"La Belle Dame Sans Merci," like most ballads, sounds like a song. The steady rhythm of the words creates an underlying beat, and the rhyme scheme and all the alliterations make layers of sound that work like harmony in music. Even the repetition between the first and last stanza adds to the feeling that it's a song, and not a poem. You could even think of the knight's trippy dream sequence as a kind of bridge or guitar riff. We're not the only ones who think "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" would make a great song – lots of musicians have set it to music, so check out "Best of the Web" for some examples.
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" isn't the most obvious title in the world for an English poem, because it's not in English. It's in French and, as those of you in French 1 already figured out, it translates to "The beautiful lady without mercy." But why is the title in French? Why couldn't Keats just title it, "The beautiful lady with a heart of stone"?
Well, as you may have already guessed, the title is an allusion to a much earlier work of literature. It's from a medieval romance by the French poet Alain Chartier. The poem itself has many of the same elements as a medieval romance (knights, fair ladies, fairies, dream sequences…), so by titling the poem with a line from a famous romance, Keats calls up all those associations right from the beginning.
Reading "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is like walking into a classic fairy tale. No, we don't mean the Disney kind, with happy, singing mice and twittering birds. We mean the old-school, medieval kind, with bleak landscapes, knights, fairies, and witches. The unnamed speaker at the beginning of the poem seems to have wandered into someone else's fairy tale, too. He's just out on a walk, enjoying the late autumn by a lake, when he sees a "haggard" knight who seems sick and depressed. He asks the knight what's up, and the knight launches into a long story about how he met a fairy lady in the fields somewhere. Is the knight's story all just a dream? Does the poem take place in a fairy tale, or in the real world? If it takes place partly in both, where's the border? The poem's setting seems designed to throw you off.
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is in the form of a dialogue between two speakers. The first is the unnamed speaker who comes across a sick, sad knight and pesters him with questions for the first three stanzas. Stanzas 4-12 are the knight's response. There aren't any quotation marks to tip you off to the change in speaker, so you have to pay attention to notice that the "I" of stanzas 4-12 is different from the "I" of stanzas 1-3.
Having cleared that up, what kind of speaker is the unnamed person who finds the knight? Is it supposed to be the poet himself? Or is it supposed to be the reader? Or an anonymous passerby? We don't know a lot about the speaker, but we can make some guesses based on what he says in those first three stanzas. Whoever it is, he uses old-fashioned language typical of medieval romances (like "thee" and "woe-begone"). He's also very sensitive to the changes of the seasons – he doesn't just say "Hey, knight, why are you hanging out by the lake when it's so cold and dreary?" He uses a lot of rich imagery to describe the seasons. He's also very perceptive of the knight's physical and emotional state. The speaker notices that the knight is "haggard" and depressed-looking, and seems to have a fever.
The knight uses the same kind of language that the original speaker used. In fact, it's difficult to tell that it's another speaker. Usually, when poets or novelists write dialogue, they try to differentiate between the different speakers by making them sound different. But not so in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." One possible reason for this might have to do with the ballad tradition that Keats was mimicking. Ballads are like folk songs, and they could either be sung or recited by one person, or could be divided up between different people. Having the knight and the original speaker sound the same could just be Keats's way of creating a sense of unity to the poem.
Another possible reason is that the knight is just a figment of the original speaker's imagination. After all, what happens to him is incredible, and the dream sequence at the end emphasizes the possibility of illusion. If that's the case, the knight would never have spoken, and it would have been the same speaker for the entire poem. There isn't an obvious answer to this question – critics and readers still debate the meaning of the poem today.
This is not Keats's toughest poem by a long shot. On a narrative, or storytelling level, it's pretty straightforward. A knight falls in love with a beautiful fairy lady, gets ditched, and is moping about it. But the language is old-fashioned, in imitation of medieval romances, and some of the hard vocabulary words can trip up the unwary reader.
Like most of the younger generation of Romantic poets (including Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley), John Keats liked to write poems celebrating youth, sex, and beauty. "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is no exception – except that we're not exactly wishing we were in the knight's shoes at the end of the poem. Sure, he gets the girl, but then she dumps him and leaves him out in the cold (literally). Keats seems to be pointing out to his readers, "sure, guys, sex and beauty are great, but if you obsess about them to the exclusion of everything else, you're going to die. Alone." This is advice that rock-star poets like Lord Byron could probably have used.
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is divided into twelve four-line stanzas, called quatrains. Each of those quatrains rhymes according to an ABCB pattern. For example, take a look at the first stanza: the second line rhymes with the fourth: "loitering" and "sing."
That covers the rhyme, but what about the meter, or the pattern of stressed syllables? The basic meter of the poem is iambic tetrameter. Before you fall asleep at your computer, let us explain: "Iambic" refers to the pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. One iamb is an unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable: da-DUM. "Tetrameter" tells you how many iambs you'll find per line. "Tetra" means four – so there are four iambs per line. Iambic tetrameter. Check it out in line 1:
"O what / can ail / thee, knight / at arms,
We've put the syllables that you would stress more as you read it in bold face, and we've divided up the four iambs.
But something strange happens in the fourth line of each quatrain. There are only three stressed syllables in the fourth line of each quatrain. This isn't a mistake on Keats's part. The fourth line is consistently shorter. Even if you're not used to counting stressed and unstressed syllables, you can tell just from looking at the page that the fourth line is always shorter. What's the effect of this shift in the rhythm? It's an open question. Feel free to come up with your own answers.
Furthermore, "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is a ballad, which is an old-fashioned, folksy style of poem that typically tells a story. Ballads use simple language that would appeal to less educated people, like farmers and laborers. Ballads were primarily an oral form – people would memorize them and pass them on to their friends and family by memory, rather than from a book. Poets like Keats tried to mimic this style in their written works. Many of the Romantic poets liked the deceptively simple form of the ballad. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously kicked off their careers (and arguably the whole Romantic literary movement) with their collection of poems called Lyrical Ballads.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is so full of flowers, it could practically open its own sidewalk kiosk. Most of the flower imagery in the poem has some kind of symbolic weight to it. We usually associate flowers with springtime, with love, and with life, but that's not always the case in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." These flowers can be kind of tricky, but never fear. Shmoop is here to help you untangle some of those ambiguous images.
The beginning and end of the poem seem to take place during autumn or even early winter, but the sequence with the fairy lady seems to be during spring or summer. Does the fairy lady control the seasons? Or does her beauty make the knight think that winter is summer?
Considering that the poem opens with descriptions of autumn and the "wither[ing]" plants around the lake, it's not surprising that the landscape and the people in it are colorless. But it is surprising when you tally up how many times the poet uses the word "pale," or synonyms for it. Why does he harp on the paleness? Let's take a look at some examples…
The entire poem could sound like a dream sequence or a fantasy, with all the fairy ladies and "elfin grots." But there's an explicit dream sequence described by the knight at the close of the poem, which brings up questions about consciousness and the nature of reality, and other things that keep us up at night.
Medieval romances often associate women with water, so it's no surprise that Keats borrows from that tradition in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The problem with women and water, though, is that men who mess around with women end up getting all soggy and wet. According to this symbolic tradition, men are weakened by their contact with women.
There is definitely some fairy lady/knight-at-arms action going on in stanza 5, but it's not very explicit, so we're giving it a PG-13.