La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Study Guide

John Keats

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Plot Summary & Analysis



The Question (Stanzas 1–3)

In the first two stanzas an unnamed narrator encounters a solitary knight who appears to be ill. The narrator asks the logical question, "How did you end up in this way?" This section of the poem also establishes the time of year. References to the finished harvest and to the dead sedge, a type of marsh plant, place the story in late autumn or winter.

In the third stanza the narrator further establishes both setting and character. The knight displays several physical indicators of being unwell.

The Knight and the Lady (Stanzas 4–9)

In the fourth stanza the knight takes over the narration. He explains he met a beautiful lady in the meadow. He made garlands (wreaths of flowers) for her, whereupon she "made sweet moan." He placed her on his "pacing steed." She sang, and they spent the day together. She fed him roots, honey, and "manna-dew."

This exotic, beautiful lady told him she loved him, although she did so in a "language strange." Then she took him to her "Elfin grot," or cave, where she wept and sighed. He shut her eyes by kissing them. Then she lulled him to sleep, and he had an unsettling dream.

The Pale Kings (Stanzas 10–12)

The knight dreamed of other men, and he believed they were also victims of the lady. Like him they were pale. Notably, the men were kings, princes, and warriors. They were starving, and they warned him he was "in thrall" to a beautiful, merciless lady ("La Belle Dame sans Merci"). The knight tells his listener he woke from this dream on the "cold hill's side," and this is why he is there, alone, pale, and waiting.



At the time he wrote this poem, John Keats was afflicted with tuberculosis. He likely was not yet aware of this, but his brother Tom had died from it the previous year. Tom was the second member of the Keats family who died from the disease. John would be the third.

The narrator of the first stanza tells the knight, "I see a lily on thy brow, / With anguish moist and fever-dew, / And on thy cheeks a fading rose / Fast withereth too." The knight is, in sum, suffering from the symptoms of tuberculosis. He is showing the symptoms of fatigue ("haggard") and of fevers, chills, and night sweats ("moist and fever-dew"). Further, his dream could very well be a fever dream. He sees horrifying images ("starved lips," "horrid warning gapèd wide"). He ponders death and cold ("death-pale," "the cold hill's side"). In numerous ways, the poem is informed by an awareness of the disease that was already killing the author.

Narrative Relationship

The first narrator identifies the second as a knight, which makes him akin with the lady's other victims, who are kings, princes, and warriors. Such men were expected to display chivalry, or honor and gallantry. Consequently, the first narrator, like the reader, may be led to trust the reliability of the knight. However, there are reasons to question his trustworthiness.

The knight says this beautiful lady tells him she loves him, although she does so in a "language strange." If he does not speak her language, how does he understand her? Does he only imagine the meaning of her words? The knight further states he shut her eyes by kissing them, and then she lulls him to sleep. He contradicts himself here. Does he shut her eyes, or does she make him sleep? A final question regarding the knight's reliability relates to the setting. He tells of falling asleep at the "Elfin grot," or cave, and waking on the cold hillside. Is this is a supernatural event? Has the knight lost track of time? Does the knight have a disordered grasp on reality?

These contrary details suggest several possible interpretations. It is possible that the entire narrative is a dream—a dream within a dream—and thus not confined to the logic of reality. If so, the first narrator may be the real dreamer. It is also possible that the knight and his story are a hallucination of the first narrator. Both of these interpretations are supported by the fact that the shift between narrators is subtle and easy to miss. It may also be that the knight, like the lady, is a personification of death. The first narrator encounters this deathly pair in the winter of his life, which explains the early and late emphasis on setting details. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by fellow Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), death is also personified as a male/female pair who roll dice for the souls of the mariner's crew.

Contact with the Otherworld

This knight eats food given to him by a lady he presumes to be a fairy. There is a long literary and mythological tradition that suggests one should not eat the foods offered by otherworldly beings. This idea appears in Greek mythology, for example, with the pomegranate seeds given to Persephone by the god Hades. Eating them sentences her to spend part of the year in the underworld. It also shows up in English novels, such as Lewis Carroll's 1865 Alice in Wonderland. When Alice arrives in Wonderland, the food she eats and beverages she drinks make her grow large or small. After eating a piece of cake, she becomes so large that she almost goes through the roof.

The knight compounds his mistake when he joins the lady on a journey to a cave. In mythology, a cave is a symbol often associated with an opening to the afterworld or the realm of death. A supernatural reading of the poem suggests the knight has doomed himself with his actions.

Alternately, the reader might interpret the events to mean the knight has already died. Entering the cave and being lulled to sleep can be read as a metaphor for dying. When he wakes on the cold hillside, it may be his spirit who shares his warning tale with the narrator who poses the question in the first two stanzas—much like the mariner who suffers a kind of living death and stops the wedding guest to share his tale in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

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