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Love and Death in Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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Love and Death in Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci

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Ditti Kovács
Boglárka Kiss
British Literary Seminar
05 May 2013

Ditti Kovács
Boglárka Kiss
British Literary Seminar
2013.05.05.

Love and Death in Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

In poetry the most important things are to express feelings and to tell a story. Obviously most of the time these poems are about life, death, the meaning of life, love, but it can also tell a complete story. Throughout the history, basically every poet has written about love and death. Because of the fact that these themes surround our whole life, it is not surprising that these topics have an impact on people’s mind, and they have to deal with these in a way, and poetry is perfect for this. People have always been interested in the question of death, the unfulfilled love and suffering, and because of the fact that these feelings are related to every people in the world somehow, these poems, which deal with these themes, are considered to be the most beautiful ones. These works can be understood easily, and readers can feel close to the poet’s feelings. In the early 19th century, in Europe, people became interested in the folk roots of literature. Poets want to show the natural, ancient state of the people, which is relatively close to the nature, not the modern personalities. In the romanticism adventurous, tragic, hopeless love stories and the expression of the individual’s feelings and emotions became popular. Turning to the past, mainly to the gothic and medieval history and literature was essential in that period. The romantic poets, like Keats wrote ballads. The ballad is a typical medieval genre, which deals with human feelings, love is the central theme, and the end of the story is most of the time tragic, so death often appears. Keats is one of the most significant poets in the English literature, and he also wrote about love and death, the ballade La Belle Dame Sans Merci includes these topics. The ballad is related to the medieval traditions thanks to its language, tale motives, and genre. Because of the fact that the ballad is from the middle ages, its language is much more difficult to understand, a lot of uncommon words are used, mainly to reflect the medieval atmosphere, style. The main features, like the plain rhythm, the shortened lines in each stanzas, which gives a feeling of fatality, self-containment and undoableness, the alliteration “Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight“ (1), and the soft, melodious sounding can remind us to the medieval ballads. The tale-like flavours are the main characters; the knights, the fairy, and the settings “She took me to her elfin grot” (29), and basically the whole story. These medieval features help us to imagine the story’s atmosphere, and the readers can empathize themselves to the plotline much more easily. A literary work’s title can tell a lot about the work itself, it always refers to the main story line somehow. Keats’ poem’s title, La Belle Dame Sans Merci means ‘the beautiful lady without mercy’, which obviously indicates the main theme of the whole poem; admiring, loving a beautiful lady. The title is an allusion to an earlier literary work, a romance by a French poet, Alain Chartier. In that poem, the unnatural, unbelievable beauty leads the emotionally paralysed protagonist to temptation, so basically Keats used this medieval story and worked in his ballad in a way. While reading the title, we already get to know that the main plot will be about some kind of a tragic love. First of all, the poem deals with the comparison of different kind of feelings. Love and death are incredibly close to each other in this poem, actually they complement each other. Love is like a great power, which can destruct everything, defencelessness is the main goal of this feeling. Beauty is just an illusion, and all illusions are just nightmares. The ballad shows, that nothing is certain, permanent, love can disappear in a second. Moreover, destruction and creation are really close to each other. In a nutshell, we can see that love and death are the two main feelings, which are linked to each other in every period of life.

Secondly, the atmosphere, the places are also very significant in the poem. The setting of the poem is like a medieval tale with fairies, knights and unrealistic places. Obviously, the ballad starts with autumn-like pictures, there are no birds, which are the symbols of the lack of love. The nature is not the symbol of life in the first and second stanzas, it is the symbol of death. The knight, the main character, who should be a strong, brave man, is now wandering aimlessly, he is pale, he has a fever, which can be the sign of sickness, death. Because of the fact that it is autumn, it is not surprising, that even the lively characters are colourless, pale. I see a lily on thy brow, 

With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose 
Fast withereth too.

The knight is in a terrible condition, he even has a lily on his brow. This flower is often associated with death in the Western culture, so in this context it can mean that the main character is dying. Lilys can also mean purity in folklore tradition, which can refer to the current state of the knight, he is free from the love-like feelings. But in the fourth stanza, we can see a mead, which is a typical spring place. With the appearance of the beautiful lady, everything becomes happy and lively. In the original version of the poem there is a line, where another flower is mentioned; “And on thy cheeks a fading rose/Fast withereth too.” (11-12). The rose has a special meaning; roses are often associated with passionate love, but as the quotation shows, the knight’s rose is fading and withering, so it clearly means that the end of the knight’s and the lady’s love will soon come, it is not a permanent state. The cave is the fulfilment of love. While dreaming, the knight realizes the fact, that the fairy is not only beautiful, attractive, but deadly too. In that dream the knight sees “death pale” men, so here the paleness is clearly associated with death. Waking up is actually worse than a nightmare, every good things have disappeared, and we don’t know, if it was a dream or reality faded away. In the beginning and in the end of the poem the weather is autumn-like, melancholic, and the sequence with the lady is the only summer/spring time, so it is like a frame to the poem. The nature images show the knight’s mood and feelings, and the appearance of the bird in the beginning and in the end is like turning back to normality. All in all, we can see that every single event have a deeper meaning in the poem.

While reading the ballad, we realize that the fairy is a lady without mercy, her main goal is to lead the men into temptation, and fall in love with her, just to destroy them afterwards. Because of the fact that the lady is a fairy, she has supernatural powers, so she wants to be greater than the opposite sex. So at first, she can look a little selfish to the reader, but there is another interpretation as well; the fairy can suffer as well because of the unfulfilled love between mortals and immortal creatures, mainly because she is illustrated as sad “ And there she wept and sighed full sore” (30). Simply, two different kinds of creatures cannot live and be together, and this situation is painful for the fairy, too. There are people, who have been really interested in the main theme of this poem, and the background as well: ‘the Belle Dame represented Love, Death by Consumption and Poetry all at once.’ A useful commentary on this ballad is implicit in the inferior and more overtly autobiographical poem, in which Keats dramatizes characteristically ambivalent judgements of his love for Fanny Brawne: a love which, the poet suggests, offers a heaven and a hell, a release but also a servitude which thwarts poetic ambition; a region of brilliant light yet also, as in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ a waste-land where no birds sing. Some people believe this is a ballad, in which Keats tries to deal with his personal failures with Fanny Brawne, his love. This poem can be the personal rebellion against the pains that love has created.

The La Belle Dame Sans Merci’s next main topic is death, which is not a coincidence. When Keats wrote the poem in the beginning of 1819, he knew that he has a fatal disease. Knowing this, we can suspect that the lady in the poem can be the symbol of life, of everything good, she is a cure, and the knight can be the representative of the poet himself. In the poem the supernatural lady, the interpretation of recovery disappears. In this way, the illness in the ballad is a clear metaphor of the state of Keats at that time.

Finally, if we do not know the background story of the poem, we can still have a moral of this whole story. The knight was too explosive with the lady, and he had to pay the price for this inconvenient situation. This kind of passionate love should not come before the commitment. Everything happens just too fast in this poem. In this quotation it is clearly explained, what will happen, if someone is too loose, and behaves in a hedonist way: The knight’s response revels that, in his view, the memory of his extraordinary experience more than compensates for his present state of deprivation. Like an addict of the strange food and company of the fair lady, he lingers as near as he can to where he last saw her – under the hill. That he is wasting away does not seem important; all has been worth the cost… After every non-permanent affair, heartbreak, depression will surely come.

In conclusion, we can see that for a poet, it is essential to express his/her feelings in a way. Of course sometimes it is obvious, that they use their personal experiences and work them in their poems, like Keaths did, but I think it is not a problem. In this way we, the readers can imagine the otherwise unrealistic story much more easily. Personally, I adore reading about love, but I think the most beautiful and honest stories are the ones, which deal with the death somehow, too. And in this ballad, every significant feeling meet, and a masterpiece is created. This poem is excellent, because it is up-to-date in the sense that love and death are everywhere, these feelings surround every single people’s life, no matter what year we are in. There is a famous saying; “the desire that is satisfied is not a great desire”, and this is clarified in the La Belle Dame Sans Merci. So it is not surprising, that this poem is one of the most beautiful and tragic work in the English literature.

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Works cited:

Ágnes, Péter. Keats világa. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó, 1989.

Watts, Cedric. A Preface to Keats. London and New York: Longman, 1985.

Evert, Walter H. Rhodes, Jack W. Approaches to Teaching Keat’s Poetry. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1991.

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