La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Study Guide

John Keats

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Quotes


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, / Alone and palely loitering?

Unnamed speaker

The unnamed speaker asks a knight, in essence, "What's wrong?" In asking, the narrator reveals the knight and his plight will be the subject of the poem. This narrator also reveals that the knight is alone. Further, the knight is likely ill or in distress, as he is "pale" and something "ails" him.


The sedge has wither'd from the lake, / And no birds sing.

Unnamed speaker

The speaker's description of the setting suggests that it is late fall or early winter—the season in nature when things die.


I see a lily on thy brow, / With anguish moist and fever-dew.

Unnamed speaker

The lily, associated with the death and resurrection of Christ, may suggest that the knight is dying or already dead. The narrator notes the knight seems to be feverish ("moist and fever-dew"). This visual may refer to tuberculosis, which plagued the author's life.


And on thy cheeks a fading rose / Fast withereth too.

Unnamed speaker

The rose here is associated with life, as in the rosy cheeks of a healthy person. Because the knight is dying or dead, the rose in his cheeks fades.


I met a lady in the meads, / Full beautiful—a faery's child.

The knight

Here is the source of the knight's distress. According to him, the trouble started when he met a beautiful woman in a meadow ("meads"). He suggests that she's otherworldly, a "faery's child."


Her hair was long, her foot was light, / And her eyes were wild.

The knight

The knight's description of the woman with long hair, light-footedness, and wild eyes adds to the image of her as something born of nature.


I set her on my pacing steed, / And nothing else saw all day long, / For sidelong would she bend, and sing / A faery's song.

The knight

When the knight and the lady ride away together, he is so enchanted by her that he sees "nothing else." She enchants him not only with her beauty but also with her voice ("a faery's song") and grace (bending as she sings). Whether this enchantment is literal, meaning that he is under a spell, is immaterial. The result is the same: he is completely captivated.


She found me roots of relish sweet, / And honey wild, and manna-dew.

The knight

The knight's willingness to eat the food of the Otherworld condemns him to it.


And sure in language strange she said— / "I love thee true."

The knight

The knight is declaring both that the woman said she loves him and she spoke a "language strange." This raises several concerns. Did the knight understand her? If not, what did she actually say in her strange language? At this point, he's placed her on his steed and watched her, but was she in agreement with this plan? Is she truly expressing her love?


She took me to her Elfin grot, / And there she wept and sighed full sore.

The knight

According to the knight, she took him to her fairy cave and then she cried and sighed. Both are indicators of grief. Is she grieving because of because of his fate, or for some other reason?


And there I shut her wild, wild eyes / With kisses four.

The knight

The reference to kisses combined with the earlier imagery of setting the woman on the knight's "pacing steed" suggest a possible sexual relationship between the knight and the woman. In religious symbolism, the number four is associated with Earth or humankind. In kissing the fairy four times, the knight may give up ties to his earthly life.


And there she lullèd me asleep.

The knight

After weeping and sighing, the fairy character makes the knight-at-arms fall asleep. It is unclear if she is using magic to lull him to sleep or if he is just weary from the trip. He indicates that he spent the full day traveling with her. Further, the source of his sickness may not be her. If so, what ails him may cause him to become weary and fall asleep.


Ah! woe betide!— / The latest dream I ever dreamt.

The knight

The knight has a dream that causes him dismay. Interestingly, the knight was in an "Elfin grot" before falling asleep, but his location shifts. The poem starts and ends where his dream occurs, "on the cold hill side."


I saw pale kings and princes too, / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; / They cried—"La Belle Dame sans Merci / Thee hath in thrall!"

The knight

The knight lets the initial narrator know that he is not the first victim. Admittedly, however, his evidence is that he's dreamed about other victims. Those victims were of his stature or higher—warriors, princes, kings. In essence, the knight is in good company.


And I awoke and found me here, / On the cold hill's side. / And this is why I sojourn here, / Alone and palely loitering.

The knight

The dream takes place at the same location as the onset of the narrative (the cold hillside), which is also where the knight wakes despite falling asleep elsewhere.

He closes his explanation of the situation by repeating he is alone, pale, and loitering. Ultimately, his explanation is only a story about a woman and a dream.

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