A Poem by John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
......."La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is a literary ballad, a poem that imitates a folk ballad. A folk ballad tells a story on a theme popular with the common people of a particular culture or place. Generally of unknown authorship, a folk ballad passes by word of mouth from one generation to the next. One of its key
characteristics is a cadence that makes it easy to set to music and sing.
.......John Keats based the title of his literary ballad on the title of a long French poem with a different story. The title of the latter poem, written in 1424 by Alain Chartier (1392-1433), is La Belle Dame sans mercy. (Notice the different spelling of the last word.) As a feminine noun, the French word merci means pity or mercy. As a masculine noun, it means thanks. The translation of the title is The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy.
.......The time is late autumn. The place is England during the Age of Chivalry. A lovesick knight tells an unidentified person about a beautiful faery's child he met in a meadow.
Interpretation 1: Unrequited Love
.......After telling the knight she loves him, the beautiful lady lulls him to sleep and abandons him. As he sits alone on a cold hillside, his unrequited love makes him physically ill. He lacks the energy and will to move on. All he can do is brood.
Interpretation 2: Impossible Love
.......Line 30 of the poem says, "And there she wept and sighed full sore." The suggestion here is that the lady does care for the knight but realizes she must leave him because she is a fairy and he is a human. Two such beings cannot have a life together. This theme can apply to any man and woman who love each
other but cannot marry because of cultural, religious, or social barriers or any other impediment.
.......In the summer of 1818, Keats began exhibiting symptoms of tuberculosis, a disease that had already infected his younger brother, Tom, who died in December of that year. Exactly when Keats became aware that he was suffering from a killer disease is uncertain. But, as an observer of his brother's symptoms and as a trained apothecary who had worked in hospitals, Keats must have suspected that his own symptoms were an ominous sign. Consequently, when he wrote La Belle Dame Sans Merci in the spring of 1819, he might have intended the beautiful woman as a symbol for the life, which was slowly slipping away from him. During this time, he must have felt like the knight sitting on the cold hillpale, feverish, and alone. He lasted less than two more years, dying in February 1821.
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Rhyme Scheme and Meter
.......The rhyme scheme of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is abcbthat is, the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme.
and NO..|..birdsSINGIn addition, the last line of some stanzas combines an anapestic foot with an iambic foot, as in line 8:........1.....................2
and the HAR..|..vest's DONENarration
.......The poem is a dialogue between an unidentified person and a knight. The former asks the latter why he looks so pale and feverish. The latter responds with his story about the beautiful fairy woman.
.......The mood of the poem is somber and sorrowful. Keats maintains it with such adjectives as woebegone, sighed, gloam, and alone. In addition, he sets the poem in late autumn so that naturethe withering sedge, the cold, and the absence of birdsongreflects the mood of the knight.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem:Alone and palely loitering (line 2): alliteration.
lily on thy brow (line 9): metaphor comparing the knight's paleness to the hue of a lily.
And on thy cheeks a fading rose (line 11): metaphor comparing the color of his cheeks to the color of a rose.
Full beautiful, a faery's child (line 14): alliteration.
roots of relish, sighed full sore (line 25): alliteration.
And there . . . (lines 30, 31, 33, 34): anaphora.
I saw pale Kings, and Princes too / Pale warriors, death pale were they all (lines 37-39): alliteration.
By John Keats
Original 1819 Version
O what can ail thee, knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has witherd from the lake,
And no birds sing.
sedge: Plant with pointed leaves and tiny flowers.
O what can ail thee, knight at arms! 5
So haggard and so woebegone?
The squirrels granary is full,
And the harvests done.
woebegone: Woeful, mournful, sorrowful.
I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew, 10
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
lily.on thy brow: Pale forehead.
"I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautifula faerys child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light, 15
And her eyes were wild.
"I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She lookd at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan. 20
fragrant zone: Sash for the waist.
"I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faerys song.
"She found me roots of relish sweet, 25
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said
I love thee true.
manna dew: Edible product of various kinds of plants.
"She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sighd full sore, 30
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
"And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamdAh! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dreamd 35
On the cold hills side.
betide: is about to happen
"I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They criedLa Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall! 40
Thee hath in thrall: Inverted word order. The meaning is has you in thrall. Some texts print this line as Hath thee 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 hills side.
gloam: Twilight, dusk.
"And this is why I sojourn here, 45
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is witherd from the lake,
And no birds sing."
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