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 as a sort of underworld of the mind, the “gloam,” the twilight world in which dreams occur and reveal the deepest origins of human apprehensions.
Like many of his contemporaries—Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir Walter Scott—Keats was drawn to medieval poems, romances, and stories because he believed this literature expressed an emotional truth that needed to be recovered and cherished rather than diminished by those who saw the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the Age of Reason. Reason seemed to its proponent to relegate the fairy tales and fables of the past to the “dark ages” when human beings were prey to their fears and anxieties. To Keats, the older forms of poetry such as the ballad should be resurrected so as not to ignore the vital—indeed inescapable—role that human emotions play in human affairs.
Keats biographer Robert Gittings notes that the poem’s use of archaic words and constructions, such as “meads,” “grot,” “withereth,” and “woe-betide,” as well as the ballad structure itself, recalls Lyrical Ballads (1798), the joint work of Coleridge and William Wordsworth that heralded the great age of Romantic poetry. Indeed, as Gittings notes, when Keats accidentally met Coleridge on Hampstead Heath, the latter spent an hour discoursing on the nature of dreams, perhaps thus contributing to the role dream plays in “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Morever, as Gittings also notes, Coleridge later remembered grasping Keats’s hand, which seemed as cold as death. Keats, who would die of tuberculosis in agony over his unfulfilled love for Fanny Brawne, found a way, Gittings implies, of projecting his own anguish into this antique form of poetry.
Another interpretation of the poem—suggested by a passage in Aileen Ward’s biography of Keats—emphasizes the theme of betrayal, that love will not last, and that the knight suffers because of the lady’s withdrawal of her affections. After all, the knight is warned by princes and kings who are deathly pale and who appear with the gaping visages of corpses. The grotto in the poem could then be viewed as the grave of love with the lady already mourning her knight’s decease. At the very least, there is a foreboding atmosphere in the poem that Ward associates with Keats’s own distraught reflections on his love for Fanny Brawne.
Like Keats’s other biographers, Walter Jackson Bate notes that the poem may stem from but it also transcends Keats’s biography. Bate sees the poem as a “distillation of diverse feelings,” an apt way of suggesting the poem’s universality, its ability to evoke the conflicting emotions that love can arouse from intense attachment, euphoria, and devotion to alienation, depression, and disaffection. Bate questions the knight’s behavior, wondering whether the poem is more about his persistence than it is about the lady’s rejection of him. What does it mean, for example, that the lady looks “sidelong” at the knight? The word implies that she is not straightforward or fully committed to him, especially since, as Bate notes, she expresses her love in “language strange.” The lady is not entirely human, the biographer notes, and therefore she may be misinterpreted by the knight as well as being a projection of his imagination, of what he wants to come true.