‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is a ballad, a poetic form that was popular – and ‘popular’ in the true sense of the word, being a form sung and enjoyed by the common people, many of whom could neither read nor write – during the Middle Ages, which provides the poem with its (somewhat idealised) landscape and detail. Ballads were usually written in a particular metre, known simply as ‘ballad metre’: four-line stanzas rhymed abcb comprising alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter (i.e. four iambic feet in the first and third lines, three iambic feet in the second and fourth lines). Ballads usually tell a story. And ballads are often cyclical in that the final stanza takes us back to the first stanza. We find all of these features in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, with the action beginning on the cold hillside with the knight-at-arms, and coming back to this place at the end of the poem, after he has told us (or his interlocutor) how he came to be there. In other words, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ recalls the Middle Ages not just in its content – knights, faeries, and the like – but in its very form.
There’s a sense of reciprocity between the knight and the lady, but how equal are they? She is the one who is given star billing in the poem’s title, of course, suggesting that the knight is merely the passive observer, used by her, yet another victim to fall under the spell of the beautiful woman without mercy. Running against this, however, is the to-and-fro of the action: the knight gives the lady three gifts, and she responds with three gifts for him. He silences her sighs with kisses, before she silences him in sleep by singing him a lullaby.
The gifts themselves are also significant. Recall how the knight makes the lady a garland for her head, bracelets for her wrists, and a ‘fragrant zone’ or girdle for her waist. All three of these things are circular, used to enclose the woman as if the man is trying to keep her – and perhaps keep her under control. A fruitless endeavour, given those wild eyes she has. They are also things used to adorn her, while the three corresponding gifts the lady makes to the knight – the relish, honey, and manna-dew – are all food-related. (The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, even in a John Keats poem.)
And whether she has even been won over by his gifts remains unknowable for sure. The line ‘She looked at me as she did love’ implies that she loves them, and perhaps even him, but the wording of ‘as she did love’ hovers delicately between two quite different meanings: it could mean ‘because she did love’ or ‘as if she did love’, i.e. ‘but in reality, she didn’t; she only looked as if she did’. And love what? The verb here is left as an intransitive one, without an object, allowing us to guess whether she loves him or whether she merely loves the garland and bracelet he’s fashioned for her (if she even loves them or merely appears to).
Sure enough, we learn later that she loves him truly: she tells him plainly enough. Or does she? She speaks the words ‘I love thee true’, but ‘in language strange’ (presumably her own faery language), and this information is being related to us by the knight, who may have been hearing what he wanted to hear. (She swore she loved me, honest, she just came out and said it: ‘I love thee true.’) Whether he can even speak or understand her ‘language strange’ remains unknown, but the fact that he describes it as a ‘strange’ language invites reasonable doubt.
In short, then, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is a fascinating poem because of its unreliability and what it refuses to tell us. We have a mystified speaker relating a story to us which he has heard from a (less-than-impartial) knight who has apparently come under the spell of the ‘beautiful lady without mercy’. John Keats famously advocated something he called ‘Negative Capability’: namely, as Keats himself said, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ inspires such negative capability within us as readers. We cannot arrive at a neat analysis of this bewitching poem: like the lady herself, the strange story is beautiful not least because it remains only half-understood.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.