La Belle Dame Sans Merci
A Poem by John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Title Background
Rhyme Scheme, Meter
Figures of Speech
Poem Text With Notes
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Keats
Study Guide Written by Michael J. Cummings...© 2009

Type of Work and Year of Publication

......."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.
.......A literary ballad has a known author who composes the poem with careful deliberation according to sophisticated conventions. Like the folk ballad, it tells a story with a popular theme. However, accomplished nineteenth-century romantic poets such as Keats couched literary ballads in more elegant language than that of typical folk ballads. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is intended to be read, not sung.
.......Keats completed the poem in April 1819. Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), a critic and poet, published a revised version of the poem in his literary periodical, The Indicator, in 1820. The original version is generally regarded as superior to the altered version.

The Title

.......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. 
.......Be aware that lines 37-44 bring into question the validity of this interpretation. However, it may well be that the fairy lady, depressed and lonely in her elfin grot (line 29) became enamored of kings, princes, and other knights in previous decades or centuries.
Interpretation 3: Terminal Illness

.......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 hill—pale, feverish, and alone. He lasted less than two more years, dying in February 1821.

Bright Star
Award-Winning Film About Keats and Fanny Brawne
(Rated PG)
.......Now available at Amazon.com is Bright Star, a DVD centering on the soulful love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne when he was at the height of his poetic powers and in the throes of disease that ended his life when he was only twenty-five. Amazon.com says it is "rich, sensuous, quietly thrilling," a film to be added "to the very short list of admirable films about writers." The review continues as follows:
.......The movie, set during his last several years, focuses on his playful friendship with and evolving love for Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the independent-minded young woman who lived next door in Hampstead Village and was, in her own fashion, an artistic spirit. Completing an ineffably fraught constellation--not exactly a romantic triangle--is Keats's host Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), who loves, esteems, and regards Keats with both pride and envy, and engages in an unstated rivalry for Fanny. All three performances are superb, with Whishaw adding to his gallery of artist figures (the olfactorily obsessed murderer in Perfume, one of the Bob Dylans in I'm Not There), and Cornish and Schneider taking top acting honors for 2009. As in Campion's The Piano, others are party to the central story, and they have identities, personalities, and claims to intelligence and understanding that we appreciate without having it announced in dialogue. Kerry Fox (redheaded wild girl of Campion's An Angel at My Table nearly two decades ago) evokes Fanny's mother with a few brushstrokes, and Fanny's young sister and brother are watchful presences and de facto co-conspirators in the courtship. In addition, Bright Star is the rare period movie to convey--without being insistent--what it was like to be alive in another era, the nature of houses and rooms and how people occupied them, the way windows linked spaces and enlarged people's lives and experiences, how fires warmed as the milky English sunlight did not. And always there is an aliveness to place and weather, the creak of boardwalk underfoot and the wind rustling the reeds as lovers walk through a wetland. Poetry grows from such things; at least, Jane Campion's does. --Richard T. Jameson
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. 
.......In each stanza, the meter of the first three lines is iambic tetrameter. In this format, a line contains four feet (four pairs of syllables), with the stress falling on the first syllable in each pair. The first two lines of the poem demonstrate this metric pattern.

O WHAT..|..can.AIL..|..thee.KNIGHT..|..at.ARMS

A LONE..|..and.PALE..|..ly.LOIT..|..er.ING

The meter of the last line of each stanza is usually in iambic dimeter: In this format, a line contains two feet (two pairs of syllables), with the stress falling on the first syllable in each pair. The last line of the first stanza demonstrates this pattern.
and NO..|..birdsSING
In addition, the last line of some stanzas combines an anapestic foot with an iambic foot, as in line 8:
and the HAR..|..vest's DONE

.......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 nature—the withering sedge, the cold, and the absence of birdsong—reflects the mood of the knight.

Figures of Speech

.......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.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
By John Keats
Original 1819 Version
With Notes
O what can ail thee, knight at arms, 
  Alone and palely loitering? 
The sedge has wither’d 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 squirrel’s granary is full, 
  And the harvest’s 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.
cheeks a fading rose: The cheeks are losing their color.

"I met a lady in the meads
  Full beautiful—a faery’s child, 
Her hair was long, her foot was light,         15
  And her eyes were wild. 

meads: Meadows. 

"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.         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 faery’s 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 sigh’d full sore,         30
And there I shut her wild wild eyes 
  With kisses four. 

grot: Cave. 

"And there she lullèd me asleep, 
  And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide
The latest dream I ever dream’d         35
  On the cold hill’s side. 

betide: is about to happen

"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!”         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 hill’s side. 

gloam: Twilight, dusk.

"And this is why I sojourn here,         45
  Alone and palely loitering, 
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake, 
  And no birds sing."

Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • Write another stanza (or two) in which you take the part of the questioner and respond to the knight's story.
  • Reread lines 27 and 28, then answer this question. If the lady speaks a strange language, how does the knight know what she said? 
  • Has a disappointment of any kind ever made you feel like the knight? If so, write a short poem about your experience.