Romanticism, as Lovejoy reminded us in his essay “On the Discrimination of Romanticisms”, does not have to be and cannot be one single definition, should it be in literature or painting, in the British world or Germany, or anywhere else in Europe. John Keats is often considered as one of the most famous British Romantics and his work is present and cited in any anthology on the subject. However, his poetry was very much different from early Romantics, such as William Blake for instance. The themes were not generally the same, and so it goes for rhyme, rhythm, etc. If they differed in style, still, they all present common features in the content: distanciation from reason and logical explanations on life, prevailing imagination, and contemplation of and reflection on man’s position in the universe, through reminders of the past history and awareness of contemporary history. This essay will first aim at defining Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1819) as a truly Romantic poem, showing how it is inscribed in the Romantic tradition. We will also see nonetheless how it departs in some way from other poets and is representative of Keats’s poetry and conception of contemplation, life, and the search for truth.
A first reading of this poem with a French title provides us with a first layer of understanding of Keats’s world. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” recalls the story of the encounter of this “knight-at-arms” with a supernatural creature, the “faery’s child”. It is presented in the form of a two-voice ballad; twelve stanzas of quatrains with very singsong, musical rhymes although set as to provide a pretty slow rhythm. A series of repetitions also reinforces the song-like form of the poem: “O, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms” is repeated twice, and so much for “Alone and palely loitering”, or “The sedge has wither’d from the lake, / And no birds sing.” Besides, the number of one- or two-syllable words contributes to the rhythmical and pleasing, though peaceful pace of the text.
The use of song-like, melodious devices highlights the medieval tone of the text, already introduced through the characters of the knight and the lady. In fact, Keats draws the title, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, from a French work by Alain Chartier dating back to 1424, but uses a characteristic figure very recurrent in medieval and later literature. As Barbara Fass Leavy explains in La Belle Dame Sans Merci and the Aesthetics of Romanticism, this merciless lady (depending on the translation) is either a femme fatale or just the object of a man’s court, though never within reach, and is constantly referred to as with a supernatural power of attraction. In French medieval literature, she was particularly used to express men’s incapacity of resisting womanly love. Leavy explains the original role of the belle dame sans merci as “the fairy who exercises an uncanny power over the mortal who succumbs to her charms.”(22) The femme fatale differs from the belle dame sans merci in that she is not immortal or supernatural.
As far as their roles are concerned, both are promises of pleasure; the first is more likely to be “specifically sexual in nature”, while the latter, “offering the same pleasure, also dwells in a land that embodies human dreams of physical perfection.”(22)
Keats’s Belle Dame Sans Merci is in different interpretations considered as a combination of both, a sort of ‘Circe-like’ figure. The first layer of understanding considered earlier can be that of reading the poem as a ballad on the addiction to someone’s love and the loss of this love, thus focusing more on the romance-like features. The knight, as he is found by the poet’s voice, “alone and palely loitering”, has encountered a beautiful woman, so beautiful that she is compared to a magical creature (the “faery’s child”). Several elements indicate the knight’s passion for this woman; some of them could even point at a carnal relationship, fleshy relationship. One can read in the fifth stanza allusions to intercourse; the “fragrant zone”, in the second verse for instance, refers to a belt made out of flowers, hence to the waist and hips of the woman, symbols or at least indications to female sexuality. This impression is reinforced in the next two verses: “She look’d at me as she did love,/ And made sweet moan.”, conveying even more explicit sexual meaning. Besides, the first line of the following stanza seems to restate the meaning underlying here: “I set her on my pacing steed.” As to echo Leavy’s argument on the inspirations to this tale, Earl Wasserman writes, in The Finer Tone: Keats’(sic) Major Poems, on the origins of the legend, then re-told by Keats: “Whatever the specific source may have been, the narrative clearly belongs to a folk legend best known in the form of the medieval ballad “Thomas Rymer”.”(68) Considering this, he studies the differences between the traditional tale and that by Keats, noting when it comes to notions of control, that in the original form, the woman – “the queen of fair Elfland” – is the one who acts all throughout the poem. On the contrary, in Keats’s version, roles are more shared although it is still the lady who dominates. The pronoun “she” comes back more often that “I” – referring to the knight. Wasserman writes: “In stanza six [the knight] truly governs only in the first line, and it seems significant that Keats altered the action of the folk ballad, where it is the lady who takes Thomas [the knight] upon her horse. Apparently there is a special intent in giving the action to the knight in the first line.”(79) If we consider his note on the changes brought to the original tale and so, Keats’s presumed intention of shifting the action to the knight, one might read in “I set her on my pacing steed” a desire to convey an underlying sexual meaning. In that sense, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is sometimes regarded as a romantic, Romantic poem, providing a reflection of life and man through that of love relationships, some seeing in the conclusion only the denunciation of the destructive power of passion and love, for once the knight wakes up from his dream, he is only a cadavre-like character, pale and stuck to the ground, depraved of life – “The sedge has withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.”
However there is a real integration of Romantic traditions, visible through this intertwined integration of medieval, popular culture of tales within a contemplation of nature. Although what might strike one is the relationship between the knight and the fairy, Keats weaves under it a bigger canvas of connections between the man and nature. As from the beginning, the knight is “alone” in nature, lost in the middle of nowhere – which we learn later is the “cold hill’s side” –, deprived from his own livelihood. He is “palely loitering”, as a ghostly figure. The second and the third stanzas bring us more elements of death-like appearance of the knight: he is “haggard” and “woe-begone”; the use of the lily in “I see a lilly on thy brow” is intentional as it is both a symbol of whiteness and purity and a flower used in funerals. It is also, in the third stanza, associated with the “fading rose” on his cheeks, thus making a very visual image of life withering away from the knight. Finally both flowers are associated with the expressions of “anguish moist and fever dew”, then disclosing the illness if not the ‘deadness’ of the knight. In a nutshell , at the beginning his facial features are entwined with elements of this dead nature, wintery scene. He makes as one with this naked, desolated nature.
The fairy becomes a symbol of nature as well, but in a spring or summer, abundance scenery. From the fourth stanza, the voice shifts to the knight’s, who starts describing his experience with her. He first describes her physical appearance, “full beautiful”, which on the contrary to his, is not focused on the face, but more on elements that makes her character synonymous of livelihood, and hence, life: her hair is “long, her foot was light, / And her eyes were wild.” He even compares her to a child (“a faery’s child”). While he appears in the poem as a corpse confined to the ground, she almost does not touch the ground. The association of her character to nature is strengthened by the knight’s making a flower crown and “bracelets” for her in the fifth stanza, as well as her feeding him with elements of nature: “roots”, “honey”, and “dew”. But elements such as the dew, which is actually “manna dew” implies her super-natural characteristics. She is given the ability to sing the knight to etfulness and to sleep: “I set her on my pacing steed, / And saw nothing else all day long; / For sidelong would she bend and sing / A faery’s song.” Already her “light”foot hinted at her unearthliness in the fourth stanza, only to be epitomized in the sixth, seventh, and eighth stanzas; she provides him with divine food, manna being biblical food and lives in a “grot”, a cave, pointing at her being an element of some outside world.
Finally both characters, and through them, the natural and supernatural worlds, are elements necessary to the penultimate part of the poem, the dream, which is a form of contemplation, before going back to the same world as at the beginning, with the repetition of elements of the first stanza, a world where the knight is “Alone and palely loitering”.
Although certainly a poem about love, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is mostly the expression of Keats’s conception of Romantic contemplation and above all, access to Truth. Although he believed in the power of nature, its mere contemplation was not, to him, sufficient to access Truth. This poem is a good representation of the progress he considered necessary for the journey to real, true Truth: imagination had to go through the experience of nature, song, and finally love to be absorbed into Truth, What he calls “pleasure thermometer” in other works is the gradual progression of pleasure and appreciation of beauty that one takes. He wrote in Ode on a Grecian Urn that “Truth is Beauty; Truth Beauty”(Anthology, 218); Truth is attainable through the experience of beauty, of which appreciation grows along as one experiences nature, song, and then, love. Wasserman describes how “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” progresses following that pattern. He writes, concerning the first step, the experience of nature;”The progress [in the first stanzas] is toward a closer integration of nature and man. […] By [the] absorption of the knight into the structural pattern of the natural imagery, the movement from a suggested but unstated relationship of man and nature […] to an implied interrelationship […] has now been completed.”(67) He interestingly notes that Keats added some elements to the original tale, to highlight and match his progression conception; “Keats has added three major details that do not appear in the folk ballad […]: the knight weaves for the fairy’s child a garland, bracelets, and a girdle of flowers; the lady sings “a faery’s song”; and at length “in language strange she said– / ‘I love thee true.’””(69) Clearly we can see appear in these three elements: nature, song, and love. To the first part, which is a sort of communion with nature, is added the “climax”(68), with the knight being taken to the elfin grot. Finally the departing from the grot, through the dream, and going back to where the poem had started marks “the completion of the circular movement.”(68) Although Keats believed in the need to make that progress towards beauty and Truth, the poem ends in the way it had begun, by going back to the mortal, natural world. Wasserman comments:“Therefore, ideally, having ascended the pleasure thermometer, the knight should perceive an immortality of passion, especially since his vision-making imagination is aided by fairy magic.”(73) But elements of both space and time indicate that there is no staying in the grot. “With the dissipation of the vision in the ballad and with the consequent return to the cold physical world, the ladder of intensities which the knight had ascended to reach the ethereal world now crumbles beneath him.”(77) Although Keats advances a theoretical path to Truth, through the imagination’s experience of beauty, here remains a pretty pessimistic tone to the poem, eventually presenting the quest for Truth has veined. Even if the knight explains the reason why he “sojourn[s] here / Alone and palely loitering,” he nonetheless expresses no will to change his situation despite the deadness of his environment, since the poem ends on a concession clause: “Though the sedge has withered from the lake,/ And no birds sing.” Leavy explains: “This is the extreme romantic position: to be an artist one must lose the struggle to dominate La Belle Dame Sans Merci, even if to do so results in total isolation and, ultimately, death.”(45)
Under the romantic theme of the loss of love as well as the singsong rhythm of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” lies Keats’s very conception of Romanticism and develops one of his major sets of values.
Keats, John. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. English Romantic Poetry: An Anthology. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1996. 224-25. Print.
Leavy, Barbara Fass. La Belle Dame Sans Merci & the Aesthetics of Romanticism. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1974. Print.
Jones, John. John Keat’s Dream of Truth. London: Chatto and Windus, 1969. Print.
Murry, John Middleton. Studies in Keats. London: H. Milford, Oxford UP, 1930. Print.
Wasserman, Earl R., and John Keats. The Finer Tone: Keats’ Major Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1967. Print.
(I apologize for the missing footnotes; I could not add them on the blog post.)