Save a Steed, Ride a Knight

John Keats’s ballad, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” draws upon inspiration from Medieval romances and refashions the ideas that many medieval poets provided by including ideology that appealed to British citizens in the early nineteenth-century. I argue that Keats’s depiction of the beautiful faery lady is meant to represent foreigners, or those that are believed to be “Other,” and who are not described as being real English citizens. Through the use of sexual innuendos, the refrain of the opening stanza in the final stanza of the poem, and the musical quality of the ballad, the knight in Keats’s poem points out the problems that can arise when a man falls for the seductive charms of a beautiful, foreign woman. Thus, Keats, through the voice of the knight, suggests that the coupling of good Englishmen with foreign women is unacceptable, as it will taint the pure British bloodlines that the aristocracy has done their best to maintain. As a result, xenophobic ideology is expressed in Keats’s work.

The love affair between the knight and the faery lady is most clearly implied when the knight says: “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” (l. 19-22). While the knight could be talking about placing her on his horse, I argue that the knight is actually using the term “steed” as a euphemism for his penis. The lines that surround the word “steed” support this notion, as the knight claims that his beloved “looked at [him] as she did love.” The love that the knight is referring to is not just the feeling, but rather the act of love-making, or sex, itself. The knight also claims that his beloved released a “sweet moan,” which would suggest that she was actively participating and finding some enjoyment in their sexually illicit affair. Their affair continued “all day long” and the knight became captivated by her “faery song” (l. 24). The poem mirrors the beautiful lady’s faery song, as it is a ballad, and thus has a musical quality to it. The rhyme scheme, which follows an ABCB rhyme, is catchy and rolls off the tongue, as it has the repeated B-line rhyme. The repetition of this line allows the poem to become stuck in the minds of readers, much like how the faery lady has become stuck in the mind of the knight.

The knight tells the speaker that he became enthralled by the beautiful faery lady, and at the end of their day together, the knight states: “And sure in language strange she said—/ ‘I love thee true’” (l. 27-28). Special attention should be paid to the knight’s choice of using the words “language strange” to describe the way that his beloved spoke to him. The knight points out his beloved’s “Otherness” to the readers when he calls her language strange, as he implies that she is speaking something other than English. He also describes her home as being an “Elfin grot” and claims that they met each other “in the meads,” which indicates that they are in a place that is totally dominated by nature and has remained untouched by the modern world (l. 13-29). Therefore, one can conclude that the woman in this poem is not an Englishwoman, but rather someone who comes from a different country and culture, and is thus unworthy of being with an Englishman.

The knight’s participation in a love affair with the faery lady turns out to be utterly disastrous for him, as he is filled “With anguish moist and fever-dew,/ . . . “And [he awakes] and [finds himself] here,/ On the cold hill’s side” completely alone (l. 10-44). The love that the faery lady claimed to share with the knight is made false and unviable. She is thus depicted as nothing more than a wicked seductress whose only aim was to harm him. Finally, the knight finishes his woeful tale by telling the speaker: “And this is why I sojourn here,/ Alone and palely loitering,/ Though the sedge is withered from the lake,/ And no birds sing” (l. 45-48). The use of this refrain is significant, as it draws a connection between the question that the speaker poses at the beginning of the poem and the warning that the knight is trying to share with him about the untrustworthiness of foreign individuals. The implication of the sickly knight’s description of a barren landscape with a “withered sedge” and “no birdsong” is this: the coupling between an Englishman and a foreign woman should not be encouraged or desired, as their union will not result in a fruitful marriage. An heir is not produced and the Englishman is left alone and miserable, without anyone to carry on his name or title. Keats’s Romantic poem acts as a great segue into Victorian poetry, as the Victorians cared deeply about Empire building and ensuring the continuation of pure British bloodlines.

2 thoughts on “Save a Steed, Ride a Knight”

  1. This was so cool and mind-blowing to read! When I was reading the poem, it never occurred to me the racial connotations Keats’ made in his language. I honestly had interpreted the poem to be about the magic powers and influences those faery and magical creatures enact on their human victims. So, this reading and analysis combat that vision and I’m all here for it. I loved how you broke down the language by the individual words and line make-up to produce the meaning. You pulled apart the poem delicately while decimating it at the same time, quite the move and well executed. Preferably, I really loved the first paragraph of your analysis. I think it holds up the strongest and the claims are fantastically supported with evidence that you indeed convinced me to believe that the poem is darker than it seems.

  2. Ah yes, the age-old tale of wicked Victorian seductresses. I’m sensing the threads of Dracula and “Goblin Market” across your post, and I’m so interested in how the poem seems to create a reversal of who is concerned with sexual honor. For the Victorians, as you highlighted, the being assured of a bloodline was important to husbands, and that was why they were so concerned with their wives’ “sexual purity.” But in this poem, it was a woman who took advantage of a knight, and the shame that stems from their sexual encounter is the fact that he could not keep and dominate her, which violates his social perception as a knight of high class and reputation. This is an interesting double standard to account for.

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