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< Theme 5. Death (v) >

John Keats

La Belle Dame sans Merci  >
poem, commentary, analysis, exegesis

Painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper

Lamia, Isabella etc (1820, 25)
composed 1819, 24

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight, 
Alone and palely loitering; 
The sedge is wither'd from the lake, 
And no birds sing. 

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight, 
So haggard and so woe-begone? 
The squirrel's granary is full, 
And the harvest's done. 

I see a lily on thy brow, 
With anguish moist and fever dew; 
And on thy cheek a fading rose 
Fast withereth too. 

I met a lady in the meads 
Full beautiful, a faery's child; 
Her hair was long, her foot was light, 
And her eyes were wild. 

I set her on my pacing steed, 
And nothing else saw all day long; 
For sideways would she lean, and sing 
A faery's song. 

I made a garland for her head, 
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone
She look'd at me as she did love, 
And made sweet moan.
zone: girdle or belt 

She found me roots of relish sweet, 
And honey wild, and manna dew; 
And sure in language strange she said, 
“I love thee true.”

She took me to her elfin grot, 
And there she gaz'd and sighèd deep, 
And there I shut her wild sad eyes-- 
So kiss'd to sleep.

And there we slumber'd on the moss, 
And there I dream'd, ah woe betide, 
The latest dream I ever dream'd 
On the cold hill side. 

I saw pale kings, and princes too, 
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; 
Who cry'd-- “La belle Dame sans merci 
Hath thee in thrall!” 

I saw their starv'd lips in the gloam 
With horrid warning gapèd wide, 
And I awoke, and found me here 
On the cold hill side. 

And this is why I sojourn here 
Alone and palely loitering, 
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake, 
And no birds sing.

The poem is in the form of question and answer: the first three stanzas ask the question, 'what ails thee, knight', and the remaining stanzas form the knight's reply. We have to imagine two different characters, one certainly the knight, the other, the questioner, possibly the poet, though the knight is also the poet, of course. I hope that is clear.

The poem is composed of quatrains with three lines of eight syllables and a final line in each quatrain of three strong emphases, except in the final stanza where the pattern of eight syllables is interrupted in the penultimate line, 'though the sedge is wither'd from the lake', which, in the context, announces that something is about to happen: are we disappointed when that thing turns out to be that 'no bird's sing'? Perhaps, but the conclusion is not entirely unexpected.

It is difficult to tell whether Keats is here speaking about Love or Death. Perhaps this ambiguity serves to give the poem some of its power.

The poem certainly inspired a good number of later artists to depict the subject: the pale knight in his armour of sexual inhibitions with the beautiful but unresponsive lady with her similar but invisible armour, though the girdle is perhaps suggestive. Keats himself was caught in the frustrating situation of living next door to the object of his affections (Fanny Brawn, you couldn't make it up) with little prospect of ever being able to consummate his desire. The social differences were too great, and inhibited all but the most determined of lovers from pursuing their natural instincts.

So there you have it. Keats palely loitering in his suit of armour while Fanny Brawn disports herself on the hillside in her sweet smelling girdle. No wonder the sedge is withered and no birds sing.

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