents it. According to biographer Aileen Ward, Keats and his contemporaries believed “that emotional agitation, especially that of an unhappy love, could bring on consumption,” or tuberculosis, which was the disease Keats had, and the one from which the knight seems to be suffering. The poem’s presumption of a jump from the emotional to the physical world shows that, for Keats, the boundaries between the two were not as fixed as readers think of them today.

One final way that Keats blurs the line between subjectivity and objectivity is the appearance, in stanza 10, of the pale images who speak the poem’s title to the knight. There can scarcely be any question about whether they exist in the outside world or only in the knight’s mind: they appear in a dream, they appear in a crowd (the way kings, princes, and warriors never do), and they are even in the faded colors of a dream. There is no sign of them in the woods, only in the knight’s mind. Keats complicates the question of existence by having them interact with the outside world in a way that goes past the range of the knight’s subconsciousness.

To understand the significance of the ghostly figures, one must assume that the faery-child was in fact real and not just a figure of the knight’s imagination. This is a more substantial interpretation than assuming that one fantasy is warning the knight against another fantasy. If the knight had in fact met a girl in the woods and shared a quick romance with her, then the figures in his dream could just be interpreted as his subconscious warning him, presumably because it had picked up some negative sign from her that his conscious mind had not noticed. That would only explain the fact that she would eventually be bad for him. In the poem, though, they are warning him she will abandon him at the same time she is abandoning him in real life. Dreams sometimes are thought to have the ability to predict reality, but granting them the ability to know what is going on in the outside world while the dreamer is dreaming raises a whole new question about where the mental world leaves off and the physical world begins.

Romantic poets are famous for describing the world as a subjective experience, one in which the important things happen in the human heart. There is certainly plenty of that in “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” with the knight-in-arms either creating a fantasy love affair or not, creating his own tuberculosis within his mind, and then warning himself about the dangers of going beyond his own mind by entering into a relationship with another person. There is also a strong representation of the objective world, in the unnamed stranger who encounters the knight in the woods. The poem provides no clear-cut answers about how the world of emotion affects or is affected by the physical world, but it does raise substantive questions that cannot be easily ignored.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2003. Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature at Oakton Community College.

Dying into Life: The First Hyperion and ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’

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With an inimitable magic Keats depicts another cheated soul in “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Flight into visionary experience and back again is expressed by means of the well-known motif (to be used once more in Lamia) of a mortal’s ruinous love for a supernatural lady: a knight encounters and falls in love with a beautiful “fairy’s child”, dreams in her “elfin grot” of “pale kings, and princes” and “Pale warriors”, and wastes away “On the cold hill’s side.” The poet may have dashed off this masterpiece of the literary-ballad genre straight into the journal-letter on 21 April 1819, which gives us the version usually preferred to the one printed in Hunt’s Indicator in May 1820. (The latter, among other things, substituted “wretched wight” for the “knight at arms” of the first line, and in stanza eight omitted “kisses four,” the expression Keats singled out for the banter quoted in chapter 2.) Whether Keats was most inspired by Spenser, the popular ballad “Thomas Rhymer,” Dante, vampire literature, Celtic lore, Wordsworth and Coleridge, his own earlier poems, a painting by William Hilton, or his relationship with Fanny Brawne is less important than the skill with which he conjures the most diverse elements into a unified impression of spellbinding mystery.

The poem comprises three concentric dream circles. The outer frame (dream 1) consists of a weird encounter between the poem’s first speaker and a haggard knight on whose cheek the rose is fading, while the knight’s ride through the mead and the kisses in the grotto form an inner frame (dream 2) to the dream about the pale kings with the starved lips (dream 3). The aura of a transcendental experience which pervades the meeting with the fairy lady (dream 2) is undermined by the knight’s dream of the death-pale kings and warriors (dream 3) with its suggestion of mortality and betrayal. This dream within the knight’s dream in the dream poem—this third dream of the starved lips and horrid warning—comes true when the knight awakes on the cold hillside pale and enthralled as the dream prophesied. The realization of this dream of deathly pallor and starvation has moved in the opposite direction from Endymion’s and Madeline’s dreams, where fulfillment signified a shift from the actual to some ecstatic transcendental realm. Within the overall dream frame of the first speaker’s words to the fantastic knight-at-arms and the latter’s reply, the transition from the dream within a dream in the supermortal elfin world to the world of the withering sedge (from dream 3 to dream 1) has a touch of harsh reality. On the other hand the entry into, journey through, and sojourn in the elfin world itself remains pure dream throughout (dream 2). This dream comprises the poem’s six central stanzas from the knight’s encounter with the fairy’s child till she lulls him to sleep; and the encroaching domination of the fairy world is reflected in the transfer of the initiative from the knight’s “I” in stanzas four to six to the lady’s “she” in stanzas seven to nine. The lady’s ambiguity (does “as she did love” in stanza five mean that her love is true or sham? is she a flirtatious seductress or a caressing mother-figure?) and eccentricity (her sidelong bending, unusual food, strange language, and sore sighing), though explicable in a supernatural and perhaps even a natural context, yet create an atmosphere of dreamlike vagueness. The knight has evidently never entered a grotto and never left “the cold hill’s side,” for here, we are told, he dreams “The latest dream”, so that instead of awaking in the grot he finds himself in the setting of the outer frame.

In the final stanza the knight tries to explain his sorry condition to the questioner. A folk ballad such as “Lord Randall,” structured on question and reply, solves its mystery in the last stanza. In “La Belle Dame,” however, the explanation (“And this is why …”) raises more questions than it answers. The knight explains his haggard appearance and why he does not go home in the inclement season: he is “in thrall.” But this explanation merely confuses the questioner, who sees that the knight is under a spell and wonders what the nature of this spell is. It is unclear whether the knight himself knows exactly how, why, and what things have happened to him. The dream in the grotto (dream 3), which is supposed to provide the key to the riddle, tells the questioner at the most what the knight himself has learned but what the reader has known all along from the title: the knight is entranced by a cruel lady. By only pretending to provide a solution to the enigma, this ballad calls attention to the indeterminacy and frequent mystery of its genre just as “St. Agnes” showed how the author of romance manipulates his reader. But whereas in “St. Agnes” the last stanza cast us abruptly back from romance to reality, the last six lines of “La Belle Dame,” though apparently returning us to a realistic level, leave us in fact still within the dream world of the outer frame, which makes rational explanation of what has happened impossible and superfluous. The solution that does not solve anything merely confirms our initial impression that we have here the presentation of something felt on the pulses, of a beauty seized as a truth by the imagination and expressed in a language of sensation inaccessible to consecutive reasoning.

The poem pushes negative capability to a new extreme. Since we have to guess even at what has happened, it is not surprising that readers fail to agree upon what the lady, the knight, his journey, and his dream might symbolize. In this “most mysterious and evasive of all Keats’s poems,” we cannot know whether the fairy’s child is a Cynthia who has failed to “make / Men’s being mortal, immortal” (Endymion, I.843–44), a vampire, a Circe, “a fairy mistress from hell,” or “neutral as to good and evil.” If we conjecture that she stands for the poetic imagination, we still do not know whether the knight’s lapse from vision is due to her refusal to keep up the deception or to the knight’s own failure to sustain the transcendental experience; and in the latter case, whether this failure is, as Wasserman suggests, the inevitable concomitant of his mortal condition or the result of some particular deficiency on his part—for instance, as Richard Benvenuto argues, his fear of facing death. The lady may stand for any of the four intensities that attract Keats in “Why did I laugh tonight?”: verse, fame, beauty, and death. She may represent the fatality of beauty or of what in “Ode on Indolence” the poet sees as “a fair maid, and Love her name”, no less than the allurements of what in the ode he calls “my demon Poesy”, especially since the perils of love have repeatedly appeared in Keats’s poetry, notably in “Isabella” and in the Romeo and Juliet motif of “St. Agnes.” But Murry’s assertion that behind the poem lies “the anguish of an impossible love” (of Fanny Brawne) is only one more conjecture and his assumption that the joking comment on the four kisses in the letter “is the detachment of a man who has uttered his heart and must turn away from what he has said” can be proved no more than Jane Rabb Cohen’s contrary (and more extravagant) suggestion that the comment indicates the humorous mood in which the ballad itself was written. The supposition that the knight’s journey symbolizes the tragedy of Faustian rejection of human limitations is appealing, because the “starv’d lips” echo a passage in Endymion: “There never liv’d a mortal man, who bent / His appetite beyond his natural sphere, / But starv’d and died”.

We only know for certain, however, that the knight is a victim of his supernatural adventure and no longer finds his bearings in the natural world of birdsong, harvest, and decay. While he was journeying through the fairy kingdom, birds sang and the squirrel filled the granary; now the harvest is over and the knight is left unprovided for. (In the first two quatrains the truncated stanzaic close echoes the finality of this loss.) Those who boldly confront this world of growth and decline (as Keats does in “To Autumn”) not only see the withered sedge but also experience the joys and fulfillment of harvest-time. In his vain attempt to die into the life of fairyland the knight separates himself from the natural order and thus becomes a double loser: cheated of both the wonders of elfin land and of nature, he suffers a kind of death-in-life. The Romantic journey into vision vindicated in Endymion and still depicted as a worthwhile risk in “St. Agnes” here proves disastrous.

Source: Wolf Z. Hirst, “Dying into Life: The First Hyperion and ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’,” in John Keats, Twayne, 1981, pp. 92–118.

La Belle Dame sans Merci

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It would be difficult in any reading of Keats’ ballad not to be enthralled by the haunting power of its rhythm, by its delicate intermingling of the fragile and the grotesque, the tender and the weird, and by the perfect economy with which these ef- fects are achieved. Snared by the sensuous workings of the poem, one is greatly tempted to evaluate it entirely as a poem whose function is not the expression of human values, but whose end is attained when it fulfills its own stylistic requirements. Nevertheless, out of the dim sense of mystery and incompleteness that its artistry arouses there rise not only richly suggestive overtones, but also dark hints of a meaning that might be available to us could we penetrate its mystery. The imagination, for example, seizes upon the sedge that has withered from the lake and upon the absence of the birds’ song, and elaborates the pictorial connotations of these stark images into all barren and desolate autumnal scenes that ever were. And yet, one senses an insufficiency in these affective and image- making energies of the poem, for the overtones also drive the mind to ask questions of conceptual intent. What, one wonders, is the larger meaning couched within the absence of song? why a knightat- arms and an elfin grot? and what are the significances of the cold hill side and the pale warriors?

Nor are these probings of the mind without justification, since the poem contains within itself the power of compelling us to such questions. For Keats’ symbolism is almost always dynamic. His poetry does not lie inert, waiting, like the poetry of Blake and some of the early work of Yeats, to yield itself up to a symbolic reading. Such poetry as theirs assumes that the world is symbolic, and therefore that if the poet selects images of symbolic import and orders them into an artistic intertexture that corresponds to the meaningful relationships in the cosmos, he has created a symbolic poem, let the reader read it as he will. However, we have seen that Keats’ world is not symbolic; it is his vision of the world that is symbolic, and a greeting of the spirit is required to transmute image into symbol. Since “every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer—being in itself a nothing,” Keats must entice a pursuit of his images by the reader, whose ardor will transform them into symbols, “ethereal things.”

In the ballad, therefore, Keats not only dramatized a myth, but also dramatized the fact that the narrative and its component images are symbolic. The first three stanzas are introductory in that they are addressed by an anonymous someone to the knight-at-arms, whose answer will then constitute the narrative body of the poem. These three stanzas consequently serve to set the story of the knight’s adventures in an additional narrative framework, a dialogue between the knight and the stranger, with whom the reader tends to identify himself; and thus the reader is drawn more intimately into the knight’s experiences, for he feels himself to be present as the knight speaks in his own person. But even more important, in the introductory stanzas images and human values are gradually blended stereoscopically until at length the reader’s mode of poetic vision has been adjusted to see the symbolized value as the thirddimensional projection of the image.

The first two stanzas have identical patterns: the first half of each addresses a question to the knight-at-arms about his spiritual condition; and the second half comments on the natural setting. The similarity of the gaunt, pale appearance of the solitary knight to the desolation and decay of nature is clearly implied, but the absence of any explicit relationship leaves the connection vague and therefore fluid enough so that nature and the knight may later be welded into an organic, instead of a synthetic, union—a method reminiscent of the first stanza of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The second half of each of these stanzas is built around a coordination of two natural images (sedge and birds, the squirrel’s granary and the harvest); and it is noticeable that the first pair are the natural images themselves, while the second are the materials of nature as shaped and molded by creatures for themselves. The progress is toward a closer integration of nature and man: the granary and the harvest are what creatures make of nature for their own use. Corresponding to these pairs of images are two pairs of adjectives in the halves describing the knight, the first pair exactly paralleling the natural images: alone, no birds sing; palely loitering, the sedge has withered. All these balanced details, equally distributed to nature and the knight, now coalesce in the third stanza.

This stanza takes its structure from that of the second halves of the first two stanzas, for its pat- tern, too, depends upon the coordination of two natural images, lily and rose, and each image dominates half of the stanza, just as each image in the first two stanzas governs a single line. In other words, the structure of the third stanza is precisely that of the second halves of the first two, expanded to the length of a full stanza. The subject matter of the third stanza, however, is not the appearance of nature, but the spiritual condition of the knightat- arms, which has been the theme of the first halves of the first two stanzas. By this absorption of the knight into the structural pattern of the natural imagery, the movement from a suggested but unstated relationship of man and nature in stanza one to an implied interrelationship in stanza two has now been completed. In the third stanza the two terms are organically integrated, and human values and natural images have been molded into interchangeable expressions: the lily and the rose are present in the knight’s countenance, and his withering is theirs. This structural drama of their coalescence now compels a symbolic reading of the poem, and we cannot well avoid questioning the human relevance of the garlands, the elfin grot, and the cold hill side. If, to use Coleridge’s definition, a symbol “partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible,” the work of the first three stanzas is to make the symbols a living part of that reality.

The first three stanzas, which make dramatic the subsequent narrating and excite a symbolic reading, introduce nine precisely balanced stanzas containing the main narrative (4–12). The progress of the knight in the first four (4–7) comes to a climax in the central one (8) when he is taken into the elfin grot, and in the last four (9–12) he withdraws from the grot. The withdrawal brings the poem back to the scene with which it began, the completion of the circular movement being marked by the fact that the last stanza echoes the first.

Whatever the specific source may have been, the narrative clearly belongs to a folk legend best known in the form of the mediaeval ballad “Thomas Rymer.” In the version available to Keats in Robert Jamieson’s Popular Ballads, 1806 (the variant in Scott’s Minstrelsy differs in a few important details), Thomas encounters a beautiful lady whom he thinks to be the Queen of Heaven, but who identifies herself as “the queen of fair Elfland.” She takes him upon her milk-white steed, for he must serve her for seven years; and for forty days and nights they ride through blood while Thomas sees neither sun nor moon. Forbidden to touch the fruit of this strange country lest he suffer the plagues of hell, Thomas eats the loaf and drinks the claret that the elf-queen has brought. At length they rest before a hill, and the elf-queen, placing his head on her knee, shows him three wonders— the roads to wickedness, to righteousness, and to fair Elfland. It is the last of these that they are to follow, and for seven years “True Thomas on earth was never seen.” The relations of this narrative to a story of a knight-at-arms carried by a fairy’s child to an elfin grot are too obvious to underscore. Apparently the myth of a journey to a mysterious otherworld that is neither heaven nor hell nor earth, and of capture there by the fairy magic of love for one who seems to be “Queen of Heaven,” constituted a pattern that evoked from Keats a body of speculation ripe for expression and helped give these speculations an artistic shape.

Keats did not simply recast this folk legend into another artistic form but molded it into an expression of his deepest and most vivid conceptions. The legend was not merely an esthetic design that he felt he could bring closer to his idea of literary perfection; to him it was also a meaningful narrative in which he recognized his own journeys heavenward. Since, then, the substance of the folk ballad constitutes mainly the raw materials of Keats’ creation, his modifications of the legend and his additions to it are the more obvious clues to his motives. It is noticeable that nearly all the larger narrative elements of the first four stanzas of Keats’ central narrative (4–7) are present in the folk ballad also: the meeting with a fairy lady of great beauty, the implication of the lady’s desire for Thomas, their sharing the pacing steed, and the knight’s eating of the magic food. To these Keats has added three major details that do not appear in the folk ballad, even by implication: the knight weaves for the fairy’s child a garland, bracelets, and a girdle of flowers; the lady sings “A faery’s song”; and at length “in language strange she said—/ ‘I love thee true.’”

What Keats has woven into the narrative, it appears, is another version of the pleasure thermometer, a series of increasing intensities that absorb the self into essence: nature, song, and love. We have already seen the important role of the pleasure thermometer in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and we shall have occasion to see how functional it is in other poems of Keats. It was “a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a Truth,” towards that beauty-truth which was his heart’s desire, and each aspiration towards it carried him along the route that his heart had marked out. When, for example, Endymion had trav-1 eled the “journey homeward to habitual self” and was buried in his own deadly selfhood, he was prepared for deliverance from “this rapacious deep” in three stages. First, the riches of nature appeared before him: “the floral pride / In a long whispering birth enchanted grew / Before his footsteps.” Then music: “This still alarm, / This sleepy music, forc’d him walk tiptoe.” At length, surrounded by cupids, he observed the love-visitation of Venus and Adonis. And now at last “some ethereal and high-favouring donor” has presented “immortal bowers to mortal sense.” By ascending the ladder of intensities, Endymion, too, has been released from the prison house of his mortal self and has attained insight into the mortal-immortal nature of heaven’s bourne.

In Keats’ ballad these increasing enthrallments of selfhood appear in successive order, each occupying one of three successive stanzas (5, 6, 7); and they lead finally to the heaven’s bourne of the elfin grot (8). In folk literature the interiors of hills are often the dwelling places of fairies and elves: Tam Lin dwelled in a green hill, and in the romance of “Thomas of Erceldoune,” which deals with the same Thomas Rymer, the hero was led “in at Eldone hill.” Apparently the tradition of elfin grots was especially appropriate to Keats’ purpose. Earthly in its form and yet “elfin” in its nature— within the cold hill side of the physical world and yet being the otherworld mystery within the physical— it corresponds to the oxymoronic realm where life’s self is nourished by its proper pith and to which man can ascend by a ladder of intensities. It is the earth spiritually transfigured; its fairyhood is the “leaven, / That spreading in this dull and clodded earth / Gives it a touch ethereal.”

In calling upon another analogue to Keats’ ballad I do not mean to propose that Keats was directly influenced by it, despite the possibility that he was. Even proof of Keats’ indebtedness, could it be found, would be irrelevant to our purpose, for it could not charge his ballad with values not already inherent in it. Nevertheless, it is illuminating to observe what significances the legend of Thomas Rymer held forth to one of Keats’ contemporaries, an intimate friend of John Hamilton Reynolds and therefore one who was undoubtedly known to Keats. In the summer of 1818, nearly a year before Keats composed “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” John F. M. Dovaston wrote his “Elfin Bride, a Fairy Ballad,” although it seems not to have appeared in print until 1825. Its source is not the folk ballad but the mediaeval romance “Thomas of Erceldoune,” which is a more extended version of the same legend.

The argument of the “Elfin Bride,” Dovaston wrote, is that “Time has no existence but with motion and matter: with the Deity, ‘whose centre is everywhere, and circumference nowhere,’—and with ‘millions of spiritual creatures’ … Duration is without Time.” Apparently the legend of Thomas has the power of provoking speculations about a condition in which love is forever warm and still to be enjoyed. In Dovaston’s ballad Merlin is substituted for Thomas Rymer, his fellow in many mediaeval legends. Merlin meets a “White Lady” and begs of her that he may see “that airy country / That wots not of Time nor Place.” They ride away on palfreys to fairyland, where Merlin is treated to a multitude of “pleasures refin’d.” The passing time seems only a moment, but Merlin is informed that “to Man in the dull cold world thou hast left, / Seven times four Seasons are gone.” When, however, Merlin attempts a physical consummation of his love, the ideal vision is shattered, and he finds himself once again in the world of time and place, which now seems to him insipid and decayed although the memory of the fairy music still rings in his ear:

He gazed all around the dull heathy ground,
Neither tree nor bush was there,
But wide wide wide all on every side
Spread the heath dry brown and bare.

Returning once again to fairyland, Merlin remains for seven more years until at last a longing grows in him for the mortal and mutable world: he thought

on the vales and green mountains of Wales
And his friends so long forgot.

For blithe are the vales and green mountains of Wales
And its blithe sojourn there.

The wish is sufficient to free him from the land without time and place.

Then suddenly there small shrilly and clear
The Fairy-folk ceas’d their singing,
And the silvery swells of pipes and bells
No longer around him were ringing.

And the Fairyland gay all melted away
In a misty vapour curl’d;
And his opening eyes beheld with suprize
The light of this long-left world.

Driven back to earth by his human desires, Merlin awakens to find that his life in fairyland has been a vision, that but a moment has passed, and that he is still in the summer bower where he was when his dream began. Although Dovaston, unlike Keats, drew from his narrative the conclusion that man should be content with his mortal lot, it is ob- vious that he also found in the legend of Thomas Rymer a myth of a spaceless, timeless realm of pleasure from which man withdraws when the mortal world beckons him and from which he is cast out when he attempts to realize physically the ideal pleasures. In all this one cannot avoid hearing echoes of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

With Dovaston’s ballad in mind we can see even more clearly the meaningfulness of the narrative pattern into which Keats wove the increasing intensities that mark the journey to the elfin grot. Now, dreams often perform in Keats’ system of thought the function of the imagination. It is, for example, in dream visions that Endymion is united with Cynthia and hence gains insight into the beauty-truth of heaven’s bourne. “The Imagination,” Keats wrote, “may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth.” “Real are the dreams of Gods,” for to them beauty is truth, not merely a foreshadowing of it, as the visions of the human imagination are; but for the man who lives a life of sensations, dreams may at least be prefigurative visions of the beauty-truth reality to come. Therefore, ideally, having ascended the pleasure thermometer, the knight should perceive an immortality of passion, especially since his visionmaking imagination is aided by fairy magic.

But the tug of the mutable world is too strong for mere mortals because “in the world / We jostle” and, as Dovaston wrote, we are drawn away by thoughts of “the vales and green mountains of Wales / And … friends so long forgot.” Even in the heart of his prefigurative visions of heaven’s bourne earthly man recalls that human passions leave a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed; his spirit clings to the vision until “the stings / Of human neighbourhood envenom all.” Merlin found that the desire to consummate physically his love for the “White Lady” cast him upon “the heath dry brown and bare,” the cold hill side from which one sees only withered sedge and hears no song of birds. And yet, this is a fate that must befall all mortal aspirations, for so long as man is earth-bound his life is made up of

the war, the deeds,
The disappointment, the anxiety,
Imagination’s struggles, far and nigh,
All human.

Mortal life must necessarily be an incessant struggle against these ills, which are ineradicable; living is the very act of being militant against the dimensional restrictions of the world. And thus all mortals who engage in “Imagination’s struggles” are knights-at-arms. But man cannot gain his quest in this world. No knight-at-arms can remain in the elfin grot because, since he is mortal, he cannot wholly yield himself up to this extra-human realm and agian visionary insight into its nature. He will be impelled to make the visionary physical or will long for “his friends so long forgot.” This is precisely the realization that came to Keats when he wrote of his visit to Burns’ country:

Scanty the hour and few the steps beyond the bourn of care,
Beyond the sweet and bitter world,—beyond it unaware!
Scanty the hour and few the steps, because a longer stay
Would bar return, and make a man forget his mortal way:
O horrible! to lose the sight of well remember’d face,
Of Brother’s eyes, of Sister’s brow…
No, no, that horror cannot be, for at the cable’s length
Man feels the gentle anchor pull and gladdens in its strength.

It is man’s bond with mankind that prevents him from lingering beyond the bourne of care. There is nothing in Keats’ ballad even suggesting the frequent interpretation that the fairy’s child is responsible for the knight’s expulsion from the elfin grot; only his own inherent attribute of being mortal causes his magic withdrawal, as only the call of Merlin’s human and physical impulses caused “the Fairyland gay” to melt in a misty vapor. The vision of the mortal-immortal can only entice mortal man towards heaven’s bourne; it cannot aid him in his aspirations or preserve his vision, which must inevitably be shattered. By this fair enchantment mortal man can only be “tortured with renewed life.”

It is in this sense that la belle dame is sans merci, without tenderness; this is a description of what provokes man’s aspirations, rather than an evaluation of it. Like the lady of the tradition of courtly love, she is the ideal whom the lover must pursue but whom he can never possess; and hence he is doomed to suffer her “unkindness,” which is her nature although not her fault. Only the inherent meanness of man’s dreams, then, draws him back from heaven’s bourne, for, instead of being visionary penetrations into that final essence which is beauty-truth, they are only of mutable things. Aspire though he will, the stings of human neighborhood envenom all.

Instead of dreaming of the “ardent listlessness” which is heaven, the knight finds that death-pale kings, princes, and warriors intrude into his dream, mortal man being the necessary symbol of transitoriness and decay. What man calls living is truly the act of dying, since it is an incessant progress towards the grave; it is what Pope described as “that long disease, my life.” Only after death, when man can exist in heaven’s bourne, does he truly live; and therefore all earthly men are death-pale. Being mortal, and therefore death-pale, is also the condition of being cut off from that realm of pure being where life’s self is nourished by its own pith. As death-pale man lives his existence of decay he can only yearn for that region from which his spirit comes, from which it has been divorced, but in which is the vital principle which will hereafter feed his spirit with “renewed life.” Thus the lips of all mortal men are starved for lack of their spirit’s own pith, for lack of the germ of spirit that is to be sucked from “mould ethereal.”

Yet, instead of aspiring to this spiritual food of heaven, as the knight does, mortal man has circumscribed himself by the physical world, and though death-pale and spiritually starved, fears the attraction of heaven’s bourne. The impulse in that direction, Keats wrote in Endymion, leaves one “too happy to be glad,” “More happy than betides mortality.” “It is a flaw / In happiness to see beyond our bourn.” Therefore, fearful of the aspiration that agonizes and spoils the apparent splendor of the material world, mortality, despite its own sufferings, warns the knight that “La Belle Dame sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!” How strange it is, Keats once mused,

that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.

It is significant that the warning comes from those who seek to battle the world’s ills (warriors) and from men of power (kings and princes). “I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self,” Keats wrote, “Men of Power”; that is, men who cannot ascend the pleasure thermometer and lose their selves in essence because they are self-contained.

The knight’s inherent weakness in being unable to exclude from his visions the self-contained and world-bound mortality dissipates the ideal into which he has entered momentarily, just as the need for the world of men and the desire to materialize the ideal destroy the fairyland for Merlin. The elfin grot once again becomes the cold hill side which is the physical, mutable world, where the knight has been all the while, but which, by means of his visionary insight, took on the magic splendor of the elfin grot, the mystery within the mutable. The vision had momentarily transfigured a real thing into an “ethereal” thing. Exactly so, it was the poet’s vision that transformed the marble embroidery on the Grecian urn into the unchanging vitality of a realm without space, time, and identity; and the shattering of that vision once again froze the immortality of passion into cold, motionless marble. With the dissipation of the vision in the ballad and with the consequent return to the cold physical world, the ladder of intensities which the knight had ascended to reach the ethereal world now crumbles beneath him: love has gone. “the sedge has wither’d from the lake,” and “no birds sing.” Love, song, and nature fade and disappear as the knight’s capacity for the passionate intensity for fellowship with essence becomes enervate and he returns to normal human weakness.

Now that the knight has been awakened from his dream by the stings of human neighborhood, he is as pale, death-pale, as the kings, princes, and warriors, for he now shares their mortality. Being mortal, his very existence is a progress towards death, and death therefore is in his nature, although in the elfin grot existence, being without time, is without death. Indeed, Keats originally wrote, “I see death’s lilly on thy brow … And on thy cheeks death’s fading rose.” By withdrawing from the elfin grot, the knight has also become a Man of Power; the withdrawal is the act of reassuming his own selfcontaining identity, and thus he is “alone,” being his own isolated self. His aloneness is the opposite of a fellowship with essence which absorbs the proper self, that self which is cut off from its selfless origin in heaven. At heaven’s bourne there can be no aloneness because there are no individual selves, no proper identities; there it is irrelevant to ask, “Who are these coming to the sacrifice?” Earthly life, then, is a spiritual solitude overcast with the pallor of death, and a denial of the “honey wild, and manna dew,” the heaven-sent food which is life’s proper pith; all mortal living is a movement towards the sacrificial altar. “Living,” therefore, must be a biding of one’s time, a meaningless exhausting of one’s mortal lease, since man is only a temporary resident in this world. The elfin grot being truly his home ethereal, mortal man, in the solitude of his self, can only “sojourn here, … palely loitering” on the cold hill side of the world. And the unfinished, hovering quality of the metrics of each stanzaic close (“And no birds sing,” “On the cold hill’s side”) perfectly reinforces the aimless solitude with which Keats is investing mortal life.

We have already noticed the organization of the poem into two discourses—the questions of the stranger in the first three stanzas, and the knight’s reply in the following nine. But within this pattern, another, more intricate and significant, is at work. In this inner configuration the poem falls into four equal groups of three stanzas each, the first of which is the symbol-making address of the stranger. The next six stanzas, the narrative core of the poem, tell of the direct relations of the knight and the fairy lady; of these the first three constitute one unit, and the last three another, the grouping and distinctness being marked by the two opening patterns: “I met,” “I made,” “I set”; and “She found,” “She took,” “And there she lulled me.” The final unit of three stanzas in the poem is a kind of epilogue telling of the aftermath of the encounter with the fairy’s child and thus answers the stranger’s questions in the three introductory stanzas and brings the poem round full circle so that the final stanza may be an approximate repetition of the first. This last unit is also bound together, nearly as the second three stanzas are: “I saw,” “I saw,” “And this is why I sojourn here.”

But with these balances and intricacies Keats is not merely carving his narrative into fascinating arabesques. His artistry is almost always functional to his meaning and is seldom an end in itself. In stanza four it is noticeable that the only actor is the knight. In the next stanza the knight controls the action of the first two lines, and the lady that of the second two. In stanza six he truly governs only the first line, and it seems significant that Keats altered the action of the folk ballad, where it is the lady who takes Thomas upon her horse. Apparently there is a special intent in giving the action to the knight in the first line so that he may remain an actor throughout these three stanzas, but with diminishing control over the action. Clearly the lady governs the action in the last two lines of stanza six and, in a broader sense, the action of the second line also, for the stanza states that the knight’s seeing nothing else is the consequence of the lady’s singing.

There is, then, a progressive shrinkage of the “I” as a power and a corresponding dominance of the “she,” until in stanza seven, where the height of the pleasure thermometer is reached, the lady alone controls the entire action, and the knight passively yields to her. The consequence of ascending the pleasure thermometer, it will be recalled, is that one enters into the essences of progressive intensities, which are “Richer entanglements, enthralments far / More self-destroying.” And proportionately as the knight ascends from nature to song to love, his active self is being absorbed into the ideal, which increasingly exercises control over his self. It is in this sense of empathic enthrallment that the knight is cautioned, “La Belle Dame sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!” Once he has wilfully entered into sensuous essence and set up the lady as an ideal (“I set her on my pacing steed”), he has abandoned his selfhood; even the apparently wilfull act of looking at the fairy’s child is the passive consequence of being so absorbed into the essence of song that he can perceive only ideality: “And nothing else saw all day long.” Since those who have “a proper self” are “Men of Power,” the retreat of the “I” and the emergence of the “she” as the sources of activity are the grammatical dramatization of the destruction of that power as the knight enters into greater and greater enthrallments.

At the tip-top of the humanly attainable scale is the “orbed drop / Of light, and that is love”; “Nor with aught else can our souls interknit / So wingedly.” Consequently, in stanza seven, in which the lady expresses her love, she is the only power, and the knight is completely enthralled by essence, ready now to enter into the heaven’s bourne of the elfin grot. Moreover, the inter-knitting of the soul with essence through love so elevates the soul that it may partake of the spiritual stuff of which it is itself made, and hence “Life’s self is nourish’d by its proper pith, / And we are nurtured like a pelican brood.” In other words, by the knight’s entrance into essence through love the ideal nourishes him with the source of his own spiritual mystery—with “roots of relish sweet, / And honey wild, and manna dew.”

The structural pattern of the main narrative stanzas (4–12) is, then, as precisely balanced as that of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In the ode the first two stanzas trace the ascent to a perception of the frieze as a timeless, spaceless, selfless realm of endless vitality; the last two, the descent from this realm, bring the poem back to the condition from which it started. And the central stanza both depicts the oxymoronic nature of this area and introduces the chemicals for its destruction Correspondingly, the firt four stanzas (4–7) of the main narrative in the ballad lead towards the oxymoronic elfin grot; the last four (9–12), away from it. And the central stanza (8) both admits the knight into the elfin grot and motivates the dissolution of the vision, for in this stanza the knight takes it upon himself to shut the “wild wild eyes” of the mistery. In the ode, the heaven’s bourne of the frieze is dispelled by a force within the poet himself, the unavoidable recollection of the mortal world; in the ballad, a force within the mortal knight—not an act of the fairy’s child— causes him to shut out the wild mystery of the ideal. The tug of mortality converts the timeless and spaceless, but vital, frieze into a physical activity in the ever-recurring journey from the town-world to the altar-heaven; the tug of mortality converts the inward mystery of the elfin grot into its outward and merely physical form, the cold hill side.

With the dissolution of heaven’s bourne and of the knight’s complete assimilation into essence in stanza seven, the grammatical controls in the poem retrieve his selfhood until once again he is wholly self-contained. The “stings of human neighbourhood” have envenomed all; and thus when “thoughts of self came on,” he travels “The journey homeward to habitual self.” Therefore the empathic order of stanzas four to seven is inverted. In stanza eight the lady governs the action of the first two lines, and the knight that of the last two, for it is the interfering power of his own mortal identity that shuts out the mystery. In the next stanza the lady controls only the action of the first line, and the knight that of the last three. And now at last the knight has fully emerged from the enthrallment, and his self is dominant in the remaining three stanzas. The empathic involvement and withdrawal that were enacted in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” dramatic gesture and verbal moods are here enacted by overt dramatic action and by the gradual transfer of grammatical control from one actor to the other.

One of the remarkable features of the ballad is the intricate interlacing of the meaningfully balanced patterns we have been examining. In one sense the first three stanzas are introductory to the following narrative. Within this main narrative (4–12) the action is perfectly pivoted on the central stanza (8), the narrative, the symbols, and the grammatical controls symmetrically rising to and falling away from this central point. And in yet another sense, the first three stanzas (1–3) and the last three (10–12) are prologue and epilogue, the central six (4–9) being perfectly balanced by the distribution of the opening patterns, “I” and “she.” Since we have seen a similar meaningful balance in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” we might well suspect that Keats is far from being merely an associative poet whose only control over structure is the subjective pattern that his feelings spontaneously dictated to him. Quite to the contrary, Keats conceived of a poem as a perfectly ordered cosmos, an experience not only completed but also selfcontained by reason of its circularity. And this perfect circularity—because of which he delighted in what he called the “rondeau”—not only is a control over the work of art as a poetic microcosm but also is itself a meaning functional to the poem. That this sense of the complete and organically meaningful architecture of a work of art was deep in Keats’ poetic conceptions is clear from the second of his three axioms of poetry. The touches of beauty in poetry, he wrote,

should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural to him—shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight.

What emerges from this analysis is that “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” has grown out of the same body of conceptions, beliefs, and aspirations that motivate the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and that it is shaped by the same mode of poetic perception. The major difference between the ode and the ballad is that the latter fails to attain the high consolation of the last stanza of the ode; but otherwise the ballad is the projection into myth of what was experienced in the ode as symbol. The increase in psychic distance gained by translating the drama within the consciousness of the poet into objective correlatives allows the poet to stretch out into the chronological span of a narrative a drama that he could express in the ode only as the evolving inward recognition of symbolic values. But the same sense of great harmonic control appears in both poems in their meaningfully pivoted structure and in the interweaving of patterns. And both are variant artistic intertextures of the three coexistent themes that dominate Keats’ deepest meditations and profoundest system of values: the oxymoronic heaven’s bourne towards which his spirit yearned; the pleasure thermometer which he conceived of as the spiritual path to that goal; and the selfannihilation that he understood to be the condition necessary for the journey. In this sense the ballad differs from the ode essentially in enacting this triune drama in a realm of space and time; and hence the self-conscious identity of the poet becomes the knight, the coexistent symbols of the thermometer are spread out into a context of time, and the journey heavenward is a passage through a spatial world.

Yet, because the ballad lacks the resolution of the ode, the differences are immense. In his dis- covery that art prefigures an attainable heaven where beauty will be truth, Keats spoke to man an Everlasting Yea; “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is his Center of Indifference.

Source: Earl R. Wasserman, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” in The Finer Tone: Keats’ Major Poems, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953, pp. 65–83.


Critical Overview