La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Study Guide

John Keats

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Themes


Keats explores typically Romantic themes in "La Belle Dame sans Merci," reflecting the movement's focus on nature, the individual, altered consciousness, and the supernatural.

The Supernatural

One theme of the poem is the supernatural. The subject of the poem, an ailing knight, explains the situation as a result of a supernatural encounter. He meets a lady who is "a faery's child." She sings "a faery's song," and she takes him to her "Elfin grot," or cave. She feeds him strange foods she has gathered—roots, wild honey, and "manna-dew." This is a reference to manna, a biblical food that provides sustenance for the Hebrews in the 40 years between their departure from Egypt and their entrance to the Promised Land. It may have been a substance excreted by the tamarisk shrub.

To further complicate matters, there are several indications of physical affection. The beautiful lady "ma[kes] sweet moan." He places her on his "pacing steed," which may be a metaphor for sexual relations. He also kisses her "wild wild eyes." This supernatural encounter explains his current health. At this point the knight has eaten the food she's offered, exchanged intimacies with her, and ventured into her cave. Mythologically speaking, he has eaten the food of the Otherworld and had intimate encounters with a member of the Otherworld. According to British folklore—which Keats documented in his reading of English poet Edmund Spenser's (1552/3–99) The Faerie Queene (1590)—the knight is doomed.

Dangerous Femininity and Dangerous Love

Another theme evidenced in this poem is the danger of love and the danger of femininity. According to the knight, he meets a beautiful lady, shares a lovely day with her, exchanges words of affection, and wakes up alone and sick. Whether or not the lady is supernatural is immaterial because loving her is deadly. A more worldly explanation for the knight's illness exists. He meets a stranger, they do not share the same language, and he wakes alone and sick, thinking of the men who came before him. The result of his encounter could be either lovesickness or physical sickness. Either way, the source of his ailment is a lady. Love of a strange, beautiful woman has hastened his decline and his seemingly inevitable death. If the "thrall" she has him in is not supernatural, he is wasting away—as "pale kings and princes too" have done—because he has been abandoned by a woman.

Part of her dangerous femininity is symbolically represented in her labeling as "a faery's child." This origin story adds to the exotic image of "La Belle Dame sans Merci." She is otherworldly and therefore unknown and dangerous. Keats had read Spenser's The Faerie Queen (1590). The fairies in that work, as well as in the folklore supporting Spenser's text and the ballads Keats drew upon for this poem, were deadly, cruel, and beautiful.

The lady also speaks a "language strange," which indicates "otherness": she is not an Englishwoman. This idea of "otherness" is reinforced by the pattern of supernatural words, such as the repeated "faery." Additionally, the title is in French. Whether she is a fairy or French or simply an embodiment of nature, she is not familiar to the knight. Her strangeness makes her exotic and therefore potentially dangerous.

Nature Is Beautiful and Dangerous

As this is a British Romantic-era poem, it is no surprise that the threat of nature and natural things is one of its themes. The narrative goes to great lengths to emphasize the natural elements of the beautiful lady. When the knight first meets the lady, it is in the "meads," or meadow. She is described in naturalistic terms: "Her hair was long, her foot was light, / And her eyes were wild." The description of her as "wild" expresses the Romantic notion of nature being both alluring and deadly. Her hair is loose, and Keats's knight notices her eyes, in particular, are wild. The eyes have long been considered to be tied to insights, or otherworldly revelations. (The "third eye" and "Sight," or "second sight," derive from this notion.) Therefore, "La Belle Dame sans Merci" is presented as wild, untamed, and feral—like nature.

He gives her flowers, and she gives him food from nature: "roots of relish sweet," wild honey, and "manna-dew." The place where he falls asleep is an "Elfin grot," a cave. A second time he notes her "wild wild eyes." After his encounter and his dream, he is "loitering" in nature, despite it being fall—"the harvest's done"—and therefore cold. He is pale, feverish, and haggard. In all, while nature is depicted with beautiful imagery, it is also associated with endings, death, and cold. As such, the poem builds toward a sense of the danger inherent in natural decline. The lady may, in fact, be representative of nature or death itself.

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