Poem Guide

John Keats: “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

Beyond self-expression.

When John Keats was finishing “La Belle Dame sans Merci” in the early spring of 1819, he was just weeks away from composing what would become some of English literature’s most sustained and powerful odes. “La Belle Dame,” a compact ballad, is wound as tightly as a fuse. Keats’s life and conflicts, his love for his neighbor Fanny Brawne, and his awareness of impending death are written like code into the predicament of a dying medieval knight, the poem’s principal character. It is one thing to read this explosive ballad for the story of the knight, but if we peer behind the tragic surface we can see a writer—with one of the shortest working lives of his generation—creating a pact with literary immortality. We can glean from his letters at the time that there is a sudden and powerful merging between his thinking about poetry (what we now call theory or, more loosely, poetics) and the gestation of his poems. “La Belle Dame” also shows how Keats expanded his own poetic capabilities by reacting to the poems and theories of other poets, namely his contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

John Keats’s use of the English balladic form in “La Belle Dame sans Merci” has its Romantic precursors. Lyrical Ballads, a collaboration between William Wordsworth and Coleridge, was his principal reference. It was everyone’s. Coleridge explains the book’s inception twenty-odd years after it was published, in his Autobiographia Literaria. By then Keats was an avid reader of Coleridge, and in two of the book’s chapters he would find a basis for components of his own poetic justifications. These bear directly on “La Belle Dame” and what was to come in the months following. Coleridge writes,

. . . it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and  characters supernatural, or at least Romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. . . . (Chapter XIV)

. . . That illusion, contradistinguished from delusion, that negative faith which simply permits the images present to work by their own force. . . . (Chapter XXII)

Keats’s notion of “negative capability”—the most famous among his rare contributions to literary theory—is the child of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” and is an important working principle in the conception of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and its cast of two, the knight and the belle dame, “shadows of imagination,” as Coleridge would have called them. Keats’s reimagining of Coleridge’s formulation of poetic faith first crops up a couple of months after the publication of the Autobiographia, in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas Keats:

. . . I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. (Letter XXIV—December 21, 1817)

If read as a rephrasing of Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” Keats’s famous statement demonstrates that he, like Coleridge, feels the need to allow the powers of the imagination to rise above the critical demeanor that is part of every great poet’s arsenal. The transference of inward nature onto supernatural characters, the fleshing out of those characters to create plausibility and verisimilitude, is beautifully executed in the poem.

To carry the story forward, Keats invents a swiftly moving variation on the traditional balladic stanza, which used the quatrain as the principal stanzaic form, alternating tetrameters and trimeters. These metrics evolved out of the folk idiom and early minstrel forms to create a rolling, almost singsong pace, but Keats compresses the lines by using three tetrameters followed by a final, truncated line of only four or five syllables. This pattern, which at first we hear and then internalize, hastens the poem’s rhythm: the shorter last lines of each quatrain act like a spring hurtling us forward.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
            Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
            And no birds sing.

It is not only the form that sustains the wonderful economy of the poem, but the way Keats pushes negative capability beyond just a tolerance for working through uncertainties toward a truly dramaturgic investment in character development. This is linked to his conception of poetic identity. The more we consider the knight’s story, the more we uncover parallels with Keats’s life. The knight’s predicament in the poem is Keats’s drama transformed and played out in allegorical fashion. Keats’s knight is lost, abandoned, and already living a posthumous existence, which is how the poet himself would eventually refer to the last months of his life just two years later. Keats articulates his view of poetic character in a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse, by using Wordsworth’s attempts at character development as a juxtaposition:

As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort, of which, if I am anything, I am a member; that sort distinguished from the Wordsworthian, or egotistical Sublime.…) it is not itself—it has no self—It is everything and nothing—It has no character.… What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the cameleon poet. . . . A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity. . . . (Letter LXXVI—October 27, 1818)

In contrast with what he calls the “egotistical Sublime” in Wordsworth’s narrators, who are nearly always a dramatis personae, Keats seemingly loses his own self to fully inhabit the inner mood of his malingering knight. Except for the first three stanzas, Keats stays out of the poem itself; he is neither a self-conscious narrator nor a character who symbolically mirrors the poet, like the one who appears in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

To structure the poem’s narrative, Keats borrows a question-and-response form from earlier folk ballads and pastoral eclogues. In the first three stanzas the poet does indeed appear as a third-person narrator, but only as a kind of rhetorical presence, addressing the knight in a series of questions that allow the poet to “transfer,” in Coleridge’s words, “from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth” onto the character of the knight. Likewise, the knight’s predicament is laid out in this mini-interrogation—he is given a vocabulary—and the rest of the poem will be taken up by his response, his story, as it were.

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.

With the belle dame playing a figure of love and fantasy and the agent of death and decay to the knight, it is as though Keats has stumbled upon his mirror image as he gazes upon the knight:

I see a lily on thy brow,
            With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
            Fast withereth too.

For a fantasy poem whose setting seems so distant from real time, the poem might very well express figuratively what Keats was experiencing in his love life and his health. The mix of literary and emotional forces influencing Keats at the time he wrote “La Belle Dame sans Merci” was nothing less than extreme. His mother had died of tuberculosis when he was 14; his brother, whom Keats nursed through his final months, died of the same disease in 1818. Even before his brother’s death, Keats too would begin to show signs of the disease, returning from his rigorous tour of Scotland and Ireland with a harsh cough and an ulcerated throat. That year he would also fall in love with Fanny Brawne and by the spring of 1819 would embark on what was to become one of the most important sequences of odes in our literature, all written in a single year. “La Belle Dame sans Merci” was written in the heat of his passion for Fanny, the fever of death hanging over him. He was on fire poetically, in love, growing ill, and suffering from depression. By the end of May 1819 Keats finished the poem:

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.

The knight’s story is of coming upon “a lady in the meads,” “a faery’s child” with wild eyes. The story is full of double entendres: “fragrant zone” (a girdle of flowers or his lover’s nether regions?), “I set her on my pacing steed” (his horse, or his erection?). She weeps and sighs “full sore” (until she is sore?). There are often two ways of seeing this scene, as the knight quickly learns. The landscape is lush with meadows and spring, wild honey and manna dew, but the story quickly moves from idyllic to horrific, as the fairytale romp turns to imprisonment on a cold hillside.

After his rough-and-tumble, the knight finds himself in a kind of hell through the common gothic transport of a dream. He is surrounded by all of the lady’s previous victims, who include kings and princes and warriors; her taste in men is evidently consistent.

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.

The repetition of “pale” reinforces the subtext of tubercular illness. In the next stanza we see the victims’ “starved lips” (starved for air?) and hear their only words, “La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!” The thrall of love is clearly equated with the thrall of illness.

The partnering themes in gothic literature—love and death; temptation and duty; dream and waking, and the murky suffering of the consequences of ungoverned emotion; ecstasy and its aftermath of despair; the otherworldly seductress, Homer’s Circe or Sirens, or the poetic muse herself—these are all figures without pity (sans merci) whose function is to entrap. All of this informs the consumptive grayness of the knight’s predicament, a cache of themes that are echoed in the poet’s own feverish condition. Even nature cooperates, with its withering sedge and finished harvest.

Keats’s notions that the poet is “without identity” and “the most unpoetical of anything in existence” extend Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief,” but mostly in practical ways: Keats’s knight seems a purer creation of dramatic character than Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner or Christabel, and more like a Hamlet or a King Lear, albeit in miniature. Of course, a total subjugation of “poetic character,” as Keats calls it in his letter, would be impossible, though many modern and postmodern poets have attempted just that. In this way, Keats was certainly anticipating post-Romantic strategies of expression. Through allegorical displacement Keats is able to diffuse overobvious “self-expression” and transform what in a lesser poet would remain self-pity into a self-erasing empathy for his created characters. By using the figure of the knight as a dramatically convincing surrogate for the pathos he himself feels, Keats makes powerful use of some of the most important Romantic themes: the stress of self-examination, the fraught duality of Eros and death, and individual mortality and its mirroring in the cycles of nature.

Originally Published: October 5th, 2011

Martin Earl lives in Coimbra, in central Portugal. From 1986 until 2001 he lectured in English, translation, and American culture at the University of Coimbra. For the last ten years he has worked as a translator and a journalist. Earl has blogged on Harriet, and his translation of Antonio Medeiros’s...

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