La Belle Dame Sans Merci Explanation

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`La Belle Dame sans Merci" or "The Beautiful Lady without Pity" is the title of an early fifteenth-century French poem by Alain Chartier which belongs to the tradition of courtly love. Keats appropriates this phrase for a ballad which has been generally read as the story of a seductive and treacherous woman who tempts men away from the real world and then leaves them, their dreams unfulfilled and their lives blighted. For all the beguiling simplicity of the surfaces of this literary ballad, it is one of the most difficult of Keats's poems to explain, and open to many interpretations. It has been alternately suggested, for example, that it is about the wasting power of sexual love and / or the poet's infatuation with his muse. This particular analysis will examine the `La Belle Dame sans Merci' as a poem about a femme fatale and offer a feminist interpretation of the ballad. A femme fatale or fatal woman conventionally tempts man with her beauty and ultimately causes his destruction. There are many such figures in traditional supernatural ballads concerned with a faery's seduction of a human; notable examples include Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer. That the knight-at-arms in this poem has been enchanted, enthralled, is immediately suggested by his wandering in a desolate wasteland where the plant life has withered and no birds sing. He himself is in a decline; he is pale and the rose in his cheeks, like the sedge, is withering. In trying to explain his state to his questioner, he makes us highly suspicious of the lady whom he encountered. What is there in his description that makes the lady sound dangerous? To start with, he identifies her as a supernatural being, a `faery's child' with `wild wild eyes' suggestive perhaps of madness. She speaks a strange language, and in her elfin grotto she lulls him to sleep. There may be a suggestion here that she is potentially treacherous since `lull' can denote an attempt to calm someone's fears or suspicions by deception. The lady's responsibility for his condition seems to be confirmed in the dream he has of the death of pale kings, princes, and warriors who claim 'La Belle Dame sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!' `And this is why I sojourn here' he tells his questioner, apparently referring back to this 'horrid warning' of the dream. He stays because he is in thrall to the beautiful lady without pity. A haunting ominous effect is created through Keats's use of the formal features of the traditional ballad. Frequent repetition is one such feature; in the original oral ballad form this would have been an aid to memory as well as emphasizing particular points when the poem was recited. What is the effect of repetitions of words, phrases, and lines in Keats's literary ballad? Repetition is also found in the alliterative and assonantal effects of such lines as `Her hair was long, her foot was light', `made sweet moan', and `wild wild eyes'. Also following the ballad manner, the words are deployed tersely. Why might Keats choose such language in striking contrast to his more usual luxuriant mode? Although he follows tradition in using a four-line stanza or quatrain rhyming abcb, he makes one notable adjustment. Normally a ballad line has about eight syllables with four stresses in the first and third lines and three in the second and fourth. Keats shortens the last line of each stanza: it has only two stresses and usually only four syllables. This creates the effect of the stanza being abruptly cut off, of something being absent or withheld. So exactly what is being withheld in this poem? We are, in fact, given very little information about anything. We know nothing about the speaker who interrogates and describes the knight. We know very little about the lady, only what the knight tells us; we are offered no interpretation of his experience; indeed, the knight's story opens up more questions than it answers. What is the significance of this lady and why should she want to enthrall the...
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