La Belle Dame sans Merci Summary
by John Keats

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La Belle Dame sans Merci Summary

In "La Belle Dame san Merci," a knight recounts how he came under the thrall of a beautiful woman.

  • The speaker comes across a lonely knight sitting in an arid field.
  • The knight tells the speaker of his encounter with a beautiful woman. She sang him songs, fed him roots, and slowly drew him under her spell.
  • In a dream, he meets pale kings and princes who tell him that he's being controlled by the woman and that she'll show him no mercy. The woman eventually abandons him in the arid field, where he meets the speaker.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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The first three stanzas of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” pose the speaker’s questions to a melancholy knight who looks lonely, listless, and ill. The sedge, a grasslike plant that thrives in wetlands, has dried up, and the knight, as if in sympathy with this arid setting, appears depleted both physically and emotionally.

In stanza four, the knight begins to answer the speaker’s questions, reporting that he met a beautiful, fairylike lady in the meads (meadows). Enchanted by this beautiful figure, the knight describes her graceful movement, her alluring long hair, and her lively appearance, apparent in her wild eyes.

In stanza five, he makes a garland (a wreath of intertwined flowers) for her head and bracelets that enhance her natural perfume. She is responsive to his loving tribute, and her sweet moaning signals that she is falling in love with him. In stanza six, enraptured with his newfound love, the knight places her on his horse and follows her all day as she looks down as him and sings a fairy song, while in stanza seven she gathers and feeds him sweet roots and delectable foods to express her true love for him.

In stanza eight, the mood of the poem shifts back toward melancholy, when the knight relates how the woman took him to a grotto, a sort of magical space the knight associates with fairy creatures such as elves. In this setting, the delicate, fleeting nature of the lady’s feelings suddenly erupts with her tears, which the knight tries to soothe with his kisses that shut her “wild wild eyes”—words that suggest he has fallen in love with a creature that he cannot possess.

It is the lady who lulls the knight to sleep, however. In stanzas nine to eleven, he is engulfed in a dream of kings and princes who are pale (as he is at the beginning of the poem) and who warn him that he has become enslaved by the beautiful lady without mercy. When he awakes, the knight finds himself on the cold hillside, feeling the deathlike cold of his dream and looking like the sad figure the speaker first encountered. Coming full circle in stanza twelve, the knight notes that his experience with the lady is why he remains in this bleak setting, alone and feeling that he has lost the love of this beautiful figure that haunts and blights not only his life but also the world in which he finds himself.

This deceptively simple tale written in a ballad style, featuring short lines and romantic longings, evokes the human yearning for an eternal, imperishable love, a bond that outlasts death and that conquers mortality. To lose the lady is tantamount to a kind of death for the knight. Thus, John Keats uses the medieval setting as a kind of allegory, a symbolic representation of what love represents. To the lover, the beloved is a fairy creature usually associated with perfection and with the desire to do good and to protect the loved one.

The knight is at the mercy of his love, meaning both the lady and the knight’s feelings for the lady. When she withdraws her love, she is portrayed as without mercy. The heat of passion vanishes, and this is why the knight feels cold and why the world itself seems frigid.

Keats differs from his medieval sources insofar as he is conscious of a psychological dimension in the knight’s suffering. In other words, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is as much about the knight’s state of mind as it is about the lady that he meets. The grotto to which they retire can be viewed...

(The entire section is 2,449 words.)