La Belle Dame sans Merci
A Presentation in 9 Literary Elements
The following article examines nine literary elements regarding John Keats' poem, "La Belle Dame sans Merci": title, genre and layout, structure, division into sections, characters, setting in time, setting in place, narrative techniques, and themes.
In 1819, the poem appeared in the collection "Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems." The title is a French phrase and can be translated as "The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy." It is important to note that this title was also utilized by Alain Chartier's for a poem in 1424. Of course these two poems differ significantly in terms of content, structure, and themes:
- In "La Belle Dame sans Merci," John Keats uses the ballad form, characterized by an ABCB rhyme scheme. In contrast, Chartier's poem was written in octosyllable octaves, where each line has the same number of syllables as the squares on a chessboard.
- Keats' ballad is about love and death, whereas Chartier's poem is about love and power. The concept of power is intertwined with the theme of chess.
- Keats' poem tells the story of a knight who meets an enchanting fairy lady, while Chartier's ballad revolves around a king and queen playing chess. In Keats' poem, readers are warned about the risks of intense affection and attachment.
The poem "La Belle Dame sans Merci" consists of 48 lines, organized into quatrains, with each quatrain following an ABCB rhyme scheme. In this rhyme scheme, the second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyme with each other, while the first and third lines do not. This regular rhyme scheme adds to the poem's structured and rhythmic quality, emphasizing the ballad form. It creates a sense of predictability within each stanza while maintaining a regular, musical cadence throughout the poem.
The poem is structured as a ballad and contains elements of a dialogue between the knight and an unidentified narrator. In the initial three stanzas, the speaker directs their attention to the knight and conveys concern about the knight's desolate and pallid appearance, drawing a parallel between the knight's look and the surrounding natural landscape. The questions serve as a catalyst for the knight to narrate his story.
The poem features a circular structure. The poem starts with the knight, described as "alone and palely loitering" in a barren landscape (line 2), and it ends with the same image of the knight, once again, in a state of solitude and desolation as he is "alone and palely loitering" (line 46). It emphasizes his isolation and desolation at both the beginning and end of the poem. This creates a sense of symmetry and conclusion. The structure of the poem also reinforces the themes of enchantment and despair. The knight's first encounter with the lady in the meadow and his subsequent return to solitude form a pattern.
Division into sections
Section 1: The Initial Encounter (Lines 1-28)
In this section, the poem describes the knight's meeting with a beautiful and mysterious woman. He is initially enchanted by her and is captivated by her beauty. The knight is under the spell of the lady, and the tone is one of enchantment and allure.
Section 2: The Dream and Revelation (Lines 29-44)
This section presents a shift in the narrative. The lady takes the knight to her "elfin grot." The knight's journey into the supernatural world of the Belle Dame begins. It is there that his dream becomes a nightmare (line 35): he sees other men who have also fallen victim to the lady's enchantment and realizes that he too has been mystified. It has a darker tone.
Section 3: The Knight's Desolation (Lines 45-48)
In the final section, the knight finds himself alone and palely loitering in a desolate place, mirroring the opening scene (line 45). The knight's despair is evident. This section closes circle, with the knight's return to desolation and solitude.
The narrative revolves around the central characters, a knight and a lady. Both characters initially appear as archetypal figures of a medieval ballad: the traditional chivalrous knight and the enchanting, ethereal lady.
At first glance, the knight, depicted as a "knight-at-arms," appears as a gallant and noble figure, He emanates a strong sense of duty and gallantry, especially when he places the lady on his steed. He then transforms gradually. His dreamlike encounter with the lady turns into a supernatural and mysterious interaction. His reference to "the latest dream I ever dreamt" describes this metamorphosis. The closing line, "And this is why I sojourn here, alone," implies a sense of desolation and isolation. The knight's transformation illustrates the effects of his involvement with the lady.
The lady seems initially enchanting. She is described as "Full beautiful, a faery's child." Here, "full" suggests that her beauty is not just attractive or charming but is exceptionally and almost supernaturally beautiful. However, her character too undergoes a metamorphosis into an increasingly mysterious and enigmatic figure. Her "wild" eyes, the fading of her rose-like complexion, and the haunting "faery's song," all collaborate to create a sense of unease. The mention of the "faery's song" refers to the mysterious, mystical, and enchanting quality of the song the lady sings.The song reinforces the supernatural element. It plays a significant role, as it suggests that the lady's charm is not as benevolent as it initially appears.
Progressively, the enchanting exterior of the lady gives way to a much more complex and enigmatic personality. Furthermore, she manifests an emotional response, by weeping and sighing "full sore" after the knight's kiss. The word "full" defines her sorrow not just mild or moderate; it is profoundly and deeply felt. The use of "full" here emphasizes the emotional turmoil that she experiences. Her initial description as "full beautiful" contrasts with this "full sore" state. The adjective "full" accompanies the lady's transformation from a seductive figure to a potentially malevolent one. Her character, formerly a symbol of seduction, is now a symbol of cruelty, as the title seems to infer.
Setting in time:
The poem's setting in time is intentionally ambiguous. However, it is placed in a medieval or fantastical context, as the chivalric and fairy-like imagery clearly shows. A chivalric imagery is introduced by the first reference to a "knight-at-arms". The repetition of the same reference reinforces it. Repetitions are very common in medieval ballads.
The presence of a "faery's child," "faery's song," and an "elfin grot" hints at supernatural elements commonly found in medieval and romantic literature. The mention of "pale kings and princes" and "pale warriors" further enhances the sense of a medieval or historical setting.
Lines 3, 7, 8, and 47 collectively suggest a seasonal context, likely late summer or early autumn:
"The sedge has withered from the lake," and "Though the sedge is withered from the lake" indicate a change in the natural environment, marking the shift from a warm season to a drier or colder one.
"The squirrel's granary is full," and "And the harvest's done" emphasize that the events occur during a season of abundance, as nature prepares for the coming winter.
Taken together, these lines situate the poem in a season of transition, possibly late summer or early autumn. This setting aligns with the poem's themes of fleeting beauty.
Setting in Place:
The variety of settings described create an atmosphere of mystery.
The poem opens with a 'knight-at-arms', alone and 'palely loitering' in a desolate and wild place, line 3: 'The sedge has withered from the lake'. The first stanza establishes the tone of the ballad.
In line 13, the poem presents a meadow ("the meads"), which represents an open field where the knight first meets the lady.
Line 29 takes the knight and the lady to an "elfin grot," a mysterious, mythical spot, where the lady weeps and sighs (line 30). This indicates another variation in the setting.
In lines 33 and 34, the lady lulls the knight to sleep in a mysterious place. This is where she enchants him and makes him powerless. The repeated use of the adverb 'There' indicates both the place where the spell occurs and the nightmarish location the knight dreams of, described in line 43. This nightmare leaves him confused and disoriented.
The poem ends with the knight declaring that he is alone (lines 45-46) in a solitary place. This scene scene parallels the initial one.
Many mental images are created throughout the poem engaging the senses
Tactile Imagery: The poem describes the knight setting the lady on his horse (line 21 "I set her on my pacing steed").
Taste: lines 25-26: "She found me roots of relish sweet, And honey wild, and manna-dew" describe the knight's encounter with the lady, where she provides him with sweet-tasting food.
Visual Imagery: visual details, like the lady's "wild" eyes (line 16) and the fading rose on her cheeks (line 11), "with horrid warning gaped wide" (line 42), help readers form clear mental pictures of the characters and scenes.
Auditory Imagery: sounds and absence of sounds play a significant role in conveying emotions and atmosphere.
Lines 20: the lady "made sweet moan," creating an auditory image for the sound of her emotional response to the knight's actions.
Lines 23-24: the lady is described as singing "A faery's song". The reader can imagine the enchanting melody of her song.
Lines 27-28: the lady's declaration of love is described as being expressed in "language strange," suggesting that the sound of her words has a supernatural quality.
Line 33: the lady "lullèd" the knight to sleep. This choice of words evokes the soothing sound of her actions, creating a sense of peacefulness.
Lines 39-40: the description of the kings and princes crying, "La Belle Dame sans Merci Hath thee in thrall!" emphasize the lady's power.
Absence of Sound: The poem also uses the absence of sound to convey a sense of emptiness and desolation.
Lines 3 and 4: The poem notes that "The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing." This vividly depicts the absence of usual natural sounds, creating a profound sense of silence and emptiness in the environment.
Line 48: The poem concludes by repeating the idea that "no birds sing," underscoring the persisting stillness and absence of life.
2. Figures of Speech:
Personification: the lack of birds singing.
Metaphor: The comparison of the lady's eyes to "wild" eyes serves as a metaphor, suggesting that her eyes are untamed and unpredictable.
Desire and Love
When the knight meets with the Belle Dame her beauty and enchantment captivate him. This is underscored by the knight's chivalric actions, such as placing the lady on his steed, signifying his commitment to fulfil a knight's duty: to serve and protect her.
As the poem progresses, it explores the idea that desire and love can lead to isolation and despair. This theme becomes evident as the knight finds himself alone and in a state of despair at the poem's conclusion. The ballad then conveys its moral, highlighting the transient and potentially destructive nature of intense passions.
Isolation and Desolation
The theme of isolation and desolation is prevalent throughout the poem. The repeated mention of being "alone" emphasize his loneliness. This isolation is a direct result of his encounter with the lady, as he is left abandoned and dejected as described in the last quatrain.
The theme of "otherness" is illustrated by the lady. She is characterized by an extraordinary beauty, described as a "faery's child," with her long hair, light foot, and wild eyes. These attributes render her a figure of fascination and mystery.
The concept of "otherness" also extends to the lady's actions and behaviors. She sings a captivating "faery's song" and utters declarations of love in a "language strange," enhancing her supernatural quality.
The Belle Dame is portrayed as a supernatural and fascinating figure with 'wild' eyes. Her "faery's child" quality and the "faery's song" she sings allude to her enchanting and supernatural nature. The repeated use of the word "faery" emphasizes her connection to the world of the supernatural.
Her ability to enchant and captivate the knight, as well as her weeping in a location unknown to him, underline her otherness.
The Transitory Nature of Beauty
The poem illustrates how intense desires and enchanting experiences are often short-lived. The fleeting nature of the knight's experience with the Belle Dame is mirrored in the changing natural landscape. The withering of the sedge, the completion of the harvest, and the squirrel's full granary all point to the passage of time and the impermanence of beauty and abundance.
The knight is described as "haggard" and "woe-begone," suggesting that he is suffering and near death.
The knight's dream vision of "pale kings and princes too" who "cried, 'La Belle Dame sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!'" implies that death is near and that the knight is being held captive by the lady.
The lady is described as a "faery's child" who "lulled" the knight to sleep, suggesting that she has the power to bring sleep and death. The lady's ability to lull the knight to sleep and give him a nightmare also suggests that she has the power to control his dreams and thoughts.
The "death-pale" complexion of the lady and her "wild eyes" suggest that she is a supernatural being associated with death.
The final lines of the poem, "And this is why I sojourn here, / Alone and palely loitering, / Though the sedge is withered from the lake, / And no birds sing," suggest that the knight has been abandoned and left to die.
John Keats believed that real beauty is everlasting, transcending the passage of time. In "La Belle Dame sans Merci," the knight's encounter with a beautiful but ultimately deceptive lady illustrates this concept. Her superficial beauty leads to his despair, highlighting Keats' message that true beauty endures, while mere appearances can be misleading and temporary.
This poem underscores Keats' exploration of the fleeting nature of beauty and its profound connection to enduring truths. It reminds us of the impermanence of our experiences and reinforces Keats' philosophy that genuine beauty must possess timeless qualities to be truly meaningful.