O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?JOHN KEATS
A Level poetry…it’s a different beast. Today, we’re offering a hand with La Belle Dame sans Merci analysis for students studying everyone’s favourite pre-1900s legend, Keats. The first blog in our A Level Poetry series, we’ll be taking a closer look at:
- La Belle Dame sans Merci context
- About the author
- La Belle Dame sans Merci form
- La Belle Dame sans Merci structure
- La Belle Dame sans Merci rhythm
- La Belle Dame sans Merci analysis
- La Belle Dame sans Merci analysis: quick summary
Deep breaths…we’ve got this.
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‘Alone and palely loitering’, the knight’s tale of meeting an enchantress is taken by many as a semi-autobiographical account of Keats’ and Brawne’s ill-fated romance. The medieval setting and supernatural elements fit the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment, which held that the human condition could not be explained by rational scientific methods. It also upholds the poet’s theory of negative capability, which is an explanation of the writer’s capacity to pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty.
About the Author
Keats was born on 31st October, 1795 and died on 23rd February, 1821 at the age of just twenty-five. Details of his early life are sketchy but it is clear that he came from a relatively modest background; it is often claimed that he was born in the stable of his maternal grandfather’s inn, The Swan and Hoop, in north London. What is also clear is that his short life was beset by tragedy. In 1804, Keats’ father fell from a horse and died from the injuries sustained. His mother quickly remarried but the union proved disastrously short-lived and she suffered from mental health issues that caused her to desert her children. She died of tuberculosis in 1809, leaving Keats as head of the family from a young age. Financial considerations forced him to pursue a career in medicine but his heart was in poetry, which he felt had the power to heal suffering.
Further trauma befell Keats when his younger brother Tom died of consumption in December 1818. At the same time he was invited to live with a friend at Wentworth Place (now a museum to Keats) in Hampstead, where he began a passionate love affair with Fanny Brawne (documented in the 2009 film Bright Star). When he too succumbed to ill health, Keats began to view their relationship as doomed and distanced himself from her. He went to Rome to convalesce but it instead became his burial place.
Though not celebrated in his own lifetime, a frenzy of writing activity in 1819 (which included La Belle Dame sans Merci) secured his legacy as a great of the Romantic era. In an increasingly industrial climate, the Romantics believed in the supremacy of nature and the transformative power of art. Keats was said by a friend to be moved to an unusual degree by sensory identification with the things around him: “Nothing seemed to escape him, the song of a bird and the undertone of response from covert or hedge, the rustle of some animal, the humming of a bee, the sight of a flower, the glitter of the sun, seemed to make his nature tremble!”
La Belle Dame sans Merci is a ballad, a medieval genre of poetry that tells a story in short stanzas and was traditionally sung by minstrels to entertain the court. As part of the ‘oral tradition’, further conventions included simple language, repetition and refrains. Medieval ballads also tended to revolve around supernatural themes. The ballad form was revived by Romantic poets who admired its minimalism and immediacy. In the 20th century, ballad came to mean a sentimental or heartfelt song and Keats’ version falls somewhere between these two definitions.
Ballads tell stories so they have an innate narrative structure. Keats opens with the necessary exposition, introducing the character and setting the scene, though a host of enigmas remain beyond the poem’s cyclical denouement. Having begun in the voice of an unidentified speaker, the bulk of the poem is the knight’s recount of events – this question and response structure is typical of early folk ballads.
The classic ballad form alternated between tetrameters and trimeters combined with a regular rhyme scheme to create a rolling sing-song pace that was easy to perform. Keats’ version differs – there are three tetrameters followed by a final truncated line of four or five syllables. This creates a dramatic sense of doom and loss that eerily compliments sentiments such as ‘And no birds sings’, ‘And the harvest’s done’, and ‘Fast withereth too’.
La Belle Dame sans Merci Analysis
Despite its poetic flourishes, La Belle Dame sans Merci largely fulfils the ballad convention of using unremarkable though occasionally archaic language that suits the conversation between knight and wanderer. However, in places, the unusual syntax and ‘language strange’ expresses the knight’s disorientation and endows the poem with a surreal, dreamlike quality.
This is reflected in the almost imperceptible shift between speakers. Feminist readings revel in the volte-face of the relationship dynamics marked by the change of subject and object in stanza seven, where ‘I…’ gives way to ‘She…’. Suddenly La Belle has power; she is the active force.
The knight by the lake might be taken as an allusion to the mythology of King Arthur. Certainly, the imagery derives some of its power from myths and fairy tales, in which knights are stock characters, although the conventional roles have been inverted because here the knight is the character in distress and it is the female who exerts power and influence. Images of nature also veer between magical (‘her Elfin grot’) and menacing (‘the cold hill’s side’), while stanzas five to eight are rife with double entendres.
Do the fairy tale elements represent the storybook nature of Keats’ romance with Fanny Brawne? This is not to suggest that Brawne was a callous femme fatale, but she certainly did capture Keats’ heart and disordered his existence. In this reading, the men with ‘horrid warning gapèd wide’ could be construed as Keats’ recently deceased brother and concerned friends, serving admonitions that the romance cannot last; the natural order of things, which includes death, will ensure a rude awakening from his reverie.
La Belle Dame sans Merci Analysis: Quick Summary
- Alone and palely loitering’, the knight’s tale of meeting an enchantress is taken by many as a semi-autobiographical
- The medieval setting and supernatural elements fit the Romantic reaction to Enlightenment
- La Belle Dame sans Merci is a ballad, a traditional medieval genre of poetry that tells a story in short stanzas
- Keats riffs on conventional ballad rhythm: there are three tetrameters followed by a final truncated line of four or five syllables
- The poem’s unusual syntax and ‘language strange’ expresses the knight’s disorientation and endows the poem with a surreal, dreamlike quality
- Conventional gender roles have been inverted: the knight is the character in distress and it is the female who exerts power and influence
La Belle Dame sans Merci Revision from Beyond: Advanced
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And this is why I sojourn here, alone and palely loitering, though the sedge is withered from the lake, and no birds sing.JOHN KEATS
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