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.
The Victorian Web
This is a handy website for anyone studying the 19th century (not just the Victorian Period, which is only from 1837-1901). This is the link to the John Keats portion of the site, which has a biography and timeline of his short life, as well as other great resources.
The British Library's Online Gallery
The British Library in London is one of the largest, most important collections in the world. Even if you can't visit in person, their website provides some useful information about the writers whose manuscripts are kept there. This is a link to a British Library page about John Keats.
Movie Trailer for "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
In this video, actors act out the poem.
Ray Archer Trio's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
A music video of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by the Ray Archer Trio.
Penda's Fen "La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
This is a video of a rendition of Keats's poem set to music by the group Penda's Fen.
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" Out Loud
This is a reading of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" accompanied by some of the paintings inspired by the poem.
J.W. Waterhouse Painting
One of the paintings by John William Waterhouse inspired by Keats's poem.
Sir Frank Dicksee's Painting
This is a link to the painting of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by Sir Frank Dicksee.
A Pen and Ink Sketch
This image is from a magazine called Punch in 1920 – the picture is titled, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci."
Pen and Ink Portrait of John Keats
This simple sketch of the poet is housed at the British Library in London.
Miniature of John Keats
This miniature portrait of John Keats is by Joseph Severn, and is housed at the Keats-Shelley Museum.
Photo of John Keats's Gravestone
This is a modern photograph of Keats's grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, Italy.
Excerpts from John Keats's Letters
John Keats wrote some sweet love letters to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, as well as some regular, newsy letters to his friends and family. Click here to see excerpts from some of his letters.
Charles Armitage Brown's The Life of John Keats
Charles Brown was one of John Keats's closest friends, and he wrote an early biography of Keats. (It was completed twenty years after Keats's death.) This website describes the biography and has some excerpts, or you can check a copy out of your local library for the whole thing.
Sidney Colvin's Biography of John Keats
This is a link to the complete text of Sidney Colvin's 1917 biography of John Keats.
Collection of John Keats's Letters
This is an edited collection of John Keats's letters, so if the excerpts aren't enough for you, you can check this book out of your library.
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci"
A 2005 movie based on the poem by John Keats.