La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a wonderful romantic ballad that some have considered one of the best of Keats’ poems. It was composed probably in the spring or summer of 1819.
The title of the poem means ‘The Beautiful Lady without Pity. The title is taken from a poem by Alain Chartier, a French poet of the 15th Century of the Court of Charles VI. Keats is indebted to Alain Chartier only for the title which had a kind of fascination for him. In the Eve of St. Agnes, the title is mentioned in the following lines:
“He played an ancient ditty, long since mute,
In Provence called, “La belle dame sans merci:”
Chartier’s poem narrates “a prolix conversation” between an obdurate lady and her lover. In the end, the lady goes away indifferent to dance and play while the lover is desperate to tear his hair and die.
Among books that Keats read with devotion and which influenced his poetry considerably should be mentioned is Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The Knight-at-arms of Keats’ La Belle is the same one who is Burton: “wandered in the woods sad all alone, Forsaking men’s society, making great moan.’These lines can be compared with the opening lines of Keat’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.
“O what can ail thee, Knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?”
The central idea of the poem is unrequited love, and the pain and suffering of one who loves but are not loved in return. It is said that in writing this ballad, Keats was perhaps expressing his own feelings; for he also loved but his love was not returned.
The poem starts with a question: What can trouble the Knight at arms and make his look pale and sick? To describe the Knight’s condition, epithets like ‘Alone’, ‘palely loitering’‘haggard’ and so ‘woe-begone’ are used. His brow is compared with white lily and his pale cheeks with ‘a fading rose’.
In the following stanzas, the knight-at-arms narrates his sad story of how he was enchanted by a very beautiful lady in the meadows who appeared to be as beautiful as a fairy and whose wild eyes seemed to be inviting. He expressed his love for her by making a garland for her head and a girdle of sweet-scented flowers. She gave him a loving glance, so he made her sit on his horse.
The beautiful lady reciprocated the knights’ love and sang a fairy song while riding on the horse with him. She brought sweet tasting roots, honey and enchanted food and in an unfamiliar language said, “I love thee true!” She took the knight to her fairy cave and sang a lullaby to make the knight go to sleep.
The knight dreamed that there would be trouble in his life. He saw pale kings and warriors who had died for the love of this beautiful lady without mercy. They told him that she had enslaved the knight as she had enslaved them. Their pitiable condition in the evening twilight woke him up from his dream. After giving this simple explanation the knight says:
‘And that is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing?
The knight-at-arms represents that chivalrous and romantic hero who has aspirations of each one of us. It is not only the soul of the poet “in thrall” in love but the soul of every lover and idealist. The knight expresses the infinite agony of frustrated love which is doomed to “loiter padely and alone.”
The ballad is medieval in subject matter and the medieval element is highlighted by Keats’ power of recapturing the mystical as exemplified in this poem and his other poems Lamia and The Eve of St. Agnes. Herford has rightly commented that Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci is “a master-piece of horror-stricken reticence and magical suggestion”. The poet intentionally left the story slightly mysterious, that the reader may be left asking questions.
It is a ballad of forty lines arranged in twelve stanzas of four lines each. The diction is very simple, selective and dignified, old spellings of the words such as ‘thee’ ‘hath’ ‘thy’ don’t pose any difficulty in understanding. It may be concluded that the composition of this ballad is full of artistic skills and the epithets and images convey the poets’ ideas successfully.