Themes and Meanings
“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.