Who has not tried to hold onto something that slipped away? This poem speaks in a mournful throb of something precious lost forever.
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is commonly translated as “The beautiful lady without pity/mercy”, although “thanks” is the literal translation of “merci”. I think the idea of ingratitude is actually far more interesting than pitilessness: her procession of devotees pay single-minded homage and yet she seemingly cares not…or does she?
The narrator speaks of her eyes twice: “Her hair was long,/her foot was light,/And her eyes were wild” and then, later, “She took me to her elfin grot,/And there she gaz’d and sighed deep,/And there I shut her wild sad eyes– So kiss’d to sleep.” As described, there is a hint of regret in her eyes, of sadness for yet another lover abandoned. Is it because she feels more strongly for the narrator or that she is doomed to always lead her knights astray? This is the one moment in the poem where the coquette slips. If truly without pity, mercy or gratitude, why the lady’s sadness?
Though the poem seems straightforward, there are enigmatic layers within each stanza. He made her garlands of flowers as she sings to him faery songs, a traditional token of courtly love. She feeds him faery nourishment, “relish sweet,/And honey wild,/and manna dew“. Keats later references the “starv’d lips in the gloam” of the wraiths, an indication of lack of substance to her nourishment. It could also be read as love-starved. One common result of heartbreak in Romantic literature is wasting away from lack of love.
Keats did not originate the idea of “La Belle Dame” – it dates back to Medieval courtly love poetry. The theme of the beautiful faery creature who heedlessly breaks hearts is the mirror opposite of the lady who waits patiently at her tower window for her love or quietly pines away (see The Lady of Shalott).
Keats himself considered this poem dashed off: “I have for the most part dash’d of[f] my lines in a hurry – ” (Letter to George, Weds 21 April 1819). Nevertheless, it is considered one of the most classic English Romantic poems and was a great influence on the Pre-Raphaelites in particular (see paintings from previous post and sketch below by Dante Gabriel Rossetti).
For a far more scholarly interpretation of the sources of “La Belle Dame”:
Read more Keats and other Romantic poets at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/66
Poem by John Keats, post by me. All material copyright.