John Keats REALLY loves love…and death. They go hand in hand with each other, of course. In his poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, Keats presents a classic: A knight is seduced by a fairy because she’s beautiful and falls in love with her. Aw. Then the knight dies. Yikes. Through a dialogue format and a number of other poetic devices, Keats portrays this tragic romance which not only takes on a dark twist but also raises questions over love.
Composed of 12 quatrains, the poem is moved along by iambic tetrameter which is in the first 3 lines of each stanza. Thus, the repeating tetrameter both stresses words and sets up a cadence resembling a ballad of music. Aiding this, we also have end-stopped lines in the form of repeating commas, exclamation marks, question marks, periods, and semicolons. Having established the rhyme scheme, readers, let’s move onto the tone. In the first stanza of the poem, we read: “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, Alone and palely loitering? The sedge has withered from the lake, And no birds sing.” (1-4) Here, we get a sense that the knight in question is miserable and the speaker wonders why he suffers in his described paleness and loneliness. After the speaker repeats this question “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms” in line 5, the knight responds and explains how he came upon a fairy who was “Full beautiful—a faery’s child, Her hair was long, her foot was light, And her eyes were wild.” (14-16) This detailed fixation on the fairy’s beauty, specifically body parts, is further emphasized by the consonance of “f” and “w” and “l”. Readers, is it possible that this section also serves to display the male eye of desire based on the focus on physical beauty and further evidence in the poem.
For one, notice how further in the poem that the knight reveals: “ I set her on my pacing steed, And nothing else saw all day long,..” (21-22). This is a sexual innuendo implying that the knight had sex with the fairy “all day long.” So far, the knight is infatuated with the fairy purely based on how she pleasures his eye and his body. Furthermore, the knights recalls how “sure in language strange she said— ‘I love thee true’. ” (27-28) “Sure in a language strange”?? If the fairy is speaking in a language “strange”, how does the knight understand exactly what she’s saying? Is this meant as love is a universal translator or that the knight is completely disillusioned with his obsession over the physicality of this fairy who can apparently have sex all day?
Another device I noticed was what I thought were allusions to the femme fatale. The first red flag is when the knight characterizes the fairy to have “wild” eyes. Wild beings that are beautiful are often deadly, is my thought. In addition, after the sex part, the knight explains that the fairy “found me roots of relish sweet, And honey wild, and manna-dew,..” (25-26) and she “lulled me asleep” (33) in “her Elfin grot” (29). Following the knight falling asleep, he dreamed of “pale” (37-38) kings, princes, and warriors who cry “ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci Thee hath in thrall!’ ” (39-40) Hmmm, knight conveniently falls asleep after having sex all day and then being fed roots he somehow knows the names of… Not to mention the dream of the “pale” men who warn the knight that the fairy has him in “thrall”. The repetition of pale and the unionized warning very clearly indicates that the men are ghosts who were victims of the fairy. So now the question remains: Did the fairy kill the night with energy-sucking sex like a succubus or did she poison him with the roots? Either way, I think Keats is warning us… Love can be fatal. It can even end up killing you.