La Belle Sans Merci: A Ballad

Keats belonged to the genre of the Romantics. He penned the poem ‘La Belle Sans Merci’ in the year 1819. Being a Nature poet, a tinge of pathos and the delightful re-creative power of Mother Nature weave through all his poems. John Keats seems to have experimented for the first time with the Ballad form of poem and this explains the reason of the Leigh Hunt, in 1819 to publish the poem with slight modifications (Friedlander, 2005), though the original seems to have an irresistible appeal to many readers.

This essay shall retain the original version for the purpose of analyses, and try to explore the different dimensions of literary aspects like the ‘ballad’, alliterations, metaphors similes, characterizations; and finally, the beauty of the ballad which the poet has tried to paint. The Theme: Is about an unknown person, assumed to be the poet, meets a knight, who is almost in his death- bed.

The pitiable condition of the knight who was “alone and palely loitering” (line 2) makes the poet wonder as to what may have made the knight to “ail” (line 1) so badly, that he looked “haggard and woebegone”, “pale” as a lily and the healthy “rose” (line 11) color in his cheeks fast fading. The knight then narrates his sad tale of pleasure and pain, as though in half dream to the poet. In the ‘Meadows” there, the Knight meets with an attractive young women”, whom he addresses as “Full beautiful – a faery’s child, Her hair was long, her foot was light, (line14-16).

To the reader, it seems as if the “Belle” with her “long hair and wild eyes” bewitches him; though she seems to reciprocate his fascination too, with her “looked at me as she did love, And made sweet moan” (lines 19-20). The knight seats her on top of his horse and walks by her side and they go to her “elfin grot” (line 29) – grotto, she sings and declares her love for him “sure in language strange she said – I love thee true” (line 27-28). His (the knight’s) desire for her is so complete and deep that he “kisses” her “wild eyes shut” even though he is unsure of her language and they put each other to sleep.

The dream in the sleep seems to be a warning, to the knight. Though the knight elucidates his dream, he makes it clear that he longs for her; despite the premonition in his dreams, in which the likes of kings and princes warn him that she was an imposter of death, “They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ Hath thee in thrall! ”(34-35). Furthermore, even in his dream the condition of the others who have been the victims of her wily responses, shock the knight. Indeed the Knight seems to wake from his dream only to find that his “Belle Dame” gone and she probably never was, a reality.

A similar idea is portrayed by the poet in his poem “Ode to a Nightingale” too, in the last two lines wherein the poet says Was it a vision or a waking dream? Fled is that music; – do I wake or sleep? (John Keats) Literary Analyses: The poetic form used here is the “Ballad” – is a small narrative poem, that sings of dramatic actions or legends of love, death, betrayal, courage or all the above, just as here it is the fatal love that the knight and all her predecessors felt for the unearthly woman.

Two distinctive features of a ballad – the incremental repetition and stanza, mark this poem. ‘Incremental repetition’ is the occurrence of one or more lines again and again, with minor changes simultaneously advancing the story; ex. the first two line of this poem: “O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? ” occur repeatedly in the second and the last stanzas, respectively. The ballad stanza is generally of four lines. The first alternate lines contain four accents, the second alternate – usually the second and fourth lines contain three accents.

Keats being a Nature poet has utilized skillfully the art of rhyme and repetition, to impress upon the reader the mood and the darkness of the setting; for example in the second stanza, second line, the words “So haggard and so woe-begone? ” and (line 17) in the fifth stanza, “a garland for her head,” etc. The musical quality of the ballad is enhanced by the fact that Keats deploys the similar rhyme-endings in the second alternate lines that is the second line and the last line.

For example, in Stanza VI of the poem, the second and the last line rhyme thus: “And nothing else saw all day long, ….. A faery’s song” (lines 22-24). As regards the charaterization part of it, there are three principle characters in the poem; one is the poet or the anonymous speaker who during the course of his “sojourn”, comes to the place wherein he meets the knight who is quite restless. The poet’s wonderment at the once-active knight and his account of the lady or the “Belle Dame” is well documented.

The second character is that of the knight himself and his narration starts form the fourth stanza onwards. His amazement at the sudden appearance of the woman, her eyes, her incomprehensible language, and his craving for the woman, despite the negative connotation of the dream all carry elements of an intrigue to the reader. The third character is the woman, and she is a sort of mythical. Keats seems to put a question mark in the minds of the reader with this subtle references to the ‘elf’’ and the “faery’s child” etc.

And he loved her, kidded her, knowing fully well that there is a strange and undiscovered part in her. In fact, it seems as if the poet enjoys her unearthly trait, and also knowing that it was temporary. There is the inherent and subtle reference to Nature in lines like these: “The squirrel’s granary is full, And the harvest’s done. I see a lily on thy brow, with anguish moist and fever dew” (lines 7-10). Here, the use of metaphor “lily on thy brow” is to be noted. The lily is always associated with paleness.

In line 11, “And on thy cheeks a fading rose” fading rose stands for draining away of color from the cheeks. Conclusion: Keats has used various means effectively and skillfully to bring out the elements of mystery and beauty in this ballad. It is said that just before the creation of this poem Keats read Spencer’s account of Florimel, who is an enchantress that disappears (Friedlander, 2005). But, this elfin beauty is an unique creation Keats and bewitches the reader in a very different and alluring manner.

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