‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’: A Poem by John Keats

‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ was originally the name of an anonymous fourteenth-century English poem about a cruel woman, but the title ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is more commonly associated with John Keats’s poem which tells the story of a knight-at-arms who was seduced by a woman who was more fairy than human (you know the sort of thing), lured back to her cave, and then abandoned on the cold hillside.

The poem inspired the title of Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking 1962 work of environmentalism, Silent Spring, from the line of Keats’s poem, ‘And no birds sing.’

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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.

The poem is a classic example of Romanticism, or at least one version of Romanticism. Keats was drawn to the folklore of the Middle Ages, and there was a general renascence of interest in all things medieval and chivalric around this time (indeed, this Keats poem is from 1819, the same year as the Sir Walter Scott novel Ivanhoe, which really helped to inspire a resurgence of interest in the world of knights and damsels and a romanticised English past).

But of course, the poem also offers a slightly darker view of this idealised medieval past: the mysterious woman is beautiful, but without mercy. She casts some kind of spell over the knight-at-arms (a deliberate enchantment, or is love the only spell she needs to cast?), rendering him powerless and helpless in the face of her charms. (Again, are these charms magical or merely her natural attraction and charisma?)

If you enjoyed Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, you might also like his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’.

5 thoughts on “‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’: A Poem by John Keats”

  1. I gasped when I saw this! I **love** Keats and adore this poem – I still have the paper I wrote in university about it, and recall the enthusiasm and passion with which I wrote it. Oh I can’t get enough of Keats.

  2. I have loved Keats’ poetry since I was a young man. He’s the greatest poet who ever lived in my humble opinion. La Belle Dame is the kindly minister of death and dream and Keats’ tone is absolutely perfect. Thanks for recognizing a truly great poet.


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