What do the lily and the rose symbolize, and how do these images foreshadow the poem's events?
In the poem's first stanzas, Keats uses images of a lily and fading rose to describe the knight's complexion. The lily, a white flower biblically associated with the Virgin Mary, symbolizes purity, virtue, and innocence. On the other hand, the rose, with its bright, red colors, commonly represents sex, desire, and romance. To have a rose on one's cheeks also indicates healthy and vitality—but the rose on the knight's cheek is fading, which suggests exhaustion, fatigue, and illness. Furthermore, the lily is often used at funerals, adding to the aura of death that hangs over the knight. By juxtaposing these symbols, Keats foreshadows the poem's erotic tensions: will the speaker avoid an affair with the woman if he goes on to meet her, or will he give into her love's temptation?
Describe the tensions between erotic and courtly love in the poem.
By casting knights, kings, and princes as characters in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," Keats looks back to the courtly tradition of medieval verse and legend, evoking the severe restraints it placed upon erotic love, as well as the secrecy with which these affairs were often conducted. With a lily upon his brow, the knight represents chivalrous honor and duty: his virtue is untarnished by wickedness and temptation. However, as the knight's story reveals, even the most honorable of men have fallen beneath the strange lady's spell. The knight describes to the speaker the intense pleasure he experienced with the woman, reliving the experience through his tale. But, no matter how true their love felt, he wakes alone, cold, and loitering, just like the men who wandered on the hillside before him.
However, the poem resists both easy denunciation of erotic love and simple praise of the courtly tradition. The knight certainly experienced joy with the woman, but he also felt the pain of loss and abandonment when he woke up from his dream. While the courtly tradition provides security in love, it also guards against the spontaneous pleasure of erotic love, which could be read as another profound loss. There is no clear moral to the affair: just a warning to the speaker, the lady's newest potential desire, making him aware of the choice he will soon face between honor and eros.