La Belle Dame sans Merci

La Belle Dame sans Merci Study Guide

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is a lyrical Romantic ballad written by poet John Keats. An unknown speaker begins a conversation with a lonely knight on the road, reflecting the ballad's roots in an oral tradition. Employing colloquial language, the speaker starts a conversation with a pale, weary knight wandering alone about the strange, irresistible woman who lives within the meadows. The knight tells the story of his encounter with the woman, which left him trapped like many others upon the hillside. Tensions between sexual repression and liberation, courtly love and erotic love, and illness and vitality characterize the poem. The knight's physical state and his doomed love with the woman echo the surrounding circumstances in Keats' life: his relationship with Fanny Brawne and the onset of his fatal tuberculosis.

The poem was composed in May of 1819, Keat's "miracle year," between his famous odes. Coinciding with significant developments in Keats' life and poetic thinking, "La Belle Dame sans Merci" is a nuanced work that modernizes the ballad form while expressing a complex, psychological narrative of sexual desire. Keats also embeds the medieval poetic tradition of the dream vision into "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" through the knight's disturbing nightmares. Likewise, the poem's supernatural elements—the "faery-like" lady, her "Elfin grot," and her spell-like charm—look back to this time period. Will the speaker end up like the others, left pale and loitering on the hillside, or will he avoid the knight's fate?