La Belle Dame Sans Merci
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
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.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said –
‘I love thee true’.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed –
Ah! woe betide! –
The latest dream I ever dreamt
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!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
There are poems that are easy enough to study at GCSE and then there are poems that just need to be avoided. This, for me, is one of those heritage poems that someone has added into the anthology and it causes me, and other teachers too I am sure, to shake their heads in wonder. Another one is My Last Duchess. But they are quality poems and worthy of study; that is for sure. Personally, they are best suited to A Level for their complexity rather than GCSE so I apologise if you have a teacher who sees this and thinks ooooh, lovely, I shall teach that to my group and enjoy myself.
So what is happening in this poem? What is it about? And what else can be gleaned from it in terms of metaphor or underlying meaning? Well, the title alone is confusing unless you can translate it. La Belle Dame Sans Merci, translated into English, in my pigeon French, word for word, would be The Beautiful Woman Without Thanks because ‘merci’ is part of the thank you comment we make. But that is how French and English work isn’t it? They never translate in the same word order and here, we have a final word that has a different translation. So, a better translation is The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy, which is a different thing altogether. It is a classic poem by Keats that has been read, recited, acted out ad infinitum [forever and a day] since it was written and is considered one of the best ever by some.
The way it begins is interesting because it starts with “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, alone and palely loitering?” That question contains lots of information for the reader, who sees a knight at arms, someone set back in the medieval period who is alone and ‘loitering’ or waiting [possibly] for the next thing to happen, whatever that might be. “What can ail thee” contains another archaism in the word ‘thee’ which means ‘you’ and so the medieval knight is being asked, what can make you feel so bad or worry you?
An interesting start, but which way does it go after that. The reader is thinking will it be negative, or positive in tone? The next thing to ask is about this man? We have the man but we do not have the setting; part of the who, where, when list etc. But we are then told that “the sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing.” The word ‘sedge’ means a grass like plant with triangular stems [now I know why Sedgefield is named as it is] so we have a knight, by the side of a lake, where Sedge grows, in wetlands, waiting for something.
Is there a connection already to the Arthurian legend?
Then we see the use of repetition, with the words, “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,” which is used to emphasise the man and his setting, with a hint of balladic romance set in there as well. But now we see that he is “so haggard and so woe-begone.” He is demoralised and sad, let down by something or someone somehow. Perhaps, the man has been on a quest for so long, he just feels so tired and alone now. So, we have the man, the setting, the tone; all negative. Add to that the image of the “squirrel’s granary [being] full and the harvest’s done” and you get a time of year as well to consider.
Is the man a former knight at arms and now working the field, or there simply waiting for his lady? We consider that because of the title, but need to read on to see the next piece of information. “I see a lily on thy brow,” says the poet, “with anguish moist and fever-dew and on thy cheek a fading rose, fast withereth too.” What can be seen here? What else is in this image? There is the lily on the brow, but the lily is a flower meant to represent humility and devotion, as all true knight at arms should be but on his cheek there is a fading rose, representing one of two things; the redness of a ruddy cheek, or the love and adoration he has for his sweet lady. In the sense of a romantic ballad, this would fit the bill entirely.
Bu then the poems shifts away from the man waiting for something onto a different tack entirely, as if someone else is speaking, or as if the man himself is relating the meeting with a lady and the description of her is one that is typical of ballads of this nature. “I met a lady in the meads, full beautiful” is so typical of the time in that the woman is seen in perfect beauty, the kind of face and personality that would surely be on a Hollywood billboard if it was today, but she is then described as “a faery’s child.” Now we have to suspend disbelief here and consider when this was written and the belief in fairies at the time. If you are not sure of what I mean, read [or better, see] A Midsummer Night’s Dream and see how the fairies there are represented as having power to make us do all sorts of things.
This fairy, we are told, has “hair [that] was long, her foot was light and her eyes were wild.” This is a mischievous imp of a fairy and the speaker makes a “garland for her head and bracelets too.” A garland is a rope of flowers, so we are still in the realms of the fairy world, where everything is a “fragrant zone.” This is a meeting between one man and a spirit, where we are led to believe, because we have to, that “she looked at me as she did love and made sweet moan.” Have you ever been in love or missed someone so much that you moan a slight moan of grief that they are not there? Or, have you ever looked at someone and an utterance has been made by you? Not a word, but a sound so short it could not be a word? That is one interpretation of this word ‘moan,’ but another is that she begins to tell him just how much she loves him.
The speaker then puts her on his “pacing steed” [horse] and the horse takes her to her destination but we are told something else as well, for “nothing else” did they see “all day long.” These two are alone on their journey and occasionally, “sidelong would she bend, and sing a faery’s song.” In mythology, there are reasons for such singing; firstly out of joy, but that does not fit with the title, and secondly, to hypnotise or to make someone sway to their fairy ways. You decide which one it should be, for we all look at poems differently, just as much as any genre in literature.
So far, we have a knight meeting a fairy and a journey beginning, all very typical of ballads of the time, telling the story of their meeting, but now we are given more information and because of the title, we are led into thinking that there is an ulterior motive behind her actions. We see how “she found me roots of relish sweet and honey wild and manna-dew” to eat, as if she is helping him to survive the harshness of his waiting, making his life all the more better for meeting her, but if she is a mischievous imp of a fairy, then something bad is about to happen and she could be drugging him to the sense of the real world. That is the usual case and any reader who has seen the likes of Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, will know that.
Then, she speaks to him, in soft and subtle tones, but in a “language strange” to him, telling him, “I love thee true.” As you read, are you thinking cynical thoughts about the direction this is going? I certainly am. The speaker tells us that, “she took me to her elfin grot and there she wept and sighed full sore and there I shut her wild wild eyes with kisses four.” It is a picture of grace and love so far and one where love is being shared, where their relationship, albeit a man and a fairy, is being shared in the grandeur of love as it should be. Perhaps, the writer is saying this is the only kind of love that can exist, because love in the real world is so much more hard work and impossible on the heart? After all, love needs working out but in this make believe land of fairies and such like, it is so much easier to grasp and live out.
The fairy then lulls him to sleep and he dreams a series of images that are interesting indeed. Do not forget, he is a knight at arms, so when he dreams of a “cold hill side,” it is not surprising, or of, “pale kings and princes,” all of them, “pale warriors.” We now begin to see the depth of his heart of devotion. He says they are, “death-pale” and they all utter the same thing: “La Belle Dame sans Merci thee hath in thrall!” This is a warning that whilst she might be beautiful and bewitching, she has no mercy and he is now in a heap of trouble, to put it mildly. He is being tricked away from his quest into the realms of unbelief and at the end of the dream, he realises where he has ended up.
But before that he sees all these people in his dream, with “starved lips in the gloam” as if they have been lured there too and tricked in the same way. It is very like a scene from the film Excalibur, where Percival is lured away from the quest to find the Holy Grail and is taken to a strange place where he is tortured and suffers enormously for his wandering heart. This knight sees these other knights with their “horrid warning gapèd wide” and then he awakes from his dream. The word “gaped” should not be read as it first appears either, for it has a stress above the letter ‘e’ and as such should be read as “gape-ed” so be careful there.
Then, as he wakes from his dream induced state, he finds himself “on the cold hill’s side.” The imagery here is interesting, for the beginning of the poem has the knight by marshes, all heroic and on a quest. Yes, it is possibly cold but there is a warmth in the language used, a warmth in the image, but here, this is different entirely. He then explains that this “is why I sojourn [journey/wait] here alone and palely loitering,” even “though the sedge is withered from the lake and no birds sing.” The image has now changed from that of heroic warmth to brazen coldness, a barren landscape that seems colder, even though the place might be one and the same as in the beginning.
The reader has been taken on a journey through noble heroism and into foolishness and the desire to not be lonely any more. It is as if the knight has been so lonely whilst ‘loitering’ where he is, that he needed company, almost wished for it and then, out of nowhere, it appeared in the form of a sprite who was wandering the land for someone to torment. This then, is a poem set in the medieval period but is also one that deals with the mythical world as well, as many other writers have done before them and is so well constructed, even though the four line verse is simple enough, to make the reader think that something bad is coming.
Now, there is a technical term for that? Do you know what it is?