Less is More: ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ by John Keats

La Belle 1

This month, in the interest of doing something a bit different, I thought I’d look at a narrative poem instead of a short story. ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ was written by John Keats in 1819 and focuses on my favourite gothic staple, the femme fatale. You can read it here. It’s only twelve stanzas long, a mere 48 lines. I’ll wait until you get back…

‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is a ballad, a common poetic form for telling a story because it’s easy to remember (and therefore recite) with its repetition and regular rhyme pattern, though these also add a certain aesthetic aural quality as well, of course. ‘La Belle’ is typical of a ballad in this respect, but also in making use of quatrains (four line stanzas), archaic lexis (old fashioned words to make the poem seem older and more in keeping with its courtly love aspects), and a framing device. The framing device here introduces us to an unnamed narrator who, in turn, introduces the knight character. It’s an effective method, the question “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?” intriguing the reader (or listener) right from the beginning while revealing an important detail about the knight – his paleness. The knight’s pallid appearance is emphasised by the season in which he is discovered at the “cold hill’s side”, for the “sedge has wither’d”, the harvest is done, and “no birds sing”, i.e. it’s winter. This technique of using the natural world to reflect something of character is known as pathetic fallacy, and here the winter setting reveals a sense of lack, of cold, a time of death following autumn’s dying. In fact, these first three stanzas focus only on the knight’s appearance and the setting, heightening the relationship between the two. This pale knight is clearly in a sorry state and the rest of the poem is about finding out why.

The transition to the knight’s narration is smoothly done with only the tense indicating the shift at first, his response beginning “I met a lady”. Essentially that’s his entire answer – that’s what ails him – but of course Keats elaborates. We learn the woman was “full beautiful” (of course she was, all women in courtly ballads are, aren’t they? And femme fatales certainly are…) and her beauty makes up part of the blazon, a device common to ballads that presents a character’s physical description, particularly women. “Her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild” provides a triadic list of typical attributes but it’s worth noting those “wild” eyes. Keats makes sure you do by making it part of the final line of the quatrain, shorter than the previous three as an interruption to the rhythm to draw attention to the content. She’s beyond the social constraints that restrict other women. This woman is also a “faery’s child” which, coming as it does before the bulk of the blazon, may simply suggest an ethereal quality, a beauty simply beyond this world, but as the poem develops we learn that perhaps there is more truth to this statement than we may have first supposed. She could well be a supernatural being, one with vampiric qualities. But the knight doesn’t know this when he seduces her, or allows himself to be seduced…

There’s certainly some sort of seduction, indicated by an abundance of sexual imagery. There’s her “sweet moan”, the feeding on “honey wild, and manna dew” – food often symbolic of sexual nourishment – and perhaps most tellingly “I set her on my pacing steed”! Add to this the symbolism of her “elfin grot” where the knight is lulled to sleep and you certainly have at least the suggestion of a sexual encounter. And here is where the horror element comes to the fore. Here, having been “lulled” to sleep, the knight dreams, “Ah! Woe betide!”. The Romantic period in which Keats was writing attached much significance to dreams and their mystical nature and the knight’s is referenced three times in just two lines. His dream has an element of prophecy about it, coming as a warning from “pale kings and princes too, pale warriors”. Notably these men hold positions of strength and power, though here they are “death-pale”, pale referenced three times in quick succession and acting as a reminder of when we first met the knight-at-arms “palely loitering”. Why are they all so death-pale? Well, “‘La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall!’” they say.

‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ translates as the beautiful woman without pity and positions her as the poem’s femme fatale. The significance of this is clear in being the title of the poem, while the French lexis marks her as ‘other’ in much the same way as being a faery’s child. It is apparently her fault that these men have been reduced to corpse-like beings, the horror presented in their “starved lips in the gloam” which “with horrid warning gaped wide”. They have been starved of their power, perhaps, or their vitality, or maybe even simply the beautiful woman’s affection. The “death-pale” suggests the knight has been visited in his sleep by ghosts, spirits eager to save him from a similar fate. And perhaps they succeed, though it wouldn’t stretch the poem too much to consider the knight is a similar ghost when we meet him. (A later version of the poem substitutes “knight” for “wretched wight” and while it’s tempting to think of wight in terms of the supernatural, a ghost or wraith-like being, these are in fact rather modern definitions that come from the fantasy genre whereas ‘wight’ originally simply meant creature or man.)

Whether he’s dead or not when we meet him, our knight-at-arms character does seem to have been ‘feminised’ by his encounter. Look again at his initial description – the unknown narrator sees “a lily on thy brow” and “on they cheeks a fading rose fast withereth too”, imagery meant to address the knight’s paleness and failing health but significantly flower imagery more often employed to describe a woman. And shouldn’t a knight be on a heroic quest or something? Not “palely loitering” as he is here, at a loss at having woken “on the cold hill’s side” without the la belle dame. It must have been a long sleep, too – when he met her she was “in the meads” and there were flowers enough to make her a “garland”, “bracelets”, and perfume. It was spring, then, a time representing life and fertility and perhaps sex. But once he awoke: winter. This reflects his state of mind having lost the woman of his affection, maybe, and without love he is powerless, aimless, maybe even lifeless. Or is the message something darker, presenting the idea that love itself weakens men? Makes them effeminate? It could even, perhaps, be a subtle warning against casual sex considering his failing health. Either way, it seems love is vampiric.

La Belle 2

But consider this. As a first person narrative this is a potentially biased account of events. We only hear the knight’s side of the story. Perhaps Keats didn’t mean for us to think about alternative possibilities, but there is a certain other horror here if you imagine a woman unfairly charged with supernatural abilities, misaligned as a “faery’s child”. Maybe she wasn’t even a willing participant in whatever relationship the two of them had. When she said “‘I love thee true’” she did so “in language strange” which does admit some possibility of misunderstanding on the knight’s part. Perhaps his current state of anguish is one of guilt or shame at his own actions, the story his attempt of coming to terms with what he has done in abandoning her afterwards. I admittedly speculate, but here the ‘less is more’ does allow for an alternative story. At the very least the woman is denied a voice, a potential message being that men should fear sexually independent women, and I, for one, would like for there to be a story other than that.


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