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The Belle Dame Sans Merci - John Keats

The “Belle Dame sans Merci” is a ballad wrote by Keats , a famous English writers, in 1819. There are two different versions of this poem with minor differences between them . The original was written by Keats using the title of 15th Century’s poem wrote by Alain Chartier although the plots of the two poems are different. The poem is considered a masterpiece of the English literature and are just short twelve stanzas of only four lines each with simple rhyme scheme. In the poem there are several enigmatic sentences which are subject to interpretations.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
O WHAT can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d 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 cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a fairy’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 fairy’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 fill 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 dreamed
On the cold hill’s side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped 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.

The poem describes the condition of an unnamed knight who has met a mysterious woman who said to be "a fairy’s child” . The poem opens when the knight is in a barren landscape, he tells at the readers how meet a mysterious but very beautiful lady whose “her eyes were wild”. The damsel told the knight she "loved him true" and took him to her "elfin grot" but upon arriving there, she "wept and sigh’s full sore“. When the knight sleeps in an elfin grot he dreams a "pale kings and princes" who said crying : "La Belle Dame sans Merci [the beautiful, pitiless damsel] hath thee in thrall !" He awakes to find himself on the same "cold hill's side" on which he continues to wait while "palely loitering." The roles of the knight and the lady change. In stanzas IV, V, and VI, the knight is dominant; lines 1 and 2 of each stanza describe his actions ("I met," "I made," "I set her"), and lines three and four of these three stanzas focus on the lady. But a shift in dominance occurs; stanza VII is devoted entirely to the lady ("She found" and "She said"). In stanza VIII, lines 1 and 2, the lady initiates the action and takes the dominant position ( "She took me" and "she wept and sighed"); the knight's actions are presented in lines three and four. In Stanza IX she "lull’s" him to sleep (line 1) and he "dreamed" . The rest of this stanza and the next two stanzas are about his dream.

The poem is structured like a series of Chinese Boxes. “La Belle Dame sans Merci" seems easy to understand at the narrative level. An unidentified passerby asks the knight what is wrong (stanzas I-III). The knight answers that he has been in love with and abandoned by a beautiful lady (stanzas IV-XII). Because Keats is imitating the folk ballad, he uses simple language, focuses on one event, provides minimal details about the characters and makes no judgments. Some details are realistic and familiar, others are unearthly and strange. As a result, the poem creates a sense of mystery which has intrigued many readers. The reader wonders whether it is now the poet who has fallen under the spell of the “Belle Dame sans Merci” and is dreaming of this deathly pale knight whose task is to warn him about such a dangerous woman same as the knights in his dream warned him.
Keats sets his simple story of love and death in a bleak wintry landscape that is appropriate to it: "The sedge has withered’s from the lake / and no birds sing!" The repetition of these two lines, with minor variations, as the concluding lines of the poem, emphasizes the fate of the unfortunate knight and neatly encloses the poem in a frame by bringing it back to its beginning. The poem is also elusive and can be interpreted in different ways. The Lady could be the symbol of sensual love and an anticipation of the “femme fatale” accused to ruin man. Her double image (she is a sort of compromise between the Queen of Faeries and a witch) suggest a double nature: it is both benign and evil. Her transfiguration comes through her absence. Being impossible to find her again, Knight’s agony initiate; but also she might be the symbol of the inspiration that comes unexpected and then abandon the poet who can no longer be a poet without.
Keats’s highest art is expressed in his odes, sonnets and ballads. However his art can’t be considered in line with medieval tradition but is rather a literary more refined and elaborated version of this poetic form. In all poems his emotions are expressed through sensuous imagery where all the senses are often playing simultaneously and therefore giving concentration and richness of expression to his poem.
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