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 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...
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