La Belle Dame Sans Merci: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

La Belle Dame sans Merci, 1848 by Dante Gabriel RossettiThe tone is haunting and often ominous. This effect is created partly through the use of frequent repetitions, such as the reciprocated structure: ‘And there she .. / And there I ..’ in stanzas 8 and 9, and the circular effect of almost exactly replicating the second to fourth lines of verses 1 and 12.
There is also much alliteration and assonance in phrases such as:
  • ‘Her hair was long, her foot was light’
  • ‘made sweet moan’
  • ‘wild, wild eyes’.
The tone is also created through the use of spare, terse language – very different from the sorts of luxuriant effects we find in poems such as the Ode to Autumn. Indeed this sense of mystery is produced just as much by Keats withholding information from us as by any descriptive detail he supplies. He never, for instance, tells us the significance of the lady or why she should want to enthrall the knight.
Keats seems to take pains either to exclude information or to make it ambiguous. What, for instance, does Keats mean by ‘She look’d at me as she did love’? Does ‘as’ mean ‘while’ or ‘as though’? This uncertainty adds to the sense that the heart of the poem is unknowable. 
Keats’ use of language emphasises the absence of colour. In stanza 10 he repeats ‘pale’ three times in just two lines: ‘pale kings’, ‘pale warriors’, ‘death pale’. Repetition is also part of the poem’s dream-like nature. In fact, the word ‘dream’ is also repeated three times in two lines (34-35) which captures the knight’s insistence that the vision was not real but rather a nightmarish warning of the fate that could also have been his.
 Investigating language and tone of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Structure and versification of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Keats uses a variation of one of the commonest ballad stanza forms (see Recognising poetic form > Ballad). He employs a four-line stanza (quatrain) which rhymes a b c b. As is frequently the case with ballads, the lines are not strictly regular but generally have eight syllables. In most ballads there are four stresses in lines 1 and 3 and three stresses in lines 2 and 4 (known as ballad metre). Keats breaks with this tradition making the fourth line shorter, giving it only two stresses and mostly only four syllables. This shortening of the final line gives each stanza a rather abrupt, slightly ominous ending, as if it were not quite finished.
The question and answer form of the poem is found frequently in ballads, as are its quatrains (four-line stanzas) and iambic tetrameter metre.
The structure is underpinned by the frequent repetition of words, phrases and even whole lines – another common feature of the ballad form. For instance, the first line of the first stanza is also the first line of the second. The first two words of stanzas 3 to 6 are ‘I’ followed by a monosyllabic verb: ‘I met’, ‘I made’, ‘I set’. The final stanza of the ballad is largely a repetition of the first. 

Investigating structure and versification of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

  • What is the effect of the shortened last line of each stanza?
  • In what ways is the ballad form such an important part of the poem’s meaning and effect?
  • Why do you think that Keats so often uses repetition of words, phrases and whole lines?
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