Comparative Analysis of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”
It comes as no surprise that love poems are not a rare commodity. Whether they’re about a lovesick man pining for his soul mate or a general reflection about how one perceives love, these poems offer an analysis of one of the most innate desires of our human nature. Despite inevitable differences in writing style and point of view, there can be times where love poems employ similar strategies to tackle such an analysis. John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and T. S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” are no exception to this occurrence. Both poems use two different and distinct settings to asses their experiences with love; the first setting to characterize the protagonist of the poem being alienated and abandoned with respect to love; the second setting to recall or imagine love as if to resolve their alienation and solitude. Further comparative analysis will show that the settings in both poems allow for the protagonist to offer a universalization of love through self-reflection.
The first setting of both poems begin by establishing a world of despair, suggesting that the protagonist has been alienated or abandoned with respect to love. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” opens with a knight waking from a dream, “On the cold hill’s side” (Ln. 44) It can be inferred that the poem is set in the late fall, as “the sedge has withered from the Lake/and no birds sing” (Ln. 3-4), and “The squirrel’s granary is full/And the harvest’s done” (Ln. 6-7). The beauty of springtime has faded, and the cold and bleak winter is fast approaching. The hillside is devoid of life. The bleakness and desolation of winter and the description of the cold hillside draws the relationship between it and the knight’s current circumstance in regards to love. He didn’t just wake up on the cold hillside with the woman or any fellow knights. The unnamed addressee of the knight’s tale of woe found him “Alone and palely loitering” (Ln. 2). Like the bleakness of winter brings abandonment of life from the cold hillside, the knight’s state of desolation is brought about by the abandonment and alienation of love in the form of the woman with whom he’s in love.
Similar to “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” provides a first setting that suggests the protagonist feels alienated or abandoned with respect to love. Prufrock establishes a dirty, urban setting, a city with “half-deserted streets,” “one-night cheap hotels/And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” (Ln. 4, 6-7). This description suggests a lower-class area of the city, one that is abandoned my most people. Not only does Prufrock suggest that the area is abandoned, he also describes the streets as full “of insidious intent” (Ln. 9). In addition to the deserted area of town, Prufrock makes note of a yellow fog lacing the buildings along the insidious streets. He describes the fog like a cat, rubbing “its back upon the window-panes/ Licked its tongue upon the corners of the evening/Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains” (Ln. 15, 17-18). Like the abandoned streets, it may be that Prufrock feels abandoned and alienated by love. He attributes his suggested alienation to his physical inadequacies, fearing that women will only see his thinning hair and thin arms and legs (Ln. 41, 44). And like the yellow fog lingering throughout the streets of the deserted city, Prufrock’s alienation from love follows him wherever he goes.
With a shift in setting comes a shift in the protagonists’ outlook on love. While the first setting implied that the protagonist felt alienated or abandoned by love, the second setting for both poems is used to recall or imagine past love as to resolve their alienation and abandonment from love. After the knight in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” realizes that he has awoken on a...