Analysis of ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ by John Keats

La Belle Dame sans Merci

John Keats was born in Moorgate, London on October 31st 1795 to Thomas Keats and Frances Jennings.  He was the eldest of the four surviving children but since their financial conditions were not very good John Keats could not be sent to Eton or Harrow. So in the summer of 1803 he was sent to John Clarke’s school in Enfield which was close to grandparent’s house. The school had a liberal outlook with a progressive curriculum and proved to be a blessing for Keats. Here he was exposed to classics and history and he developed a deep interest in them. The headmaster’s son, Charles Clarke, became Keats’friend and mentor introducing him to Renaissance literature. This had a lasting influence on his works.

‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is a ballad published in 1819. A ballad is a poem that narrates a story in short stanzas, generally about love or failed love. The title was taken from another poem which has thename written by Alain Chartier. It speaks about the role of love in a man’s life and it is story of knight and a beautiful woman. This poem is almost like a conversation where a person is asking the ‘knight-at-arms’ why he was walking alone, so haggard, anguished and close to death? The rest of the poem is the answer to this question.  The knight says he met a lady in the fields, a lady who was absolutely beautiful and child-like. Her tresses were long, her eyes were wild and she was light on feet. He was so enamoured by this woman that he ‘made a garland for her head’ and bracelets made of flowers. She accepted his gifts and looked at him with love and sweet moans. He soon placed her on his horse and they rode all day long. She bent on to the sides and sang songs.

This ravishing woman found roots, honey and manna-dew to eat and in a strange language said she did love him. She then took him to a cave of elves and then started to cry. To console her, the knight kissed her wild eyes. She lulled him to sleep and then the knight had a terrible dream and this is expressed through an archaic expression ‘woe betide’. It was his ‘latest’ dream meaning it was his last. He saw kings and princes who were death -paleand they cried that La Belle Sans Merci had kept him in bondage. Their lips were starved and gaped wide open in pain. This sight was so terrible that he woke up and then he found himself on the ‘cold hill’s side’ and in the situation the speaker had found him,walking alone, so haggard, anguished and close to death. The poem ends with the same lines of the first stanza.

‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ has twelve stanzas of four lines, quatrains.  The rhyme scheme is ABCB. The first three lines of each stanza have an iambic tetrameter, four sets of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. The last line has a shorter meter. Ballads were songs which told stories and it was the folk form that all could understand. This poem is also written in a simple language which is easy to understand. Anaphora is used with the repetition of the word ‘pale’ to drive home the point that knights and warriors suffered terribly under the charm of the woman. Refrain, where the same lines are repeated, is used by Keats but in a different manner. A refrain is generally seen after some stanzas but here it the first and the last one. In the first stanza a person asks and the knight, in the last stanza concludes with the same lines. The main theme of this poem is illusion versus reality and John Keats has left some areas of the poem to the readers to imagine what it was an illusion or a reality.