La Belle Dame sans Merci, one of John Keats last works, is a ballad which tells the story of a knight who fell in love with a mystical creature, and now suffers the aftermath of a broken heart.
The poem starts with the poet finding a solitary knight stumbling around the countryside. The scene of autumn is described: No grass grows on the river banks, the chirping birds are absent, squirrels and other animals have hoarded food to sustain them throughout winter, and the harvest season is over. The poet wonders what sickness has gripped the knight, making him look so exhausted and miserable. He seems to be in a terrible condition: the color is fast fading from his cheeks and his forehead glistens with sweat, contrasting with his increasing pallor. An aura of mystery surrounds the scene, and one cannot help but wonder what a knight, a man used to action and surviving in harsh conditions, is doing walking aimlessly around the moor, and what is it that has befallen him to reduce him to such a pitiful state.
With the fourth stanza the knight starts to tell his tale: He had met a beautiful maiden in the meadows. She was the most beautiful thing he had cast eyes upon, with long flowing hair and a soft unearthly grace which led him to believe that she must be a fairy treading the earth. Her eyes however had struck him as sad and doleful as if she was mourning something.
He tells the poet how she joined him on his horse and they rode together. He had eyes only for her and did not notice anything else, for she was receptive of his attentions and sang to him sweetly. He tried to woo her by making garlands and bracelets out of flowers and she gazed at him lovingly, giving him delectable things to eat such as sweet roots and wild honey. She spoke in a different dialect yet he was sure that she told him that she loved him with all her heart.
The sense of suspense and mystery is further elevated in the reader by now: although one had expected a lady to feature prominently in the Knight’s endeavors, it was not common practice for upper class ladies to be wandering around the countryside without an escort, and be as forthcoming and immodest as to sing and moan to a stranger whom she has just met. Who is this woman and where did she come from?
Some questions are answered when the knight mentions that the lady then took him to her elfin grot, and the reader realizes that the lady is an actual fairy, a supernatural being that the knight has fallen in love with. The knight remembers that she looked at him sadly as he kissed her wild troubled eyes to sleep. As they slept together on the hill side, the knight had a dream: he saw the deathly visions of kings, princes and warriors, with gnarled lips and ghastly figures. They all cried out to him, warning him that the lady has no mercy and he is in her trap now as well. That is when he awoke and found himself alone and on the verge of death, without any sign on his lover in sight. He has been wandering the land ever since, hoping either for his lady to return or for death to embrace him.
Thus the knight’s story comes to an end and his state of depression and sickness is explained: he has fallen victim to a lover’s betrayal and abandonment. But the lady remains still an enigma, both to the poet and the reader. Though on first look, the woman appears to be the classic example of the attention seeking selfish lady who mercilessly leads unwary young men to believe that she loves them and then deserts them, alone in their grief. But on deeper study it’s found that there’s a lot more to her character: her eyes are sad and wild, her sighs sorrowful and her gaze mournful. Could it be that she is as unfortunate as her victims, bound by fate to travel the earth and fall in love with mortals again and again only to have to desert them as they could not be her match? The beauty of the story is that this question remains forever unanswered; one can derive one’s own analysis about her, but never know for sure who she really was.
Other than the constant creation of suspense and the thick aura of mystery which drapes the ballad and its characters, Keats has also used other figures of speech to further intensify the exquisiteness of his poems. In relating the sickness of the knight he compared he metaphorically describes his pale complexion as a ‘lily on his brow’ and his fading color as a ‘fast withering rose.’ The first few stanzas are also rich with imagery as the poet draws the autumn scene of the desolate and lonely moors and the solitary knight in the reader’s head.
The most basic ‘moral’ of this story of woe is the dangers of heady, passionate love in which one can get carried away and the imminent heart break which follows every such transient affair. The knight was too impulsive in falling head over heels for a strange woman, and he had to pay the price for his impetuosity.
However, one could also argue that Keats wrote this poem as a dedicated tribute to absolute beauty. The knight had no desire to live on after once finding and losing the epitome of beauty in the lovely enchantress. Materialistic beauty is captivating yet ephemeral, and every being that strives to find it, has to be prepared for losing it too, that is the revenge of time. Those who fail to realize that soon find out that no meaning remains in anything else afterwards.
Another quite somber interpretation of the poem is that it shows the outcome of every idealist romantic who believes in true and eternal love, casting a harsh light on the fact, that love is, no matter how pure, never immortal. It cannot last forever and has to eventually bow down before either time or death.
This poem is, not unlike most of Keats’s work, a personal favorite both for being gorgeous in its language and story, and thought provoking in its poetical philosophy.