By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘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: summary
‘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.
La Belle Dame sans Merci: analysis
‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is a variation on the 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). However, Keats departs slightly from this strict form, retaining the abcb rhyme scheme but swapping the tetrameter-trimeter-tetrameter-trimeter pattern for one of three tetrameters followed by a concluding line of dimeter (two feet).
This means the last line of every stanza is half the length of the previous three lines, pulling us up short – much as the knight has been thwarted or curtailed in his romantic quest, deserted by the woman he fell in love with.
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.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.