La Dame Sans Merci by John Keats is about a knight who had been captivated by a Lady. Apparently, a bizarre and eerie poem, it captivates its readers. On first reading, it is difficult to ascertain what actually happens between the knight and his belle dame. In a way, Keats tries to portray the consequences love has on true lovers.
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The poem has a surrealistic feel throughout, and presents a memoir of a knight who was in love but had been bitterly betrayed by his lover. The knight’s voice in the poem has been a chorus so often heard of “knights, kings, princes, and warriors” who ‘claim that the belle dame has them in “thrall”, even as their literary antecedents have enthralled their lovers.”
Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci explores the consequences of love and acts as a caution to all who are looking for adventurous love. This paper will first discuss the tale told by Keats in his poem and then analyze the poem based on the thesis mentioned above.
A literal description of the poem shows that the poem is narrated by an observer or traveler who comes across the “knight at arms” loitering alone in the fields. His appearance foretells that the knight was dying. When the narrator asks the night why he was in such a dilapidated state, the knight replies his woebegone story, which takes up the rest of the poem. The knight relates that how he met a woman in the wilderness with whom he spent a lot of time.
This was the stage when the knight was enamored with the woman and was wooing her with all the chivalry of a knight by letting her ride on his horse or making garlands for her. Then this woman invited him to her “elfin grot” where they probably made love. Then the woman lulled the knight to sleep.
While sleeping, the knight had a terrible nightmare where he saw all the kings and knights that the beautiful woman had killed. The knight woke up, anxious and found himself all alone, desolately lying on the edge of a hill.
The poem sparks with a long tradition of belle dames famed to vilify and destroy men of fame like the knight in the poem. The central figure of the poem is definitely the women whose relation to the knight is clearly adversative.
Thus, Keats describes a woman or the image of a woman who is discoursed rather than intuitive. In a way, Keats uses elements of allegory and surrealism. He creates a magical tale wherein the woman takes the form of an evil witch who lulls men and destroys them through death.
The eroticism in the poem is clearly observed in stanza four and five that are directly addressed to the male readers. The poet describes the beautiful woman and compares in romantic ardor to a fairy’s child. Her beauty was radiant through the conventional idea of beauty of fair skin and long hair. However, the poet makes an exception while describing her eyes, which he describes as “wild”.
He made garlands for the woman and other accessories with flowers and the woman replied with “sweet moan” as she said she loved them. In these two paragraphs, the poet describes the woman in the typical manner of a mythical or classical temptress. Yet, the enamored knight went on with her, playing along with her charms, entangled in her web. The poem particularly expresses a fear towards women.
The tale of the wronged knight in the hand of a fair woman who tempted him into his bleak destiny is a clear indication for the readers to gape at the consequences blind loved towards a fair maiden may hold.
Edwin Moise points out “that this poem is about “fear of women” and showing the knight’s character in the very beginning of the poem as an indicator of the cause of what happens to him, almost like a moral lesson . Keats actually shows that the knight encouraged the woman with his noble wooing which emboldened her.
Then it is observed that the woman, emboldened by the levy given by the knight, courts the knight. This is most clearly observed in stanza eight:
She took me to her elfin grot,
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And there she wept, and sigh’d full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me to sleep…
The possibility of the woman being an enchantress enthralling men has been quite often present in studies of the poem . The story retold by the knight to the narrator has a lot happening such as seduction, enthrallment, dream, gothic vision, and a fall. Therefore, the narration of the poem is highly stretched due to the length of the narration.
Kelley discusses the similarities between Spencer’s Faerie Queen and Keats poem . He points out that like Spencer, Keats too writes about “allegorical romance”: “the union between Keats’s belle dame and knight echoes those between Spencer’s errant knight and evil enchantresses disguised as virtuous women.” (341)
In a way, Keats takes the subject of allegorical romance one step forward for his knight does not stop at making just one garland, but makes three – a garland, a bracelet, and a fragrant “zone”. Keats uses all the imageries so explicitly available in Spencer’s ballad and uses them as tropes – things like the gifts he gives her, the food she gives to him, her tears, and her appearance – that are pointers depicting what she actually was.
Her tears and sighs are signs of who she really was. In a way, humans are completely alien to the true nature of such women, and men easily fall prey to their charms. This is often observed in Spencer’s depictions of such women. Therefore, the tale that Keats chose to narrate in the poem is one that has a long tradition of discourse in literature. The belle dame has been described by staying close to the popular discourse of such women.
Further, Keats also dwells on the ingenuity of humans who invariable fail to detect the approach of such evil. On the contrary, Keats shows that it is in human nature to be enticed into such trickery completely oblivious of the consequences. Therefore, Keats actually tries to imply that the fate that befall on the knight was something that he could have stopped had he not allowed his sentiments be bewitched by the belle dame.
Numerous feminist critiques may be possible over the depiction of the belle dame in Keats’s poem. However, it will be prudent to first observe how he arranges the whole story. In a way, the woman had enticed the knight into her elfin grot and had made love to him. The knight being an adult, it can be assumed, lovemaking was completely consensual. However, the enchantress cried when they were in her abode.
The question that arises is why did she cry? In a way, the tale recounts the fate of knights and kings who were enthralled by this woman and states that they all turned up dead. However, the knight in the poem did not die. He was just wondering.
If the woman intended to kill him, she had ample chance to murder him while he was sleeping. Instead, he found himself on the desolate edge of a hill, but still alive. The life that she spared was probably a consequence of her own attachment to the knight for which she shed tears.
The question arises is whether the dame belle should be seen as a seductress out to kill the knights or some one else. The question to this arises from the line “she look’d at me as she did love”. This line puts an objectionable light on the enthrallment argument.
This can be read in two ways one is (a) “she look’d at me as if she loved me” and the other way is (b) “she looked at me while she did love. One must understand that the lady made “sweet moans” and told the knight that she loved him in “strange language” tends to differ from the normal enthrallment plots.
In a way the poem gives out two meanings – (a) first that the knight was enthralled and dumped by a seductress and (b) second, the frenzied knight in his hysterics seduces and leaves the woman. Therefore, the word “as” in the poem creates an ambiguity on the aspects of the poem and makes the readers uncertain of the real plot of the poem.
The story may be read in different ways, but the message of the consequences blind love brings upon individuals is clear in the poems. The consequence of love that may be demonstrated in the poem is based on the readings from the poem. Keats demonstrates the provocations that love provides to individuals may lead them to disaster. This is what happens to both the knight and the dame belle.
The victim of the trickery may be either of them but the consequence of love is same for both cases. If the woman was seduced and then dumped by the hysteric knight, then she was also to be blamed to have fallen in love with a man of whom she knew very little.
On the other hand, if the knight was the one who was enthralled by the seductress, then he too must be blamed for his mindless adventures. In either case Keats points out one message to the readers of the poems and that is love is an element that may lead one to destruction.
This may be a probable line of argument. However, the poem is surely a moral for young lovers as a consequence of love. More specifically, it is a discourse of young men who are easily swayed by beauty for the belle dame they fall in love with may be an enchantress who is out there to kill men.
The poem through its theme of allegorical romance clearly defines the dread a man faces in falling in love with a woman who is unknown to him. It presents the symbols and images that would create a gory picture of the consequences that the knight faced when he willfully entered into a relationship with this woman.
In a way, Keats portrays that men like the knight, who are frivolous and easily swayed by the charms of young women, usually face a similar fate at the hands of the belle dame. The fate of the knight is shown as a consequence of the unaffected love of young men. The poem presents, therefore, the consequences of love through its symbolic presentation of the romantic tale of the knight and his belle dame.
Farnell, Gary. “The Enigma of ‘La belle Dame Sans Merci’.” Romanticism, 17.2 (2011): 195-208. Print.
Keats, John. The Complete Poems. London: Penguin UK, 1988. Print.
Kelley, Theresa M. Poetics and the Politics of Reception: Keat’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. EHL, 54.2 (1987): 333-362. Print.
Moise, Edwin. “Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Explicator, 50.2 (1992): 72-74. Print