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We have all been tempted by something or the other – whether it's a box of chocolates or a trip to a tropical island halfway across the world. Some of us have even been tempted by beauty and the promise of love, which is the case in John Keats' folklore-inspired ballad ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (1819). Let us explore this poem in the context of Romanticism and the poets’ own experiences with sickness, death, and love.
Frequently noted imagery
Nature; fairytale; sickness
Seduction and unrequited love; sickness and death; illusion and reality
An exploration of the dangerous power of love
This poem was written months after Keats’ brother, Thomas, died of tuberculosis. Keats also lost his mother to this illness. Tuberculosis was known as the consumption disease at the time, and, as there was no cure for the disease, it was fatal. A key early symptom of this infection was a deathly pallor and, therefore, as the knight in the poem is repeatedly referred to as pale, sickly, and near death, this could be considered a reference to tuberculosis. At this time, Keats was also suffering from the early stages of tuberculosis, which he likely contracted while he was caring for his brother Thomas.
The poem was also written during the height of Keats’ courtship with Fanny Brawne. He is reported to have idolised her, much like the knight in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci' was infatuated with the fairy woman. Fanny later became his fiancée, however, Keats died before they could marry.
As Keats and his loved ones dealt with the reality of tuberculosis, he was very aware of his own mortality. Because of this, the knight and the fairy's relationship could also be seen as representative of Keat's and Fanny's doomed romance.
How do you think Keats’ experiences of tuberculosis influenced ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci. A Ballad’?
Ballads, which were traditionally songs or poems that told stories, were popular in the middle ages. The narrative of ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ takes its inspiration from medieval folktales and poetry about the fairy queen.
The Queen of the fairies was a popular figure in orally narrated British and Irish folk stories and songs. This figure can also be seen in literature such as Edmund Spencer's 'The Faerie Queen' (1590) and the character of Titania in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1600).
Parallels can also be drawn to the ballad of ‘Thomas Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland’ (1804) by Walter Scott. In both poems, a young man meets a beautiful fairy woman who takes him to fairyland. This is layered with the theme of temptation, which draws in the young man and makes him follow to fairy woman into the unknown. However, in the ballad of 'Thomas Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland', the young man is not abandoned. Instead, Thomas works as the fairy woman's silent servant for seven years. Other parallels between the two poems include both men eating food offered to them by a fairy, riding on horseback with a fairy, and falling under a fairy's thrall. Whilst published in the nineteenth century, the origins of Scott's poem are much older, having been taken from a fourteenth-century manuscript.
In drawing the parallel between the two ballads, an argument can be made for the popularity of the ballad form during the early 19th century in English poetry, and also the fascination with otherworldly beings that defied the rationality prized by Classicism. The fanciful and whimsical nature of the two ballads is embodied by the fairy, who is almost a siren-like figure calling out to the young men.
The poet and his works belong to the literary movement of Romanticism.
Romanticism: a literary movement that flourished in the time period 1785–1832, and can be characterised by its focus on knowledge, nature, and the passionate expression of emotion. Pioneers of Romanticism include William Wordsworth, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats among others.
Many key characteristics of Romanticism can be seen in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ from its form to its content, such as:
The ballad form: Romantic poets often used this form of poetry, and ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (1819) is a folk narrative ballad.
The expression of passionate feelings: this can be seen in the love-sick knight’s feelings for the fairy.
The use of natural imagery: this poem is full of natural imagery that contrasts fertile and barren natural landscapes.
The supernatural: the beautiful woman without any mercy for the knight is no human woman. She is modelled on the dangerous fairy women of medieval English folklore as she is ageless, ancient, and malevolent.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
First, we will examine the broader context of the poem and look into its overall summary and layered meanings. This is followed by a closer analysis of the literary and poetic devices in the ballad as well as its structure and form.
In the first three stanzas, the knight is addressed by an unknown speaker who asks him why he is alone and unwell, wandering in a lifeless landscape. Then, the narration is passed to the knight who replies and recounts the sad tale of how he was seduced and tricked by a beautiful fairy.
'La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad' could be interpreted as a didactic warning against the dangerous power of love. Whilst in love, the knight blindly trusts the fairy. Sure that she will not harm him, he falls asleep in her grotto, an act that ultimately leads to his doom. Upon finding that his love was not returned, he slowly withers away.
The title ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is in French. It translates to 'the beautiful lady without mercy'. This ominous title foreshadows the fairy woman’s cruel actions.
The consistent rhyme scheme of the poem gives the ballad of La Belle Dame sans Merci a song-like quality. Furthermore, it has a story-feel to it because it has a beginning, middle, and end as a story would and also two main characters whose experiences and interactions are described, namely the fairy and the young knight.
This ballad is composed of twelve stanzas. Each stanza is a quatrain (a stanza with four lines) which gives the poem a sense of balance. Iambic tetrameter is used throughout the ballad, adding to its uniformity.
Iambic tetrameter: when an iambic foot (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) occurs four times in a line of poetry.
The second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyme, so the scheme is ABCB. It remains consistent throughout the whole poem.
Keats uses enjambment throughout the poem, which helps his narrative to flow smoothly by mimicking natural speech patterns.
Enjambment: when a word or phrase in one line runs into the next.
The last line of the first stanza, '[a]nd no birds sing', is repeated in the last line of the final stanza. This repetition leaves the reader with a final impression of the doomed knight, wandering across a joyless, barren landscape.
Repetition is also used to emphasise the pallor of the ghost-like figures in the knight's dream 'pale kings and princes too, Pale warriors, death-pale'. This helps to establish that, like the many who came before him, the pale knight is now doomed.
This ballad contains three key themes: seduction and unrequited love, illness and death, and illusion and reality.
The knight adores and idealises the beautiful fairy who seduces him with her appearance and otherworldly singing. They spend all day together, and physical intimacy is alluded to in the lines '[s]he looked at me as she did love / And made sweet moan'. Trusting her, the knight falls asleep in her grotto, but, when he wakes up, he finds he has been abandoned in a cold and barren landscape. His feelings of love were not truly returned.
The ballad suggests that the knight’s encounter with the beautiful, merciless fairy has left him sick and near death.
Consider the lexis of sickness used to portray the knight after his encounter with the fairy, such as 'palely', 'ail', 'haggard', 'withereth', and 'fever-dew'. The landscape is depicted as similarly lifeless, as it is devoid of birds and the lake’s greenery has died.
The knight experiences a dream in which the ghosts of the fairy’s past victims appear to warn him. When he wakes up, cold and pale surrounded by a barren, lifeless landscape, it appears that the dream was prophetic. This calls into question the nature of illusion and reality. When the knight encounters the fairy, he is drawn into her ethereal beauty despite the gruesome reality of following her to fairyland, shown to him in a dream by the fairy's past victims.
In ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad’, the poet uses different flowers to symbolise how close the knight is to death.
A lily is used to symbolise serious sickness and suggest that the knight is near death.
'I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew'.
Lilies have associations with death and grief in Western culture. They are often used in funerals.
The use of figurative language involving a lily suggests that the knight will soon die of his illness.
A rose is used to symbolise the speaker's love-sickness and physical sickness.
'And on thy cheeks a fading rose Fast withereth too'.
In western culture, roses are usually associated with romance and the bloom of youth.
The use of figurative language involving a withering rose suggests that the knight has been robbed of his youth, health, and promised love.
Can you think of other objects that are symbolic of death and illness?
‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is a ballad inspired by medieval folktales.
Keats’ presentation of the knight was influenced by his own experiences of sickness and death.
The poem adheres to several conventions of Romantic poetry.
The poem explores the themes of seduction and unrequited love, illusion and reality, and illness and death.
Ballads originate from the medieval period, when they were usually narrative songs. ‘Le Belle Dame sans Merci’ (1819) was inspired by medieval folklore, so a ballad is an appropriate form.
The poems key themes are seduction and unrequited love, sickness and death, and Illusion and reality.
Twelve stanzas consisting of quatrains (four lines) with the rhyme scheme ABCB.
An elfin grot refers to the fairy's cave home.
How many stanzas does this poem consist of?
How many lines long is a quatrain?
What does the beautiful woman feed the knight?
Roots, honey, and dew.
What meter is used in the poem?
Which literary movement does this poem belong to?
Which real woman from the poet's life may have inspired 'Le Belle Dame sans Merci'?
Parallels can be drawn between 'Le Belle Dame sans Merci' (1819) and which poem?
Thomas Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland.
The knight displays the symptoms of which illness?
Which of the following is NOT a symbolic flower from the poem.
The poem was written during the poet's 'Great Year'.
When the knight wakes up the birds are singing and the lakeside is green.
Which two lines in each quatrain rhyme?
The second and fourth.
Ballads were an unusual choice of form for Romantic poets.
What do both the knight in 'Le Belle Dame sans Merci' and Thomas in 'Thomas Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland' NOT do?
Marry the fairy.
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