Question: Is ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ a poem about negative female stereotypes or about poetic creation and poetic sensibility? ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is written in ballad form. Typically the ballad is dramatic, condensed and impersonal: the narrator begins with the climactic episode, tells the story curtly by means of action or in this case by means of dialogue alone. It is told without self reference or the expression of personal attitudes and feelings. Keats does not differ here. Ballads also employ set formulas including stock descriptive phrases like ‘blood-red wine’ and ‘milk-white steed’.
There is a refrain in each stanza and incremental repetition. Keats differs slightly in the ballad stanza format making the last line of each stanza shorter than the others. ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ literally means- ‘beautiful woman without pity’. It is, on the surface, a simple story describing the ill fate of a knight-at-arms. By the very name of the ballad people can deem is to be about negative female stereotypes. But on the other hand one can see the knight as a poet that finds poetic inspiration- symbolised in the figure of the woman- and then has it leave him abruptly.
Feminists see this as another example of negative stereotyping of women in literature- a manifestation of whatever is happening in a society dominating by patriarchan values. The male sees himself as a victim figure used badly by a wicked, treacherous temptress who uses enchantment to destroy a knight and make him neglect his duties and responsibilities. It is considered to be about the ‘femme fatale’. Only the male opinion is expressed in the poem- we hear only the knight’s side of the story. Some think that the poem is about poetic imagination, inspiration and the loss of it.
Mario L. D’Avanzo says that it ‘describes perfectly the poet’s semicircular arc of imaginative assent, fulfilment and decline into the world of reality’. The knight is compared to a poet and the ‘death-pale’ warriors, princes and kings could also have been compared to poets agonised by reality and the end of their imaginative trance; while the lady is compared to the poetic inspiration and the act of poetic creation that captivates them for a while and then leaves them. Keats’ recurring subtle metaphors regarding the poetic process can be found in this ballad.
The character of the knight fits the profile of one of Keats’ heroes. Earl R. Wasserman said that ‘all mortals who engaged in ”imagination’s struggles” are knights-at-arms. ‘ The ballad starts with a strong question which is repeated in the second stanza; asking what could ‘ail’ the knight. The cold wintry weather and the desolate landscape depicted- ‘wither’d’- in the first two paragraphs reflect the desolation that poets must endure after their inspiration has left them. The knight looked hungry as indicated by the ‘squirrel’s granary is full . . .
harvest’s done’- this could be interpreted as the knight being starved for inspiration. The pitiful state of the knight is caused by the sudden lack of poetic imagination and inspiration. It has left him in ‘anguish’ and very ‘pale’. ‘wild eyes’ and long hair are said to be two physical characteristics of Keats’ muses, by D’Avanzo. The ‘wild eyes’ could also refer to the untameable energy of imagination. The woman is said to be ‘full beautiful’ as well as being strong and wild, this suggests ambiguity as seen in imagination. By placing her on his ‘steed’ he tries to control and tame her which is in vain.
The woman is called a ‘fairy’s child’ and is said to sing a ‘faery’s song’; this elfin nature is another association with poetic imagination. The knight is not simply an innocent victim- it was he that courts ‘La Belle Dame’ and ‘made a garland for her head, And bracelets too, and fragrant zone’; the garland could be interpreted as a woven poem. The plaintive yet ‘sweet moan’ gives a hint of the tragic future that is inevitable- he would be forced back to reality. The knight could not be sure of its meaning. He was the one who ‘set her’ on his ‘pacing steed’.
This courtship can be compared to a poets search for inspiration. The woman only started to sing after the knight had put her on his steed; up to this point she was a passive figure. The use of the conjunction ‘for’ signifies that the beautiful woman’s singing was the effect of the knight’s action. The exchange of gifts by the knight and the lady suggests harmony between the poet and imagination. ‘La Belle Dame’ gives the knight ‘manna-dew’ for inspiration. The food she offered him was supernatural and may have been meant to provide spiritual nourishment.
By singing and speaking in the strange tongue the lady offered the knight verbal nourishment for the imagination. She had planted the ‘roots’ of music and imagination in him. There was also a lot of assumption on his side- since the maiden spoke in a ‘strange’ language he could only guess what she was saying. ‘she looked at me as she did love’- this could be interpreted either as she looked at him lovingly or she looked at him as if she was in love. And he had assumed that she had said ‘I love thee true’. The language could have been ‘strange’ because to Keats poetic imagination is extraordinary, unfamiliar and inexplicable.
The language was ‘strange’ also because she was a magical creature- a ‘fairy’s child’. Her ‘elfin grot’ could be a metaphor for a sanctuary of imagination and poetry. Poetic inspiration and imagination come to a peak at the grot. There is no indication that the woman wilfully banished the knight from her ‘elfin grot’ and it has been argued that the union of the lovers is broken by the knights own inability to retain the vision. When she ‘wept’ it is another indicator that the fantasy would end. He dreams of a cold hillside and a bleak countryside.
This abrupt transition is characteristic of ballads. This dream indicates the death of imagination and the return of the knight to numbing reality. He hears the past victims of the Lady who had nourished him and then mercilessly takes away her gifts. She destroys all those that go in search of her; of imagination and inspiration. The knight is left unfulfilled and with pain. Keats suggests that imagination too has its inevitable and natural decline. Either interpretation can be maintained; the poem brings together both points of view as it mirrors the conflict in Keats’ own mind.