Imagination and creativity abounds in Keats’s celebrated ballad, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. The enduring popularity of this work is due in part to its mysterious nature. In fact, in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” Keats goes to great depths by maintaining a sense of ambiguity in the poem that seems to take place within the boundaries of the imagination and the real world.
Like, most of the Romantic poets of his time, Keats was fascinated in exploring the darker side of human nature in his works, and in this powerful rendition of the classic French Chivalry romance, he imbues it with tones of melancholy and morbidity. In my interpretation, however I intend to demonstrate that “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is not to be taken literally as a doomed medieval romance but underneath the canvas is a metaphor for dreams, death and eternal life.
The presence of dreams has remained a powerful force in literature, and in the works of the Romantic artists, its use has been essential in helping to illustrate the untapped emotions and fears felt by it’s characters. Dreams often reveal to the reader or speaker what they are often too afraid to realize about themselves. In this regard, Keats was known for employing this characteristic in a majority of his works. In the beginning of the ballad, the reader becomes aware of the setting and time of the poem. The location is set somewhere during the Middle Ages, which is identified in the ballad as we discover that the main character in the poem is a knight. This is of course very common in the tradition of the Gothic genre, as most stories were inspired by the customs and manners of the Middle Ages. According to Botting in his chapter about Gothic origins, “Romantic narratives of love, chivalry and adventure, that were imported from France from the late seventeenth century onwards … were classified as Gothic”(24). Thus, the historic setting of this poem is considered a staple of this genre.
Furthermore, Keats remains true to the Romantic Gothic genre by evoking several landscapes within the poem: the desolate setting at the beginning of the poem, the celestial landscape when he encounters the enchantress, and the nightmarish vision in his dream. The desolate setting is displayed in the first stanza, when an unidentified speaker confronts the knight about his melancholy condition. “O What can ail thee, knight at arms, Alone and Paley loitering? /The Sedge has withere’d from the lake, /and no birds sing “(1-5). This sets the gloomy tone of the poem, which is definitely a gothic characteristic – objects within nature represent the mental state of its characters. For example, when the knight was with the fairy, the images in the poem represent a place where everything is full of life, beauty and joy. In a way, the setting seems to mimic a heavenly paradise. The antithesis of this occurs when this woman eventually abandons the Knight. “ Alone and pale loitering …”(47) the knight is distraught and heartbroken. For the knight the Hellish nightmare has become a reality. At the close of the poem, the knight tells the speaker that he will wander in solitude. Thus, the desolate and lonely setting characterized by the withered flowers reflects the pain inflicted in his heart from an unrequited love. In this fashion, we see how Keats uses the landscape to further elevate the pathos felt by its character.
The supernatural elements of the poem come alive when the knight re-tells his story. In the beginning of the fourth stanza, the knight tells the anonymous speaker in a series of flashbacks of a woman whom he met, loved and lost. The setting then changes temporarily to a place of beauty, wonder and mystery. He recalls his encounter with the women who is identified as a fairy, one whose “eyes were wild” “sings a fairy’s song” and takes him to an “elfin grot”.
The knight states, “ She found me roots of relish sweet, /and honey wild and manna dew, /and sure in language strange she said/I love the true”(30-35). All of these actions seem to suggest that he must be in some sort of a magical realm, one that does not exist in the real world. Yet, the possibility that this world does exist is one of the most puzzling elements of the poem. In this context, the fairy represents enchantment and imagination. To a point, it is uncertain whether the knight has really experienced this encounter with the fairy or not. Thus, what has occurred cannot be explained through rational thought. According to Dr. Sandy in his article, “Dream Lovers and Tragic Romance, “In La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, Keats knight hovers between an indistinct mode of existence- caught between dreaming and awakening in a landscape characterized by negativity and absence” (18). Furthermore, the dream that he has evokes him with strong emotions of fear and uncertainty. The following passage is as follows, “I saw pale king, and princes too…/I saw their starved lips in the gloam/With horrid warning gaped wide, /and I awoke and found me here/On the Cold hill’s side”(30-35). The significance of the dream seems to reflect the knight’s own anxieties about what he believes to be real and what is not. In addition, the ghosts in his dreams seem to appear as a cautionary warning about his current state of mind. As Botting states, “Imagination in blurring the boundaries between supernatural and illusionary dimensions and natural and real worlds are common attributes of the gothic” (12).
Perhaps the most important element present in “ La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is Keat’s power of the imagination. While this poem is an essence a medieval romance, he takes this opportunity to explore new ideas fused with those of the gothic genre. Thus, what we see in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is a wonderful blend of natural imagery and supernatural elements that creates a new twist on the classic chivalry romance.
Botting, Fred. “Gothic”. The New Critical Idiom. London : Routledge, 1996
Keats, John. “ La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. The Best Poems of The English Language with
Commentary By Harold Bloom. New York: Harper Perennial, Publishers, Inc. 2004.
Sandy, Mark “ Dream Lovers and Tragic Romance: Negative Fictions in Keats, La Mia,
The Eve of St Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and Isabella”. Romanticisim On the Net.
9 August 2008. .