La Belle Dame Sans Merci: Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, pen and pencil drawing, 1855, by Dante Gabriel RossettiIn stanzas 1-3 the poem’s speaker addresses a ‘knight at arms’ who is alone and in a poor physical state, asking him what has happened that has caused him to look ‘so haggard and so woe-begone’. 
The rest of the poem (stanzas 4-12) is the knight’s answer. He says that he met a beautiful lady in the meadows, was attracted by her and then started wooing her by making her a garland for her hair and allowing her to ride his horse. 
She returns his love, giving him sweet things to eat, talking to him in strange language and taking him back to her fairy cave. There the knight is lulled to sleep and has a bad dream about the kings, princes and warriors previously seduced by the beautiful lady. Her previous lovers are now all dead and they try to warn him that he has been enchanted by the lady. 
At this point the knight wakes up alone on a hillside. Now he waits, seemingly unable to leave, which accounts for the knight’s present desolation and deathly appearance.

Commentary on La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Literary sources

This poem was written in April 1819. The poem’s title was taken from a medieval French poem by Alain Chartier and means ‘The Lovely Lady without Pity’. 
The strange, fairylike woman who attempts to seduce the knight is reminiscent of Morgan Le Fay in the Arthurian Romances. Morgan is a mysterious figure, usually represented as a sorceress in command of supernatural power. It is she who plots against King Arthur and once steals from him his sword Excalibur
Keats’ character is also much influenced by enchantresses found in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, the long narrative poem which, above all others, inspired Keats to become a poet. Keats was almost certainly thinking of the seduction of the Red Cross Knight by the evil Duessa in Book One of Spenser’s epic
Keats’ ‘palely loitering’ knight also seems typical of those suffering from an excess of melancholy, one of the four humours of medieval medicine. Robert Burton (1577-1640), author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, describes typical melancholics as being ‘pale of colour, slothful, apt to sleep, much troubled with the headache…’.
Keats will also have encountered various ballads, such as the thirteenth century Thomas the Rhymer, in which the Queen of Elfland chooses a poet for her lover. And, as far as the mysterious, supernatural ballad is concerned, Keats may well have been influenced by contemporary ballads such as Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.


knight-at-arms: a medieval warrior, usually of aristocratic birth who fought on horseback. He would have worn a suit of armour and carried a sword, spear and shield.
sedge: a plant associated with wetlands, looking like a cross between a grass and a rush
lily / rose: the mixture of white lily and red rose combined to form the ideally beautiful complexion. Lilies were also associated with purity and roses with the passion of love.
meads: meadows
fragrant zone: a perfumed belt made of flowers. It refers to the magical girdle of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.
made sweet moan: sang or murmured sweetly
manna: sweet-tasting food which, in the Bible (Exodus, 16) was miraculously supplied to the Israelites in the wilderness.
grot: cave
in thrall: enslaved
gloam: twilight, dusk.

Investigating commentary on La Belle Dame Sans Merci

  • In what ways does the literary context of this poem help you to appreciate it?
  • How does Keats create a medieval atmosphere in the poem?
  • The poem is a ballad, normally associated with a clear narrative structure. Can you see any reasons why some readers have commented that this is one of the most difficult of Keats’ poems to explain and open to many interpretations?
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