Keats' Poems and Letters

Keats' Poems and Letters Summary and Analysis of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and "Ode on Indolence"

Summary of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci":

Written in the style of a ballad, a Medieval genre of poetry, and using comparatively sparse language, Keats' poem tells the story of a knight-at-arms who suffers under the spell of a mysterious lady. The poem is written using "ballad stanzas": quatrains composed of iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines; every stanza ends with a line of four or five syllables. The first two stanzas of the poem address the knight in second person -- "What can ail thee?" The knight is alone, ill-looking and confused. He appears to be dying -- "on thy cheeks a fading rose/ Fast Withereth too" (11-12). The setting of the poem appears to be late autumn or early winter; the first stanza concludes with the statement that "The sedge [marsh vegetation] has withered from the lake/ and no birds sing!" (3-4), and stanza II with the declaration that "the harvest's done" (8).

In stanza III, the knight explains how he came to be in this state: he met a beautiful lady in a field, and she seemed to love him. He took her up on his steed, and as they rode together she sang "a faery's song" (24) to him. She gave him roots, honey, and manna (heavenly bread, as in the Old Testament), and told him she loved him before taking him to her "elfin grot," or cave. It is unclear what happened in the cave, but she wept and sighed before lulling him to sleep.

The knight then had nightmares of "pale kings and Princes too" (37), who were "death pale" (38) and warned the knight that he was "in thrall" (40) to the woman, whom they called "La belle dame sans merci" (39). Keats's knight woke on a hillside, and now finds himself in a liminal, sickly state: another victim of this faery woman.

Analysis of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci":

It is worth noting, again, that Keats wrote this poem in the style of a Medieval ballad; he even often uses words and phrases that were no longer in circulation in his time -- "mead," "grot," "woe-betide." He appears to want to revive the stark emotional storytelling that went out of fashion after the Age of Reason (or Enlightenment) became paramount in the 17th and 18th centuries. Already, British Romantics Samuel Coleridge and Williams Wordsworth had published Lyrical Ballads in 1798, beginning a revival of ballad-style poetry; Keats, in writing this poem, appears to want to contribute to this revival.

Thematically, the poem addresses the perils of love -- especially superficial love -- and comments on the ephemerality of such "love." The "Belle Dame Sans Merci" bestows something like love on the knight at arms, but ultimately withdraws it. She does not seem to be aware of what she herself desires; she is, after all, a "faery's child" (14) and speaks "in language strange" (27), suggesting that she is not quite human. The "grot" to which she brings the knight could be seen as a representation of an underworld of the mind, where dreams and love dwell. In this case, Keats is not depicting the idealized world of the nightingale or of Psyche's temple, but a world of pure nightmares, which stem from the loss of a love-attachment.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is one of the more musical of Keats' poems. In line 2, he describes the knight as "alone and palely loitering;" the consonance (vowel repetition) of the "l" sound recalls singing. "Ail thee" (1) internally rhymes with "palely" (2), drawing attention to the knight's state. The poem also repeats a number of words: paleness (denoting sickness and love-sickness) is mentioned five times; the word "wild" is used in connection with the lady's eyes three times (lines 16 and 31). And the same phrase opens and closes the poem: the knight is "palely loitering,/ Though the sedge has withered from the Lake/ And no birds sing."

Summary of "Ode on Indolence":

The narrator, ensconced in a "blissful cloud of summer-indolence" (16), is lounging one morning when he sees three figures pass him by. They are holding hands and are moving in profile, and this vision recalls for the narrator a scene from a Grecian urn. The figures then pass again -- as one may see an illustration repeated if a Grecian urn is rotated. Yet the narrator is angry, since the figures arrived so surreptitiously and have ruined what might have otherwise been a perfectly indolent day.

In the third stanza, which describes the third time the figures pass by, the narrator recognizes them: one is Love, the second is Ambition, and the third is Poesy (poetry). In the fourth stanza, he writes that he "wanted wings" (31) so that he could follow them, but he recognizes that this is "folly" (32). Love is undefinable and hard to come by. Ambition is but a "short fever-fit" (34), ultimately useless. And poetry is not as satisfying as "drowsy noons,/ And evenings steep'd in honey'd indolence" (36-37).

In stanza five, the figures come by again, and the narrator asks, "Wherefore?" (41) -- "Why?" He had been enjoying a sleep "embroider'd with dim dreams" (42) and a pleasant state of mind. In the sixth and final stanza, he bids the "three Ghosts, adieu!" (51), assuring them that they cannot drag him out of indolence, because he is immune to praise and cannot be motivated by it.

Analysis of "Ode on Indolence":

Keats has designed his narrator to be unresponsive to the promise of love, or to the lures of ambition and poetry. Obviously, the fact that this poem was written indicates that Keats' desire to avoid productivity and poetry has not ultimately been successful; his creative energy is decidedly active, even when he is describing an aggressively "indolent" state.

The first stanza echoes Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by bringing up "Phidian lore" (1); Phidias was the sculptor who created ancient Greek statuary (including the statue of Zeus at Olympia). In another parallel with the earlier ode, Keats employs apostrophe (addressing an abstract or absent person or thing) in the second stanza: "How is it, Shadows! that I knew ye not?" (11). In this stanza, he goes on to describe the world that these figures are disturbing:

"Ripe was the drowsy hour;

The blissful cloud of summer-indolence

Benumb'd my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;

Pain had no sting, and pleasure's wreath no flower" (15-19)

This state echoes the drugged state that opens "Ode to a Nightingale". It is in this state that Keats is able to access the "Negative Capability" he describes in one of his letters; he can have complete access to sensuousness and beauty, without "the voice of busy common-sense" (40) imposing a philosophical or logical structure on his experiences. He wishes that the figures would "melt," but they are stubborn and visit a few times more.

This poem suggests the persistence of creative and poetic energy in the narrator's soul, despite his protests. Indolence is, in the end, a bountiful source of poetic inspiration.