The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

John Keats is considered one of the central figures in the English romantic movement. Romanticism was a...

(The entire section is 780 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem draws on a long tradition for much of its power and many of its effects. Ballads are divided into two categories: folk/popular and literary. Folk ballads appear early in a country’s literature. They are anonymous and originate as songs. Literary ballads, on the other hand, come only after a literary tradition has been well established, and although they are modeled on a primitive poetic form, they are usually sophisticated compositions in their use of rhetorical devices to create subtle effects. Both categories of ballad share certain characteristics, many of which are evident in Keats’s poem. As short narratives rarely exceeding a hundred lines, ballads relate a single event with no background or explanation. The language is simple to the point of starkness, and there is much use of dialogue, refrains, and repetition. Violent and supernatural occurrences are commonplace, and moral commentary is noticeably absent.

Although this poem was only a single evening’s work (April 21, 1819), its stanzas, as Walter Jackson Bate has written in John Keats (1963), “have haunted readers and poets for a century and a half.” Keats had become accustomed to writing iambic pentameter, so the meter here was an experiment. Much of the haunting effect that lingers in the mind long after the poem has been read comes from the stanza form of three four-stressed lines followed by a line of two stresses. The attenuated finality strikes a mournful chord. The effect is clearly seen in the first stanza: “And no birds sing.”

Equally important in contributing to the tone is the heavy preponderance of dark vowels in the stressed words of generally a single syllable. Of the 289 words of the poem, all but forty are monosyllabic, and most of these contain long vowels, as in “four,” “rose,” “cold,” “pale,” and “wild.” The simplicity of the language is as striking an innovation for Keats as is his departure from the comfortable iambic pentameter line. Keats’s language is characteristically Spenserian in its rich density of imagery. In the early Endymion (1818), the richness tended to excess, blurring the outlines of description. Here, however, the balladlike starkness sets in clearly defined relief the horrid emptiness of the landscape. “The sedge has wither’d from the lake,” “the harvest’s done,” and “cold hill’s side” leave indelible marks on the memory. The effect is similar to Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones” (1898). The understated matter-of-factness of the narration (there is only a single exclamation) also contributes to the atmosphere of desolation.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

“La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a ballad, an old form of verse adapted for singing or recitation. The ballad form originated in the days...

(The entire section is 212 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1819: America is a small, new country with only twenty-two states. The nation battled Great Britain for its freedom in the American...

(The entire section is 187 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Find a contemporary song you think has the same message as Keats’s poem. Compare the song with the poem to comment on the ways people of...

(The entire section is 154 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

A reading of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is available on a compact disc called Conversation Pieces, released in 2001 by Folkways...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

All of Keats’s poetry is available in one volume entitled The Complete Poems. This book is edited by John Barnard and was published...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)


Caine, T. Hall, “That Keats Was Maturing,” in Tinsley’s Magazine, Vol. XXI, August 1882, pp....

(The entire section is 297 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. Includes a very shrewd and suggestive interpretation of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” that looks carefully at what Keats himself said about it as well as comparing it with other Keats poems.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. London: Heinemann, 1968. Perceptively describes the autobiographical sources of the poem.

Kelly, Theresa M. “Poetics and the Politics of Reception: Keats’s ’La Belle Dame sans Merci.’” In John Keats, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom. Updated ed. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. Reads the poem as a response to the critical reception of Keats’s earlier works, which shaped his attitude toward and use of poetic conventions.

Ward, Aileen. John Keats: The Making of a Poet. New York: Viking Press, 1963. Complements but also contrasts with Gittings’s interpretation of the poem as Keats’s personal statement.

Wells, Marion A. The Secret Wound: Love-Melancholy and Early Modern Romance. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007. Extended study of the medieval tradition to which Keats’s poem responds. Discusses the poem itself in the work’s conclusion.

Whale, John. John Keats. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Compares “La Belle Dame sans Merci” to three of Keats’s other narrative romance poems.