Excerpt from my essay on Keats’ Poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

This essay was entitled “Nice Guys Finish Last: A Critical Examination of Manhood and Powerlessness in Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci”

:…while the poem tends towards interpretations of love as a doomed concept, the centering of romantic love as merely a cruel joke can be quite reductive and outright lazy thinking, There is a deeper, almost malignant undertone within the structure and the content of the poem that suggest an author struggling with the effect of misogyny on a man’s perceived control of an uncontrollable situation, power, and the ever awe-inducing Lilith figure by critiquing, or at the very least, manipulating, gender codes, codes of appropriate female conduct and sexual feeling.

One of the most notable things about “La Belle” is the sort of sly way that it presents a key issue concerning the Romantic philosophy: objective versus subjective reality (Kelly 18). The simple understanding, an encyclopedic understanding, almost, is that romantic poets favor subjectivity- particularly those like Keats who wrote at the height of the romantic period and whose almost excessive subjectivity and proclivity for emotional pontification defined the movement for generations to come. Their world view is generally characterized as a writer “focusing on his or her own experience,” with “no regard for the variety of perspectives that can occur when other points of view are considered” (Kelly 21). However, “La Belle” also maintains a certain self-awareness even amidst its absurdity and fluctuations between reality, fantasy, abject emotions, and the perception of male objectivity on the condition of wild, ungodly femininity. Keats’ portrayal of woman as a “callous seductress” is noted dutifully throughout his utilization of tone, poetic voice and imagery among other devices (Wolfson 214).

The central figure of “La Belle” is a medieval knight who has just come back from the battle. It is important to note that for the entirety of the poem, the reader will be introduced to kings, princes and magic- all motifs that are thematically concerned with the destructive power of love and the obliteration of the souls of men, specifically men in power. The knight whom the reader is introduced to in the beginning aimlessly wanders about in an eerie an autumnal landscape. A bodiless voice, gender unspecified, tells the reader that the knight is in a near death state, as he appears ready for battle or as if he had been suddenly transported from the middle of battle. He is pale and haggard, woe-begone, all signs of life seemingly drawn out of his pores. The disembodied voice tells the knight that they see the “lily on thy brow,” a strong metaphor for the ghostly sense of the knights conditions seeing that lilies are both used to describe whiteness, and paleness. Lilies are also metaphorically and ontologically used to describe purity, but from the dread and coldness infused in the autumnal setting, there is nothing to indicate an untainted purity, but rather a trauma-stricken man hurtling to a certain doom. There is also reference to pestilence and disease as this lily brow is “with anguish moist and fever-dew.” Soon thereafter is another flower metaphor in the following line: “… And on thy cheeks a fading rose/Fast withereth too.” Roses, which are traditionally red, are now nothing but the dredges of their former vibrant color. The dying rose vividly and obviously stands in as a symbol of the blood draining from the face of the knight. This continued sense of trauma, death, and destruction is mirrored in the landscape as a cleveral structural device that stays true to its Romantic roots. The sedge has withered, the squirrels are preparing  for winter; these metaphors exist to give the reader the idea that life isn’t just being drained out of the knight but also from nature.

But what power is strong enough to cause the virility of nature to wither under its grasp? “Oh what can ail thee,” the  bodiless speaker cries and the knight finally begins to explain his circumstances, and what extraordinary circumstances they turn out to be. He met a woman- a gloriously beautiful lady- deep in the wilderness and was immediately taken with her. However, the way he describes her initially gives the reader early clues that this woman is unearthly, not exactly human, which is a common trope when wrestling with the concept of a female who doesn’t exactly fit within the bounds of acceptable womanhood. She is a “fairy’s child,” with “wild eyes.” As he explains it, the two seemed to fall in love, and that while in this incredibly vulnerable state, he most likely was put under some fae enchantment. This lead to a brief but passionate romance, as well as an eventual heavy slumber where he was visited by haunting dreams. After he fell asleep as an effect of the supposed enchantment, the unreality of the situation assailed him in two ways. First when he was visited in his dream by figures like princes and kings who warn him that the woman’s love is insincere, malicious even, and secondly when their warning proved to be true after he arose from his sleep and found the woman gone (while also suddenly struck with a deeply rooted trauma that has proven to be agonizing enough to kill the other men that this woman had encountered). Throughout the text of this poem, Keats is ambivalent about whether these events, the lost lover and the prophetic warnings, are all machinations of the knight’s mind, induced via hallucinations or drugs or what have you, if they have any grounding in reality, or even if they exist on some other plane that is not our own earthly realm. It is this interplay of reality and fantasy, and the poem’s absolute refusal to distinguish between the two, that make this poem one of Keats’ most captivating work (Kelly 19).

The other most compelling feature of the poem, and arguably the most important figure in the process of understanding implicit misogyny and the Romantic subversion of what one might see in the modern “manic pixie dream girl” into a mythical succubus that destroys men and their egos, is of course, the figure of la belle sans merci.   Firstly, in order to properly discuss the attitude toward women in this poem, one must look at Keats’ view of women himself during his period of growth as a poet and as a man (Homans 343). His attitude towards this particular woman in “La Bell” doesn’t exactly line up with the traditional view of women as “delicate dependants” but may lead the reader to see that he may possess the notion that women, all women even, may have a penchant to be lethal enchantresses… which isn’t necessarily progressive. By all accounts of Keats’ early life, it should have been a simple truth that women readers would gravitate towards him because of his heartfelt past and detachment to certain ideals of 19th century toxic masculinity, He grew up in a relatively poor family, did not receive the same level of education as other revered male intellectuals of his time did and staunch male were markedly different from him. Certainly, a tender, caring majority of women would have been attracted by this homely upbringing, but but Keats’ “fear of a woman’s real dominance” echoed through much of his work (Homans 342). “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” in short, can be seen as Keats’ clever, insidious way of making the reader feel sorry for the poor knight because of his sensitive overview in romantic love and the woman’s overpowering, conniving ways to undermine his attempts at real emotional connection with her (Homans 346). It is the classic nice guy maneuver.”

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