"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" isn't a love poem in the strictest sense of the term: if anything, it seems to warn of love's disasters, particularly the uncertainty of erotic love. Each man who comes across the lady’s path wakes alone and cold on the hillside, wandering forever in a gloomy, endless nightmare. The woman appears treacherous and devious, and the men appear to be helpless victims of her charms. The ballad’s fantastic elements cue us into a specific frame of reference in their allusions to medieval, courtly tradition: we would expect that the woman is in trouble, the knight rescues her, and the couple lives happily ever after. But Keats’ lady is no damsel in distress, and his pale knight is no hero. Instead, the poem pushes against the rigid social confines governing this tradition. It expresses a view of love and sex in which desire, vulnerability, and honor are entangled.
For a modern audience, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” probably reads far differently than it did during its time. We know that if someone breaks up with us, or if this person doesn’t return our affection, it’s not the end of the world—though it can certainly feel that way. We know that there’s always somebody else.
Keats isn’t against the kind of passionate, intense love the knight feels for the lady—he wrote some of his best poetry, including “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” in the midst of just that kind of passion. His letters to Fanny Brawne express a contradictory longing for and, especially towards the end of his life, avoidance of the joys and pains attached to her love. In October 1819 he wrote: “You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often 'to reason against the reasons of my Love.' I can do that no more—the pain would be too great—My Love is selfish—I cannot breathe without you.” Sounds a lot like “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” right?
"No matter how we read it," writes Dana Symons, "la dame's studied indifference has spurred readers, both medieval and modern, to take sides." Do we fall on the side of the lady, with her unaffected attitude to eros, who indulges and then moves on? Or do we side with the knight and agree that the woman’s bewitching charms are bad news, and that it’s better to love securely, not wildly? Keats doesn't give us an easy answer. He shows that the two forms of love are not so easily separated.