La Belle Dame Sans Merci: Poem - Summary & Analysis

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O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

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

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

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,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

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!’

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.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Introduction

     La Belle Dame Sans Merci is one of the greatest poems by Keats. It is a masterpiece of romantic art. Its rich suggestiveness has made it one of the most haunting and unforgettable poems in English. It has been generously praised by critics, some of whom have called it Keats’s masterpiece.

Summary

      The poet sees a knight wandering all alone. He is pale and haggard, and his face shows signs of agony. On the poet’s inquiry why he is wandering so forlorn the knight relates how he met a beautiful lady and fell in love with her, how he made love to her by presenting her gifts of flowers, and how he seated her on his horse. The lady made a show of love, took him to her faery cave, gave him faery food and lulled him to sleep. In a terrible dream the knight saw many kings, princes and warriors who had been similarly captured by this woman and they warned him that he was in the grip of the beautiful lady without pity. When he woke, he found himself alone on the cold hillside while the lady had gone. Even since then he has no rest, and that is why he wanders alone.

Critical Analysis

Its suggestiveness

      What makes this poem so great is its inexhaustible suggestiveness. The poet throws out only hints, without making anything definite. Who is the mysterious land without mercy? When and where did she live, when and where did she entice the knight? Why has she made it her life’s business to inveigle people and cause them intense pain? What does she stand for? Is she a symbol of beauty, of heartless and fatal womanhood, of the elusive and false phenomena of the world around us? What is the meaning of the poem? All these questions will forever remain unanswered or will elicit replies Recording to each individual’s taste and imaginative grasp.

Its Atmosphere

      This vagueness makes the poem a document of horror and mystery. The merciless lady has literary and mythological associations that arouse a subdued horror. These suggestions of horror combined with the suggestion of the supernatural about the woman and knight-errantry about the man, impart to the poem a medieval atmosphere, an atmosphere of medieval enchantment and chivalry.

Its Artistic Economy

      In this poem, Keats has a strict control over his descriptive power as well as over emotion. It is not the Keats of Endymion reveling in the description for its own sake giving free vent to his motion without restraint. He is not even the, Keats of The Eve St. Agnes, using a rich and lavish description of character and emotion with masterly effect. In this poem, there is no richness, no lavishness. Keats uses the bare minimum of words in order to produce the maximum effect. His descriptions are concrete, as usual, but they only pick up some significant detail and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. Thus he describes only the hair, the gait, and the eyes of the lady and that too, with the help of the barest and simplest words—“long” “light” and “wild. There is an equal economy of words and details in the description of the anguish that the knight’s appearance shows, and the desolate scene in Which “no birds sings and sedge has withered from the lake”.

Its from

      This atmosphere of horror and mystery, of misery and desolation, of agony and subdued passion, of medieval chivalry and enchantment, is produced in the simplest of all forms—the ballad form. Not only are the words simple, not only are the descriptions reduced to the barest minimum, and the form also observes the same simplicity. The lines are short, the rhymes few—only in the second and fourth lines of each stanza. The ballad meter has thus been used with immense effect. The poet makes very effective use of the traditional repetitions of the ballad in such lines as “the sedge has withered from the lake, and no birds sing” which occurs at the end of the poem also. The lines on the cold hillside also are repeated.

Conclusion

      This poem is thus a masterpiece from all points of view, from the viewpoint of its technical mastery, its astistic economy, its romantic suggestiveness, its sweet simplicity. It really deserves to hold the honored place it does in English literature.

      “In La Belle Dame, the medieval revival reaches its culmination. The depth of passion which it expresses or rather implies (for there is not the least suspicion of raising), the intense lyrical feeling (though the poet’s personality is absolutely merged in the dramatic conception), the exquisite art by which every detail of the weird landscape and every cadence of the wild but subtle melody contributes to the general effect of mystery and desolation, produce together an effect unequaled in the poetry of romance.”

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