Literature

A Short Summary of John Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’

‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ (‘the beautiful lady without mercy’) is one of John Keats’s best-loved and most widely anthologised poems; after his odes, it may well be his most famous. But is this poem with its French title a mere piece of pseudo-medieval escapism, summoning the world of chivalrous knights and beautiful but bewitching women, or does it have a deeper meaning? You can read ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ here before proceeding to our summary below (it might be helpful to have the poem open in a separate tab so you can follow the poem and summary together).

‘La Belle Dame sans Merci.’ ‘The woman is beautiful, but merciless.’ Keats’s title, which he got from a 15th-century courtly love poem by Alain Chartier (La Belle Dame sans Mercy), provides a clue to the poem’s plot: in summary, the poem begins with the speaker asking a knight what’s wrong – this knight-at-arms is on his own, looking pale as he loiters on a hillside. This knight-at-arms has a lily-white forehead (i.e. he’s pale), and a rose-coloured cheek. But symbolically, this rose is withering: love has gone rotten.

It’s at this point that the voice in the poem shifts from this first speaker – the one questioning the knight about what’s up with him – to the knight-at-arms himself. The knight then tells us his story: he met a beautiful lady in the meadows, who the knight believes was the child of a faery – there was something fey or supernatural and otherworldly about this woman. She had wild eyes, which imply an unpredictability in her nature.

The knight tells his interlocutor how he was inspired to shower this ‘faery’s child’ with gifts: a garland or wreath for her head, bracelets for her wrists, and a sweet-smelling girdle for her waist. The woman looks as though she loves these gifts, and moans sweetly. The knight puts the lady up on his horse and rides all day without taking his eyes off her – not a pursuit we’d recommend when riding a horse. As the lady delicately rides his horse side-saddle, as befits a lady, she sings a ‘faery’s song’.

As if to complement the three gifts (garland, bracelets, ‘zone’ or girdle) the knight gave her, the belle dame sans merci gives the knight three sweet gifts: sweet relish, wild honey, and manna-dew (implying something almost divine: ‘manna’ was the foodstuff that fell from heaven in the Old Testament). In a strange language, the lady tells the knight she loves him. She takes him to her Elfin grotto, where she proceeds to weep and sigh; the knight silences her with four kisses. The lady, in turn, silences the knight by lulling him to sleep – presumably with another ‘faery’s song’ – and the knight dreams of men, pale kings and princes, crying that ‘La belle dame sans merci’ has him enthralled or enslaved. In the evening twilight, the knight sees the starved lips of these men – men who have presumably also been enthralled or bewitched by such a belle dame sans merci – as they try to warn him, and then the knight awakens and finds himself alone on the hillside where the poem’s original speaker encountered him. And that’s how he ended up here, alone and palely loitering.

We’ll get round to writing some words of analysis about ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ for next Monday.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

2 Comments

  1. ferretpower2013

    I don’t think the poet means the victim is actually wearing a rose or a lily – just that he’s very pale, and sweating (‘with anguish moist and fever dew’), with a hectic flush on his cheeks, which is beginning to fade. The sweat, the flush and the pallor are all, sadly symptoms which Keats would have been familiar with – they are associated with the tuberculosis that killed him. Another, lesser known verse by Henry Kirke describes how Consumption, as it was then known will ‘flush the cheek and bleach the skin’ of its victim, so when she appears most attractive a young girl is in most danger: “Lover, do not trust her eyes/When they sparkle most, she dies.”
    Perhaps for Keats the deadly lady was a personification of the disease, beautiful, alluring and deadly.

    • I think you’re probably right. It’s hard to tell for sure whether it’s poetic symbolism or meant to summon the idea of medieval favours from a lady, but I’m inclined to agree with you and think it’s the former.

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