The poem describes the encounter between an unnamed knight and a mysterious fairy. It opens with a description of the knight in a barren landscape, "haggard" and "woe-begone". He tells the reader how he met a beautiful lady whose "eyes were wild"; he set her on his horse and they went together to her "elfin grot", where they began to make love. Falling asleep, the knight had a vision of "pale kings and princes", who warn him that "La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall!" ( The Lady without pity has you in her charm !). He awoke to find himself on the same "cold hill's side" where he is now "palely loitering".
Although La Belle Dame Sans Merci is short (only twelve stanzas of four lines each, with an ABCB rhyme scheme), it is full of enigmas. Because the knight is associated with images of death — a lily (a symbol of death in Western culture), paleness, "fading", "wither[ing]" — he may well be dead himself at the time of the story. He is clearly doomed to remain on the hillside, but the cause of this fate is unknown. A straightforward reading suggests that the Belle Dame entraps him, along the lines of tales like Thomas the Rhymer or Tam Lin. More recent feminist commentators have suggested that the knight in fact raped the Belle Dame, and is being justly punished — this is based on textual hints like "she wept, and sigh'd full sore". Ultimately, the decision comes down to whether Keats wrote the poem as a simple story, or as a story with a moral: given his other work, this may be more an evocation of feeling than an intellectual attempt at moralising.
Keats, John - La belle dame sans merci