La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Study Guide

John Keats

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Narrative Voice


"La Belle Dame sans Merci" is primarily told in the first person. In the first three stanzas of the poem, an unnamed narrator asks a question that establishes setting as well as focus. The remaining stanzas are in the first person, as well. However, these stanzas are told in the voice of a medieval knight. The knight answers the unnamed narrator's questions by telling of his encounters with the beautiful, potentially otherworldly, lady he met in the meadow.

Whether or not the knight is a reliable narrator is unclear. In several places there are indications he is not. Part of his explanation of why he is wandering comes from a dream, suggesting he has a tenuous grip on reality. Notably, the dream transpires after he falls asleep in—according to him—the beautiful lady's "Elfin grot." Yet when he wakes, he is no longer where he fell asleep. Additionally, he says the beautiful woman spoke a "language strange" to tell him she loved him. If they do not speak the same language, his understanding of her is suspect.

The first narrator remarks on the knight's pallor as well as his feverish state. If he is unwell and feverish, his perception is questionable. He cannot understand the words the lady is saying, he has horrifying dreams, and he seems to have lapses in time, as his waking and sleeping locations are not the same. But all of this could also be explained by the beautiful lady being an otherworldly creature, as the knight has indicated he believes in numerous places in the text. John Keats (1795–1821) does not clarify whether the knight's health causes him to misread the situation or if this is in fact a supernatural encounter. The poem offers evidence for both interpretations.

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