La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Study Guide

John Keats

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Context

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Romanticism

While modern scholars include John Keats (1795–1821) as one of the British Romantics, he was not associated with the literary movement in his lifetime. He did know Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and William Wordsworth (1770–1850), but he was not comfortable with most other Romantic poets.

Romanticism (1790–1830) was a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement that rejected the orderliness of the neoclassical. Instead, Romanticism's outlook incorporated nature, the individual, altered consciousness, and the supernatural. At the time of his writing, Keats was not affiliated with the British Romantic movement in the way many of its participants were. His writing, however, highlights individualism, the influence of nature, and subjectivity. Consequently, Keats is often placed within this larger literary and artistic movement.

British Romanticism followed neoclassicism and can be read as a response to it. Neoclassicism refers to art inspired by the works of Greek and Roman antiquity. Romanticism rejected the neoclassical ideals of order and rationality. The Romantic movement instead upheld imagination, individualism, and subjectivity. The British Romantics often looked toward the simple everyman, the rural, and those who worked within nature for inspiration. Keats does this in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" by utilizing the form of the folk ballad.

The major male Romantic poets are often divided into two generations:

First-Generation Poets

  • William Blake (1757–1827)
  • William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)

Second-Generation Poets

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822)
  • George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824)
  • John Keats (1795–1821)

The first generation of Romantic poets was vitalized by and fully supported the French Revolution (1789–99) and its ideals of liberty and equality for commoners. They were against tyrannical rule by royalty, and they encouraged resistance to the nobles' authority. However, the violence and bloodshed wrought by the actual revolution caused many of the early Romantics to later take a more conservative stance. The second generation of Romantics criticized their predecessors for selling out their ideals. The second-generation Romantics also preached nonviolence, and they tended to couch their political beliefs in myth or figurative language. Hiding their political motives allowed them, in some ways, to become more idealistic than the poets before them. Both generations of poets idealized the imagination, individualism, a sense of the religious to be found in nature, and the need to be childlike. Both generations shared the belief that they were prophets called to guide others.

Balladic Form and Literary Influences

While John Keats used a variety of poetic styles, he structures "La Belle Dame sans Merci" according to the folk ballad form. Ballads evolved over time and were anonymous. These songs typically told tales of heroic, tragic, or comic events. Keats used the ballad conventions in his crafting of a poem about a tragic event.

The metric form of a ballad is typically quatrains (four-line stanzas) rhyming in an ABCB structure. This is called a ballad quatrain. Further, these alternate in four-stress and three-stress lines. For example, the following stanza is a quatrain (four lines), and the ends of lines two and four (the "Bs" in ABCB) rhyme. These are the bolded words dew and too.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

Keats used the ballad quatrain as a structure, and further, the poem is grounded in nature. However, it also includes elements of the supernatural. In this, it follows in the footsteps of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poems included in Lyrical Ballads (1798). This volume, written with William Wordsworth, is the literary work that launched the British Romantic era in writing. In essence, Keats combines the goals of Wordsworth and Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth wrote of the ordinary, and Coleridge wrote of the extraordinary. Both men incorporated elements of nature to do so.

Keats was also familiar with Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590). This poem was an epic, with only 7 of the intended 12 books completed. What does exist is a story (among other things) of Gloriana, the Faerie Queen, who is holding a 12-day feast. There are quests, knights, a princess who sets out to save her parents from a dragon, and much more. Keats was well read, and he studied Shakespeare, whose well-known fairy Puck appeared in A Midsummer Night's Dream. This play was likely written around the same time as The Faerie Queene; critical scholars date it around 1595 or 1596, with an initial publication of 1600.

Keats's knowledge both of the traditional ballads and of literary works on fantastic topics would provide a template for the story of a medieval knight meeting a fairy in "La Belle Dame sans Merci."

Tuberculosis

John Keats's life was haunted by tuberculosis, a bacterial disease. It killed his mother, his brother (Thomas Keats), and eventually Keats himself. In 1818 Keats took care of his brother until his death. His own health began to decline around 1820, and he died in 1821.

The term tuberculosis was coined in 1834. The disease, however, has a much longer history. It was referred to as "the white plague" in the 1700s. In the 1800s, when Keats contracted it, it was called consumption. Earlier still, in the Middle Ages, it was termed scrofula.

Treatment for disease during the Romantic era was primitive. Some treatments Keats, his brother, and his mother may have tried include cod liver oil, vinegar massages, and turpentine. Antibiotics for treatment of the disease would not come about for over a century after Keats's death.

The disease breaks down lung tissue to the point that the afflicted person coughs up blood. In the 19th century when Keats was affected, the disease was widespread in both Europe and North America. From the 18th century until the early 20th century, tuberculosis was a leading cause of death. It is highly contagious, as healthy individuals inhale the droplets from the coughing and sneezing of those with tuberculosis. Symptoms of the disease include fatigue, fevers, weight loss, lack of appetite, chest pain, trouble breathing, coughing up blood, chills, and night sweats.

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