John Keats was an English poet writing in the early 19th century, towards the end of what became known as the "Romantic period." The Romantic period isn't just about love stories – it was a political and social movement as well as a literary one. The Romantics were reacting to an 18th century obsession with order, rationality, and scientific precision. Romantic writers felt that these Enlightenment-era thinkers missed the point about what it meant to be human. After all, they argued, you can't write an equation to define human nature. So the Romantic movement was partly a backlash against the rationalism of the 18th century Enlightenment.
When critics talk about the Romantic poets, they usually focus on the "big six": William Blake, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were the oldest of the six, and the younger generation included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and our man, John Keats. Keats was the youngest of the six, but he was, alas, the first to die. He was only 25 years old when he died of tuberculosis in February 1821. Who knows what might have happened if he'd lived longer?
When Keats found out that he'd caught tuberculosis from nursing his brother, Tom, he was in despair (a diagnosis of tuberculosis in those days was like a death sentence). Keats felt that he'd just made a breakthrough in his writing, and was only beginning to write the kind of poetry that he was really capable of writing. Keats died in Italy, where the doctors thought the warmer weather might extend his life. He asked that his grave bear only the words "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," because he didn't think that he'd lived up to his potential – his life was too short to be memorable, and his poetry was like words "written in water." Boy, was he wrong – he's now celebrated as one of the most famous English poets of all time, despite his premature death.
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" was written towards the end of his life, after his brother Tom died, but before he found out that he was dying of the same disease. Keats wrote it in 1819, but it wasn't published until 1820. The version that was published includes a lot of changes recommended by his friend and fellow poet, Leigh Hunt. Most critics, though, prefer the original version, so that's what we use in this guide. You'll know the difference right off the bat: the original version begins with the line, "O what can ail thee, knight at arms," while the edited 1820 version opens with, "Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight."
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" seems, on the surface, to be just another Romantic poem about knights who fall in love with beautiful (in this case, fairy or elfish) ladies. But wait: in this poem, the guy in question is literally on the verge of death because of his romantic encounter with this woman. What's the deal with that? She didn't stab him or anything – the poem isn't explicit about why the knight is dying. It's left partly to our imagination.
So what kills the knight? He becomes so enraptured with this pretty fairy lady that he forgets everything else. Her kisses put him into a coma, and that's how the speaker of the poem finds him. Ultimately, this poem is about the dangers of obsession, in general: drug addiction, romantic or erotic obsession, you name it. Keats seems to suggest that the fate of his "knight at arms" could happen to any of us, at any time. So whenever you're tempted to neglect your responsibilities in order to feed an obsession, you should think about what happened to the "knight at arms" in Keats's poem.