“La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a remarkably evocative poem attaining subtle effects of mood and music in the short space of forty-eight lines. The twelve stanzas consist of three tetrameter lines followed by a concluding line of only two stresses. The title is taken from a medieval French poem by Alain Chartier in which the speaker is mourning his dead mistress. Other than the title, John Keats’s poem has nothing in common with Chartier’s.
The poem opens with an unnamed speaker asking a knight at arms what ails him, since he is all alone, pale, and wandering about aimlessly in a barren, desolate landscape. For the first twelve lines the speaker pointedly and persistently questions the knight, describes the landscape, and comments on the knight’s physical appearance in a brutally frank and tactless manner. The melancholy tone is created immediately by the speaker’s opening words: “O what can ail thee, . . .// The sedge has wither’d from the lake/ And no birds sing.”
Beginning with stanza 4 and continuing to the end, the knight tells his strange story, one unlike any other in English poetry. In the flowering fields he met a young woman of supernal beauty, “a fairy’s child” who in reality is a femme fatale. The knight came immediately under her spell, perhaps hypnotized by her powerful eyes, losing awareness of all but her. Although he could not understand her strange tongue, the two communicated in other ways. Reminiscent of Christopher Marlowe’s passionate shepherd, he made her a garland of flowers, a bracelet, and a belt and set her on his warhorse. She in turn found strange foods for him—sweet roots, wild honey, “manna dew”—and cast a spell upon him which he mistook for words of love: “sure in language strange she said—/I love thee true.” She took him to her underground grotto, where, weeping and sighing, she allowed him to comfort her even as she lulled him to sleep.
Once asleep, the knight was shaken by terrible dreams of kings, princes, and warriors all as deathly pale as himself. In vain they were warning him that he was “in thrall” or enslaved by the beautiful lady without pity. Awakening from the nightmare, the knight found himself on the cold hillside alone, the dream figures having vanished. Summer had given way to late autumn, and the beautiful lady had disappeared. The poem ends with the knight’s desperate effort to explain to the questioner why he is “Alone and palely loitering.” While the final stanza is pregnant with suggestion, it explains nothing. The knight’s entire experience is encapsulated in the pronoun “this” (line 45), which has no grammatical antecedent. The initial speaker remains silent, perhaps shocked and befuddled by the knight’s account of his experience.
John Keats is considered one of the central figures in the English romantic movement. Romanticism was a philosophical and artistic ideal that spread across Western civilization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It sprang from the ideas of French writer Jean Jacques Rousseau and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Rousseau, a major figure in the Enlightenment, wrote eloquently and convincingly about theories of social equality. At the time, most governments were arranged in a system that divided the opportunities for social success available to commoners from those available to people considered to be of noble birth. Rousseau’s writings presented society as a corruption of humanity’s natural state. His theory that every citizen participates in society willingly, as part of an implied “social contract,” created a cult of individual freedom that celebrated the human spirit and led to the French Revolution in 1789. The Revolution’s ten-year struggle to overthrow the monarchy and the nobles was one of the most direct influences on the romantic movement.
Goethe was trained as a lawyer, but he became a celebrated poet, playwright, and novelist. In 1775 he,...
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