Q- Keats wrote that he struggled to settle his mind on women, by turns adoring them as angels and reviling them as whores. Discuss Keats’s attitude to women in at least three poems in light of this opinion.
Keats once wrote in a letter to Fanny Brawne “You have ravish'd me away by a Power I cannot resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often ‘to reason against the reasons of my Love’- I can do that no more”. The quote, from John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, ostensibly encapsulates Keats’ attitude towards women. Through the variation of female characters presented in his work, from the evil seductress in La Belle Dame Sans Merci to chaste pure Madeline from The Eve of St. Agnes, Keats cultivates the impression of being simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the opposite sex, enthralled by their sensuality yet wary of their seemingly alien nature.
This repulsion is depicted quite clearly in La Belle Dame Sans Merci or ‘The Beautiful Woman Without Pity’. Keats’ allusion to the medieval romance by French poet Alain Chartier immediately transports the reader into a fairy tale setting. The poem adopts the form of a folk ballad, yet merely mimics traditional love ballads as Keats’ female protagonist is depicted as having a far darker purpose. The contrast between the traditional ballad form and the cruel titular woman creates an ominous tone that continues into the first stanza of the poem. The poem consists of two speakers, the first of which hails the ‘palely loitering’ knight and asks ‘O what can ail thee’.
The eeriness of the poem is reinforced when the unknown speaker asks a second time, ‘O what can ail thee, knight at arms’, the repetition of the question creating a ghostly refrain. The alliteration of the ‘L’ sound in ‘palely loitering’ creates a sense of listlessness that is furthered through the bleak landscape where ‘the sedge has wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing’. From this the reader can infer that the knight is a desolate emotional state, which is echoed, by his surroundings. Keats’s use of pathetic fallacy is furthered when the first speaker remarks that the ‘harvest’s done’ thus leaving the knight in a literal winter as well as a figurative one.
As knights are often held as paragons of courage and power, Keats makes the reader aware that something preternaturally powerful must be at work. This preternatural being is ‘full beautiful-a faery’s child’, a tempestuous seductress who enthrals the hapless knight. So besotted is he, that he thinks nothing of following her to her ‘elfin grot’ where she ‘lulled’ him asleep. On the one hand, the verb ‘lulled’ can be seen as a treacherous attempt to secure the knight’s affections and allay his suspicions about La Belle’s otherworldly nature, on the other it can be viewed as a calming gesture, that has been misconstrued by the knight like every other aspect of the ethereal woman.
Alluding to medieval mythology, Keats paints La Belle as a succubus, a femme fatale able to suck the life from the chivalrous knight through dreams. We, as the reader are only offered the descriptions and opinions of the knight-at-arms, and know nothing of this lady save for his presentation of her. As such, feminist critics could argue that unkind depiction of her character stems from the inversion of patriarchal values depicted in the poem. The knight is not a helpless victim of fancy, for it was he who first approached La Belle, and it was he who made her ‘a garland for her head, and bracelets too, and fragrant zone’. These objects, seemingly tokens of their courtship can be seen not only to decorate but to bind, enslave and enclose.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci deviates from popular literacy tropes by depicting a lovelorn male in a state of decline and anguish after being rejected by the cruel female who is the object of his desires. However, instead of creating a female character to be applauded, Keats...
Richardson, Joanna. Fanny Brawne: A Biography. Norwich: Jarrold and Sons, 1952. Print.
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