An Ode to ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’

My first introduction to this poem was the absolutely gorgeous painting of the same name by Frank Bernard Dicksee. I love it so much that it is hanging in my dorm room, and now having read the poem in this class (finally), the painting takes on a whole new meaning. While Dicksee depicts the romance between the knight and the fairy maiden as loving and fantastical, awash in bright colors and longing gazes, the poem by Keats is less about the romance and more about the danger of it. I argue that Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci warns against obsessive love using the frame of a medieval romance, and that the metaphors and descriptors he uses ultimately describe a metaphorical death for the knight. 

Dicksee, Frank; La belle dame sans merci; Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives;

The story follows the very basic plot of an ‘otherworldly romance,’ which are very common in the courtly romances of the Middle Ages. I took a class on Medieval Romance literature last semester, and wrote my final paper on the complicated and independent nature of these otherworldly female fairy lovers. Essentially, in a majority of these romances, female fairies arrive in ‘our world’ (or the world of knights and kings) to offer herself as a lover to some worthy man, either with happy or disastrous results. In Keats’ poem, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (or ‘The Beautiful Lady without Mercy’) takes on a deceitful role, luring the knight in with her beautiful appearance and “fairy’s song” (Line 24). 

The essential point of this recounting of the experience, to me, is when the knight tells of how there was “nothing else [I] saw all day long,” which alludes to his overwhelming obsession with his lover (Line 22). After he meets this lady in the meadow, he cannot do or think of anything else but her, and when “she lulled me asleep” he saw the other “death-pale” past lovers of the lady (Line 33, 38). I argue that when the knight enters this slumber, he metaphorically dies due to the loss of his lady. 

Keats hints at this death with how the poetic speaker describes the knight after he has ‘awoken’ — he asks twice “Oh, what can ail thee, knight-at-arms” and describes the man as “alone and palely loitering,” “haggard and so woe-begone,” and almost withering away (Line 1, 2, 5, 6). The repetition of specific phrases and the structure of the questions quickly establish the disheveled and dissociative state of the knight. Keats then employs two metaphors to discuss the knight’s appearance, with the speaker mentioning how they “see a lily on thy brow” (Line 9). The whiteness of the lily can allude to the paleness of the knight, but lily’s also represent grief and death, which the knight seems to embody. The speaker also mentions a “fading rose” on his cheek, which is both the fading color from his complexion (which connects to the pale and sickly appearance of the knight) and the fading of love, which the rose symbolizes. 

Although the poem does center around the love affair with the lady, to me it is not the main focus of the poem. Unlike the painting which depicts the love affair as perfect, romantic, and otherworldly, Keats spends more time describing and capturing the grief and distress of the knight after the lady abandons him. The knight seems to undergo a metaphorical death, or at least he is close to it when the speaker finds him. Heartbroken, sickly, and alone, the knight’s tale seems to warn against the dangers of obsessive love. 

Blake and Wollstonecraft: The Problem of Poverty and Salvation

For this blog post, I wanted to explore William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” from “Songs of Innocence” by comparing it to Mary Wollstonecraft’s views on the poor. “The Longman Anthology” mentions that Blake admired Wollstonecraft and that both were part of the same group of “artists and religious dissenters joined by progressive politics and support of the French Revolution” (Perspectives 171). Both rejected the way the poor were treated, but they approached the issue in different, and perhaps conflicting, ways.

In “The Chimney Sweeper,” Blake writes through the eyes of a young boy who works cleaning people’s chimneys. Part of an industry of exploitation and toil, Blake makes no attempt to cover up the harshness of his situation: the boy was sold by his father before he could speak, sleeps in soot, and works with other crying children (Lines 1-4). After quickly establishing the impoverished life of these children, the majority of the poem dives into young Tom Dacre’s dream, where he saw “thousands of sweepers Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack, / Were all of them locked up in coffins of black” (Lines 11-12). These coffins can be interpreted as the early deaths that often followed these young children who were forced to work in extremely dangerous and hazardous places (the Notes in the back of the Penguin edition notes that boys usually died of skin cancer from the heat at a young age). This fate, of just being another anonymous Dick, Joe, or Ned in a line of dead bodies, is inescapable for the poor children with no means to change their social mobility or place in life. 

An angel then appears in the dream to set them all free, reminding the boy that “if they all do their duty, they need not fear harm” (Line 24). This echoes the sentiment that Wollstonecraft fights against, that the poor will reach salvation after a life of toil, and must suffer through “the will of Heaven” (Perspectives 129). Blake believes that this indoctrination from the Church is just a way to force these children into a life of submission, telling them they will be rewarded for their “duty” after they die. These children take solace in religion, which is an elusive, far-away ‘reward’ to their current life. Wollstonecraft directly ties into the rejection of this fantasy, claiming that “it is, Sir, possible to render the poor happier in this world […] They have a right to more comfort than they at present enjoy; and more comfort might be afforded to them, without encroaching on the pleasures of the rich” (Perspectives 129). What stands out to me is her focus on “in this world,” and how they must move away from this ‘salvation solution.’

However, Wollstonecraft seems to be coming at this issue of poverty from a middle class point of view, stating that humanity should get rid of the system of inheritance and allow for fluctuating wealth among members of a family. However, does this inheritance-based approach really help the children like the one in Blake’s poem who’s “mother died when I was very young, / And my father sold me” (Lines 1-2)? How does Wollstonecraft’s approach help those of the lowest class, with no property or wealth of their own? Both push back against the popular idea that the poor will be compensated in heaven and therefore do not need to be helped now, but both don’t really provide a truly concrete answer on how to help. 

The Collective Soul of Nature and Humanity

In his poem “Lines Written in Early Spring,” Wordsworth presents a highly Romantic notion: that humanity has an almost familial duty to Nature, who created a relationship between nature (small ‘N’) and humanity, her ‘children.’ The poem consists of six stanzas with four quatrains each that have an abab rhyme scheme, which helps Wordsworth create a very predictable, natural, and elegant flow to the poem. The second stanza particularly stands out to me: “To her fair works did Nature link / The human soul that through me ran, / And much it grieved my heart to think / What man has made of man” (Lines 5-8). 

Here and throughout the poem Nature is personified and capitalized, referred to as a “her” who has had a physical impact on the world. I believe that by using this pronoun, Wordsworth draws a connection in the mind of the reader to Mother Nature, specifically the nurturing and creating aspect of that figure. He describes her “works,” that is the physical nature around Wordsworth, as linked to the “human soul.” Additionally, by using the first person perspective throughout the poem, Wordsworth implies that this connection to the soul that “through me ran” actually runs through each reader, who puts themself in the narrator’s shoes. 

In the Notes section in the back of the Penguin Classics edition, it mentions that “Wordsworth at this period thinks of the human souls as part of a Platonist World Soul” (page 883). Essentially, this boils down to the claim that there is a natural connection between all living things, similar to how the soul is connected to the human body. To Wordsworth, the “human soul” is linked to the soul of Nature’s “fair works.” I interpret this bond between Nature, humanity, and nature as a sort of familial relationship, with all being connected and meant to support the other. (Mother) Nature linked the human soul and nature, and therefore both have an obligation to respect one another as equals. Obviously, things within nature (ex: plants, animals, etc) do not share the same body as humans, but it has been a common belief throughout history that the soul and body are separate, and I think Wordsworth is playing into the notion that this communal soul transcends the physical barriers between the two. 

However, Wordsworth has noticed that much of humanity does not respect this relationship between it and nature. While “what man has made of man,” which is repeated twice in the poem, could be interpreted as the cruel actions humans enact on other humans, I also think it can be interpreted as “what man has made of nature” since they are metaphorically equals, at least in this interpretation of the poem. Wordsworth grieves this betrayal on the behalf of humanity, because many people are ignoring their responsibility to protect, enjoy, and love the works of Nature, to which we are intrinsically linked. Many may object to the notion that nature and humans are equal in all ways, but this idea just proves Wordsworth’s deep love for the natural world.