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What Does La Belle Dame sans Merci Mean? Explicating the Meaning of John Keats' Poem

Updated on December 9, 2015

To explicate John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is to know the meaning of life through understanding beauty. The poem essentially tells the tale of a knight, who falls in love with a beautiful woman, without mercy, otherwise known as an evil fairy. To understand and analyze the meaning of the knight’s tale, a look will be taken into each of the twelve stanzas of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” to define Keats’ words of wisdom.

The title itself translates as the beautiful woman without mercy, thus setting the stage for the action within the poem itself. In stanza one, an anonymous speaker asks a “palely loitering” (line 2) knight (referred to in the poem as a “wight’) what might be troubling him. The speaker, too, seems as troubled as the knight and cannot find justification for anyone to be loitering in such a place, where “the sedge has withered from the lake/and no birds sing” (lines 3-4). To the speaker, the knight’s presence, and condition, in such a place is mystifying.

In stanza two, the speaker tells the knight that his life should be a fulfilling time, as even “the squirrel's granary is full/and the harvest’s done” (lines 7-8). By stanza three, the speaker leans in closely to examine the knight, noting that the knight is symbolically withered like a “fading rose” (line 11) and his brow holds a deep crease, metaphorically, a “lily on thy brow” (line 9). In comparing the knight to withering nature in such a fashion, Keats is using allusion to set the tone of the knight’s emotions, furthering the feelings of despair and misery that have landed him in the dying garden.

In stanza four, the speaker has gotten the knight to tell his woeful story, which the knight begins with his description of a mysterious lady that he met “in the meads” (line 13), and calmly cites that she was “full beautiful - a faery’s child/her hair was long, her foot was light/and her eyes were wild” (lines 14-16). In this, the speaker now becomes the knight and a reader is taken fully into the story of his misery and despair. In stanza five, the knight tells how he began to court the beautiful fairy, immediately taking her for a memorable ride on his “pacing stead” (line 17), where she began to talk and sing to him.

In stanza six, the knight has fallen in love with her, making “a garland for her head” (line 21) and beautiful flower bracelets for her arms. By his generosity, the beautiful fairy looks on him “as [if] she did love” (line 23) and a reader is lead to believe, with the knight, that she is the fair maiden he claims her to be, falling in love with a valiant, and surprisingly sensitive and generous knight.

By stanza seven, the beautiful fairy begins to court the knight in return, making him sweet dishes with “honey wild, and manna dew” (line 26), even, by the end of the stanza, voicing her love for him in a “language strange” (line 27). Perhaps a reader is treated to a bit of foreshadowing, here, as her manner and method can be called in to question. While, surely, a maiden can fall for a chivalrous knight, there seems something odd about this beautiful fairy and her strange language that adds to the tension, by this stanza, that some event is about to happen which would lead to the sad, desperate knight that the speaker met in the withering grove in stanza one.

Then, in stanza eight, the beautiful fairy takes the knight back to her “elfin grove” (line 29) where they stared into each other’s eyes and, while the poem doesn’t mention the explicit details of what transpired, a reader is led to believe that they consummated their love in some manner and then the knight “so kiss’d [her] to sleep” (line 32). In stanza nine, the knight tells how they slept for a long time, dreaming the kinds of dreams that, as a reader is treated to in stanza ten, suggests that he sees into her past dark deeds of “pale kings, and princes too/pale warriors, death-pale were they all” (lines 37-38). And then, in the final two lines of stanza ten, the knight realizes that something has gone wrong when he hears the warning cries of all the men of the beautiful fairy’s past, shouting out to him that “la belle Dame sans merci/hath thee in thrall!” (lines 39-40). To his dismay, in stanza eleven, the knight looks upon their “starv’d lips in the gloam/with horrid warning gaped wide” (lines 41-42), with the full knowledge that it was the beautiful fairy who had ended their lives. Then, he awakens, finding himself transported to the gloomy hillside where the speaker found him in despair in stanza one. It seems, he has gotten off lucky, somehow.

Then, the knight seems to look back to the speaker of the poem, acknowledging everything that the speaker noted about him in the first few stanzas, and with weight of his final words, “this is why I sojourn here/alone and palely loitering/though the sedge is wither’d from the lake/and no birds sing” (lines 45-48), the poem is ended.

Now, while the knight did not literally end up as the kings and princes of the dark fairy’s past, he does endure a death, as well. His love for the beautiful fairy ended in a brutal, horrible moment, and it seems, from his condition in the grove in stanza one, that he is a long way from hopping to recover from her thrall.

John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” gives dark insight to the power that love has over a person and the danger that lurks within it. From this poem, a reader can look upon the despairing knight as did the speaker of the poem, with confusion and perplexity for his state and condition, or with compassion and empathy for all he has lost. Ultimately, the knight did know true beauty which gave him love strong enough to have true meaning in his life, even if that beauty, in the end, was what destroyed him.

Reference

John Keats. “La Belle sans Merci.” Accessed June 24, 2009 http://englishhistory.net/keats/poetry/labelledamesansmerci.html

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