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La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats: Literary Elements of Structure, Speaker, and Imagery

By CAhistorygirl Jun 03, 2013 1298 Words
Descending into Despair with “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

In his poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” John Keats has emphasized the literary elements of structure, speaker, and imagery to create a story reminiscent of courtly love from the medieval era where the knight errant suffers for the love of the beautiful, mysterious and unattainable mistress. In the early nineteenth century, an interest in the ballad of earlier centuries was sparked by the romantic poets of the time, of which John Keats was one, and his poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” became a true example of what became known as a literary ballad. Similar to the popular folk ballad that was sung, a literary ballad sticks to the basics of repeated lines and stanzas “in a refrain, swift action with occasional surprise endings, extraordinary events evoked in direct, simple language, and scant characterization.” (pg. 508) Literary ballads also tend to be more polished in regards to their style and their use of poetic techniques. In addition, they will exhibit a set rhyme scheme and a simple structure of stanzas that allows the poem to flow as if it were that song of years past. Keats’s poem consists of twelve stanzas of four lines, known as quatrains, each with a rhyme scheme of abcb. The poet has also taken care to write each line to a specific length. The first three lines of each stanza consist of eight syllables each, but the final line of the stanza is either four or five syllables long. Since a literary ballad’s structure is meant to mimic that of a folk ballad, it is clear that Keats has paid close attention to meter to contribute to fluidity. He has used iambic tetrameter, where an iambic line is composed of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. A tetrameter refers to four feet, or two syllables per feet. Looking at the beginning of the poem, one sees how this comes to use. “O what can ail thee, Knight at arms,/Alone and palely loitering?” (Keats 815.1-2) When read aloud, with the emphasis on the bold, you can hear the melodic tone Keats wishes to achieve. The fourth line of each stanza appears to have an iambic meter to it, though not as a tetrameter. It may be that Keats has chosen to structure it as such for the sake of style.

“La Belle Dame sans Merci” exhibits another interesting element of poetry in that it is written in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue itself is not a typical one, however, as it is not a give and take between the two speakers. Instead, it is divided in a manner where first speaker takes his turn and then the other will finish the poem. Where the speakers switch is not completely clear unless the reader pays close attention to find the shift. The poem begins with the first speaker coming across the ill knight lying on the hillside, all alone and depressed. The speaker begins by asking the knight questions as to what brought him to his current plight without waiting for answers, all the while pointing out how haggard and near death he looks. “O what can ail thee, Knight at arms,/So haggard and so woebegone?” (Keats 518.5-6) He speaks for the first three stanzas, emphasizing the Knight’s debilitated state. Coming to stanza four, the only clue the reader is given that it is now the knight speaking is the first lines of the tale being spoken. “I met a Lady in the Meads,/Full beautiful, a faery’s child[.]” (Keats 815.13-14) He continues with the sad story in stanzas 4 through 12. There are several points to understand regarding the two speakers. With regards to the first speaker, the reader is given no clue as to who this person may be. There are only a few things we are made aware of, the first being that he is travelling through the barren land that he is making the knight aware of. “The sedge has withered from the Lake/And no birds sing!” (Keats 815.3-4) This shows that the first speaker is aware of his surroundings in addition to being focused on the knight’s demeanor. We do not know, however, the gender of this person nor where they came from. Curiously, he speaks similarly to the knight so that the reader must focus to make the distinction between the two. Typically, when a poet chooses to write in dialogue, a distinction in language is made. Keats may have chosen to use a continuous form of language for various reasons. The first could be continuity and fluidity in the poem as required by a ballad. Another possible reason, one that can fit with the theme of mystery and mystique that tends to surround a tale of courtly and medieval love, is that the knight could simply be conversing with himself as he lies near death. Speaker one suggests that “I see a lily on thy brow/With anguish moist and fever dew,” (Keats 815.9-10) referring to a lily as a symbol of death in line 9 and the “fever dew” as the sweat from a high fever. This may give reason to a possible hallucination. Whatever the reason for the scant details regarding the first speaker, though, the necessity of two speakers is clearly to give the dying knight the opportunity to tell his tale through the poem. Continuing with the element of mystery characteristic of a ballad from a courtly love era, Keats has used imagery in the poem to illustrate the Knight’s ill-fated encounter with the lady. There are various images that appeal to the senses of sight, hearing, and smell used throughout the poem to create a world of woe and mystery that fits the knight’s story. Beginning with the words of the first stanza, the world is created as a barren one, appealing to the reader’s sight with the withered sedge along the lakeshore. The next set of images to consider come in the fourth stanza when the knight begins his tale and talks about his meeting with the woman.  He describes her as “Full beautiful” (Keats 815.14) and “Her hair was long…/And her eyes were wild.” (Keats 815.15-16). The fifth stanza still gives images that are bright and cheerful where the knight is weaving “a Garland for her head,/And bracelets too, and fragrant Zone;” (Keats 815.17-18) images that weave through our own senses of sight and smell, respectively. The shift occurs in the story with a shift in imagery. They leave the meadows and she “bend[s] and sing/A faery’s song,” (Keats 815.23-24) that the reader could almost hear. She is weaving a spell as they approach her “elfin grot” (Keats 816.29) where “she lulled me to sleep,/And there I dreamed, Ah Woe Betide!” (Keats 816.33-34) Here Keats has devised the turn in the story with the imagery of a nightmare that brought the knight from the beginning of the poem. The knight describes what seems to be a horror show of “pale Kings, and Princes too,/Pale warriors, death-pale were they all[.]” (Keats 816.39-40) They even called out to him that she “Hath thee in thrall!” (Keats 816.42) He later continues to describe the horrid images he saw in his dreams, visual imagery that add to the desolate world the knight now inhabits. In the end, he returns to his cold hillside, alone, dying, and ready to answer the first speaker’s questions.

[ 1 ]. Keats, John. "La Belle Dame sans Merci."Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Robert DiYanni. McGraW Hill, 2008. 815-816. Print.

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