La Belle Dame Sans Merci: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank DickseeFlowers

The poem abounds in flower imagery, most of which has a symbolic meaning. In line 9 the lily on the knight’s brow does not only mean that he is very pale. Lilies are often associated with death, so the image adds to the general sense of desolation and barrenness. Similarly roses are often associated with love, so the fact that the knight’s rose is ‘fading’ from his cheeks combines the idea of physical pallor with the idea that his love affair with the beautiful lady is fading. There are also ‘garlands’ and ‘bracelets’ in lines 17-18, symbols of love and the vital energy of the knight’s love for the lady. The ‘fragrant zone’ is a belt made from flowers, another image of love and one with perhaps a more sexual connotation.


The time setting is also important in the poem. The immediate setting of the narrative is late autumn/early winter. The hillside is cold, all is pale and ‘the sedge has wither’d’ (l.3). There are no birds, the crops have been harvested and the fields are deserted, making the knight’s desolation even more complete. By contrast, life with the ‘lady’ is associated with summer: meadows containing flowers from which to make a ‘garland’ and bracelets, sweet sappy ‘roots’ and wild honey. All has been succulent and colourful, yet now the life has drained out of it, the rose of romance faded and withered.

Investigating imagery and symbolism of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

  • What part does the setting play in the poem’s overall effect?
  • How does the poem’s imagery convey the destructive power of love and beauty?
  • What sorts of symbolic meanings are generated by the various types of flower imagery?
  • What is the symbolic meaning of the season in which the poem is set? 
    • How does it ‘make the knight’s isolation even more complete’?

Themes of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

The poem has caused much critical debate and fundamental questions remain unanswered. Is the Belle Dame deliberately cruel to the knight? Or is it the knight’s inability to maintain the vision which causes his return to the ‘cold hill side’? 

The Lady has been variously identified with:

  • The destructive power of love
  • Death by consumption (the disease that killed both Keats and his brother Tom)
  • The ‘thrall’ of poetry itself. 
This last idea may seem far-fetched at first, but Keats was becoming more aware of the dark ironies of life. For him it was becoming increasingly obvious that evil and beauty, love and pain, are not so much balanced as interwoven in ways which defy understanding. The young poet was acutely aware that the more we try to imagine beauty, the more painful our world may seem. This deepens our need for art, which in turn opens us up to more pain. The poem’s tragic irony is that love and beauty have led to so much pain. 

Investigating themes of La Belle Dame Sans Merci

  • To what extent do you agree that the main theme of the poem is the destructive power of love and beauty? 
  • Do you agree that ultimately this poem cannot be pinned down to clearly stated themes? 
    • In what ways could its sense of mystery be part of its meaning?
  • Some critics think that the poem is about Keats’ own relationship with poetry. That is, he is in thrall to it but he feels that pursuing it is a frequently painful process. What do you think about this view?
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