Keats: La Belle Dame Sans Merci

La Belle Dame Sans Merci painting by Walter Crane, 1865

This famous poem by John Keats is highly exemplary of Romantic Period poetry. It emphasizes feeling over analysis. It accentuates mood and is very light on plot. It features a femme fatale who destroys her earnest lovers. It is also firmly set in the middle ages. La belle Dame Sans Merci is French for "The Beautiful Lady without Mercy". It was originally written in 1819. There are at least four paintings from the period based on this poem.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither'd 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 look'd 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 sigh'd full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream'd - Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill's side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - "La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!"

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped 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 wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The aspect of this poem that may most repel or appeal to modern readers is the baleful tone of self-pity. The hero knight has so little control over his emotional state that he allows himself to pine away to nothing. He seems to revel in his own misery. Keats may have wished to illustrate how much more powerful emotion is than the strength and skill of a man's arms. In this he succeeded. But the lesson learned depends on the reader. We can either succumb to the mysterious forces of fancy as did the knight, or we can make our lives an exercise in self-control.

< Priam meets Mercury in Iliad XXIV | The May Poem by Sara Teasdale >

Interesting Fact:

Keats is one of a trio of English poets that dominated the Romantic Period. The other two are Byron and Shelley.

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