La Belle Dame sans Merci

by John Keats

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

“La Belle Dame sans Merci” has been the subject of considerable critical attention. Bate remarks on the wide range of sources that contributed to the poem, to which may be added the strange folk ballad “Thomas Rhymer.” The beautiful lady is obviously a femme fatale, an archetypal figure originating in early myth and continuing to the present in the popular image of the vamp. Bate believes the central influence to be Edmund Spenser’s Duessa, who in The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) seduces the Red Cross Knight. Other models readily available to Keats of warriors brought low by the wiles of beautiful women are Samson and Antony.

The identification of a specific femme fatale appears less important, however, than relating the knight’s experience to the long tradition of a mortal entrammeled by a beautiful female who may possess supernatural powers. The reader is reminded of the plight of Odysseus’s mariners who are bewitched by Circe in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). They temporarily lose their human appearance. Keats’s knight fares much worse. He may be drained of his blood—he is “death-pale,” as are the kings, princes, and warriors of his dream—in which case he would be the zombie victim of a vampire. He is definitely drained of his will. The irony of a knight at arms being reduced to a slave is strong indeed. His “sojourn,” or rule, extends merely to the circumscribed area of desolation where “no birds sing,” and his activity is reduced from roaming the countryside seeking wrongs to redress to loitering aimlessly about the lake. He is as enervated and purposeless as Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s lotus eaters, as out of touch with the world of human concerns as that poet’s Mariana. The knight has been victimized through no fault of his own and has suffered the irredeemable loss of his humanness. The pity is that he acquiesces to his fate; he has given up.

To be sure, all critics do not share this view that the lady is a dangerous menace. Bate, for example, sees the poem as premised on the “ultimate impossibility of contact between the human and this elusive, only half-human figure,” but he has doubts that the lady is sinister, since the knight “does not actually witness the ‘horrid warning’ of starvation that this attempted union may bring”; he encounters it only in his dream, which may reflect his own uneasiness. Similarly, Earl R. Wasserman in The Finer Tone (1953) exculpates the lady from any evil intent; “she is the ideal whom the lover must pursue but whom he can never possess.” The knight “is doomed to suffer her ‘unkindness,’ which is her nature although not her fault.”

This diversity of critical opinion is testimony that the simple language of Keats’s poem masks a substantial complexity of meaning. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a critical consensus as to precisely what the poem “means.” There is consensus, however, that “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a great and unforgettable poem.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 929

Unrequited Love
With its forlorn, heartbroken narrator suffering the pangs of embarrassment, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” appears to tell readers about the universal situation known as unrequited love. While love felt equally by two parties is a celebrated event in stories and song, unrequited love occurs when the love felt by one person is much stronger than that felt by the person who is loved. The root “requite” comes from “to repay,” which indicates a balance that one expects in a love relationship and the sense of unfairness when one person “pays” love out but is not paid back.

In the poem the knight’s disappointment would be less severe if he did not believe from the beginning of their affair that the fairy child loved him in equal measure. As it is, she appears to fall in love with the knight just as he is falling for her. The look she gives him in line 19 and her “sweet moan” in line 20 might be read as signs of her love, and the presents she gives him are further proof they are equally balanced in their feelings for one another. She even takes him back to her home, her “elfin grot,” and makes him feel comfortable. It would be natural for him to assume she is as interested as he is in continuing their budding romance when he awakes.

It is unclear whether the knight’s intense feeling when he finds his lady gone is caused primarily by the loss of the woman herself. It could be that he is suffering from the disappointing conclusion that she never really loved him as much as he thought she did. By the end of the poem he clearly feels alone, but he does not show any anger toward her. The only clues the poem gives about whether or not the lady may have felt love for the knight come from the spectral images who visit the knight in his dream and tell him the lady is pitiless, that she has no mercy. The presence of these dream images may be explained psychologically, as if the knight subconsciously knew the lady had left him, and his mind had already started shifting the blame toward her. The dream might just be his rationalization, a way of making her out to be evil in order to cope with the pain of learning his love is unrequited.

The love story told in this poem is framed within images of nature. The lady with whom the knight falls in love is described as the child of a fairy. Fairy stories often stem from rural folklore traditions. The lady is described as having “wild” eyes and as living in a cave on a hill side. When they are together, the knight and the lady give each other presents made from flowers, roots, honey, and dew. After the knight awakens to find the lady gone, the world is described as one from which life has receded, using images associated with nature’s death each winter: the squirrels have stored their provisions for the long dead months, the grass in the lake has withered, and the birds have quit singing. The only signs of living nature after the lady disappears are the fading ones on the knight’s face. The “lily” that the poem’s other speaker sees on the knight’s brow is a sign he once was blessed with the delicate beauty of a flower, although lilies are associated with death. The rose color in his cheek is another sign he has been touched by beauty, but it, like the rest of nature, is “fading.”

Despair is the state of having lost all hope, of finding oneself unable to believe life will ever be good again. The knight in “La Belle Dame sans Merci” falls into despair when he learns a relationship that seemed to be just starting has abruptly ended. His situation is clear from the very first line, when a stranger finds him out in the forest and can tell just by looking at him that something is gravely wrong. The stranger sees how pale he is and, noticing he has chosen to live by a dead, frozen lake, wants to know what ails him, by which he means what has made the knight so sick in spirit.

In the middle stanzas of the poem, the knight describes the romance, which meant more to him than anything that happened before it or since. The brief romance ended with the lady lulling him to sleep. Readers can assume that, comfortable and happy beside her, he expected their love to continue and even to grow when he awoke.

In the real (as opposed to magical) world, the knight’s despair would take time to develop, because he would not know for sure that the woman he loved was gone forever. In the magical world of this poem, though, he is visited in his sleep by pale figures of noble men who describe the woman as merciless. When he wakes to find her gone, he readily believes her absence confirms the damning things the figures said about her. The poem does not have the knight looking for his lady or trying to find out why she has left; he is as certain she had no intention of staying with him just as surely as he knows he loves her. There is no hope they will be reunited, and therefore there is no hope that he can ever be happy again. His life is doomed to despair.

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