Keats was much influenced by the art of the Middle Ages and poems such as The Eve of St. Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci and Isabella are clearly in the tradition of the medieval verse Romance.

Medieval Romances

The word ‘Romance’ originally referred to a Romance language and the Old French word ‘roman’, referred to a story translated into French and particularly associated with courtly stories of King Arthur, Charlemagne and classical heroes.

Originating in the twelfth century, the most notable Romances were those written in France by Chretien de Troyes. These stories typically tell the story of a knight who, more often than not, is a character from Arthurian legend. This knight is separated from the court and exposed to various adventures, which often involve the supernatural, before making his triumphant return to court, happiness and prosperity. Such characters are often rewarded with marriage to the woman he has hitherto worshipped. The Romance tradition was courtly in tone and was concerned with the rules of chivalry as they affected behaviour and manners in all aspects of social life, love and battle.

As a poet for whom the imagination was such an important concept, it is not surprising that Keats was draw so powerfully to the heroism, adventure, myth and magic of medieval romances.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1890, by Frank DickseeLa Belle Dame Sans Merci

In La Belle Dame Sans Merci Keats writes about the love of a knight-at-arms for a beautiful but pitiless lady. The knight here epitomises the chivalry and the spirit of adventure of the Middle Ages. The supernatural element of the poem also has a medieval quality: the beautiful lady here is not an earthly woman. The suggestion is that she is an enchantress who appears in the shape of a beautiful woman to entangle unsuspecting men who fall in love with her. Another supernatural element is the horrible dream in which the knight learns the real nature of the ‘belle dame’ to whose deceptive charms he has fallen a victim.

The Eve of St. Agnes

The Eve of St. Agnes is based upon a medieval superstition according to which a maiden, by observing certain rituals on St. Agnes’ Eve, could win the sight of her would-he husband in a dream:

They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight, ..
.. If ceremonies due they did aright.

In addition to a medieval superstition serving as the basis of the poem and medieval chivalry serving as its motive, the medieval atmosphere is built up by many other touches, such as:

  • The Beadsman telling his rosary and saying his prayer
  • The revelry in the hall with plume, tiara and trumpets
  • The reference to the medieval story of Merlin’s death by treachery
  • The wonderful picture of a thousand heraldries, dim emblazonings, and a shielded scutcheon blushing with the blood of queens and kings
  • The baron who dreamt that night of ‘witch and demon’ and ‘many a woe’. 

Each of these touches has some medieval association:

  • The Beadsman praying before the Virgin in the chapel calls up the devotional character of the times
  • The plume and tiara and the stained-glass window recall medieval art
  • The heraldries take us back to the chivalrous character of the period
  • The mention of Merlin refers to medieval legend
  • While the witch and the demon reflect the Middle Ages as a time before people distinguished between magic and scientific rationalism.

Morality and the imagination

The tales of medieval literature were full of moral teachings, presenting human behaviour against a backdrop of the teachings of the Christian church and the strict rules governing the behaviour of the knightly class, their target audience.

However, Keats was also strongly attracted to the chivalric tales of the Middle Ages for their intermingling of reality with the marvellous. They presented to him a world which is instantly recognisable as the same one we all live in, but which is transformed by elements of the supernatural, the exotic and the ideal – all qualities which nourished the imagination.

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