La Belle Dame Sans Merci

A Brief Study Guide to themes and motifs

(Form Structure Language)

Click to listen to a reading of the poem by Jasper Britton:

La Belle Dame Sans Merci is not a narrative poem because it implies rather than tells a story; it is a literary ballad, which has  visionary insight and emotive sadness occasioned by the loss of that vision.  ‘It is a poem of impression’ (William Michael Rossettit 1887) and can also be considered to be about the poetic process itself.

Mario L D’Avanzo argues that the poem contains metaphors about the poetic process, poetry and the imagination. The dying season starts and finishes the poem.  The landscape is one of desolation in which the Knight is a visionary wanderer and lover.  Poetry is represented as a woman and the poet as the knight-at-arms.  According to Wasserman, the knight represents all mortals who engage in the ‘imaginative struggle’.  Do also note that because the French medieval knight was also a troubadour, achieving poetic excellence through love, the knight is also a very appropriate figure to represent the poet.

Pastoral setting:  the knight meets La Belle Dame in the isolation of the meads.  Her long hair is an image of beauty, imaginative inspiration and imaginative vision.  Wild eyes suggest the untamed energy of the creative.  Once on the ‘pacing’ horse of regular metre, the imagination takes over the enthralled poet.  The ‘elfin grot’ is the sanctuary of poetry.

One may also consider the Knight at Arms to be a hoodwinked dreamer.  When he awakes from his vision, he is ‘on the cold hill’s side’ and he remains in a ‘barren landscape’ even though ‘The squirrel’s granary is full’.  His predecessors have ‘starved lips’.  Human life cannot combine heaven and earth more than momentarily – nor live the life that imagination says is to come: this is heaven’s bourne

The knight and La Belle Dame is a pairing of the mortal with the immortal.  The first 3 stanzas show medieval ballad trappings.  The time of year has metaphorical implications.

The poem has a fairy tale atmosphere: La Belle Dame is ‘a faery’s child’, she sings a ‘faery’s song’, speaks ‘in a language strange’, takes the knight to an ‘elfin grot’.  She has visionary imagination.  Perhaps she is Circe, leading men to their destruction.  More recent interpretations address whether it is the Knight’s inability to retain the vision that causes the union to be broken – consider this with regard to heaven’s bourne (above).

See my other pages on Keats:

John Keats: Brief biography

Lamia part 1: annotated text

Lamia part 2: annotated text

Worksheet on ‘Lamia’ critical aspects

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

The Eve of St Agnes: critical views


Keats Narrative Poems – Casebook Series

Sibylle Baumbach: John Keats and Mythopoetics: A Reading of ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’

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