La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Study Guide

John Keats

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Symbols


John Keats makes use of several sets of symbols to convey critical tone and meaning in "La Belle Dame sans Merci."


The poem uses natural symbols to indicate a time of ending, decline, and death. One such symbol is the lily. The unnamed narrator notes of the knight, "I see a lily on thy brow." White lilies have been associated with innocence. As harbingers of spring and new birth they also symbolize the death and resurrection of the biblical Christ. As such, the lily may suggest the knight's impending death or that he is already dead. A similar symbol is the "fading rose." The knight's rose, or blush of health, is fading. Again, the symbol is of decline or an end. The image of the "fading rose" echoes the poem's later reference to the pallor of the dead kings and warriors as well.

A third symbol, the gloam, means twilight or dusk—the end of the day. A fourth symbol is seasonal: the poem refers to the harvest and the dying plants. The sedge, a marsh grass, has withered. This indicates the season is late fall or winter, which adds to the symbolism of ending. A final natural symbol of endings is that "no birds sing." The birds aren't singing because of the season, because the knight is dead or dying and passing from the physical world, or because it's twilight. All interpretations signal a time has come to an end.

Respectable, Strong Men

The knight-at-arms, a high-born gentleman soldier, is a symbol associated with chivalry, strength, and honor. This knight, however, is solitary, weakened, and "loitering." Keats places him in context of the past by revealing a dream of other strong men who have been brought low by "La Belle Dame sans Merci." Those men are warriors, princes, and kings. Along with the knight, all four represent strength and respectability, yet all suffer a living death after their encounter with the lady. They symbolize the inability of the ordinary human to withstand an encounter with the supernatural.

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