John Keats' 'La Belle Dame sans Merci'
In ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, Keats uses quatrain in alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines and, much like the ballads of old, he uses simple language and the subject dabbles in the supernatural. He also shortens every forth line, which slows the pace. (By contrast, Poe’s ‘The Raven’ is meant to do the exact opposite.)
Keats’s poem consists of two speakers. Because of the way it’s written, the identity of the first speaker remains cryptic - though he identifies the other as a “knight-in-arms” who is apparently dying. Keats sets up his own twisted version of a medieval romance. The classic story of a knight falling in love with a fairy lady. At some points in the poem, it feels like one might be reading a fairy tale, but not that happily ever after kind of fairy tale we see in Disney movies. This is the old school grotesque fairy tales. It even seems like the first speaker has ‘stumbled’ into someone else’s Grimm inspired fairy tale. The knight-in-arms seems distressed and the speaker asks (twice) "O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!” and the knight-in-arms launches into a long story of love and loss.
So, love is clearly a big theme. But what kind of love? Considering ‘Le Belle Dame sans Merci’ translates into 'The Beautiful Woman Without Pity', it's clearly not the wedding bells and happily ever after kind of love. The knight describes his love affair with this woman. He makes her garland and bracelets, and just flirts in the way all knights do.
The fairy lady tells him: “I love thee true,” and takes the knight 'to her elfin grot' and she lulls him to sleep. But terrible nightmares ensue;
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
Here the poem also touches on the topic of women. The knight’s experience with the fairy lady is negative, to say the least. The fairy lady enslaves him and leaves him 'haggard' and 'pale'. According to the knight, this isn’t her first time. He talks about 'pale kings', 'princes', and 'warriors' who came before the knight. What does this say about Keast’s view of women? Nothing good. Perhaps this poem is a romanticized version of Keat’s own experience of love and loss.
Keat, John. "55. La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Keats, John. 1884. The Poetical Works of John Keats." Bartleby.com: Great Books Online. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.