John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” dramatizes the conflict between dreams and reality as experienced by the knight. On a late autumn day, the speaker stumbles upon an ailing knight and asks what is wrong. The knight reveals that he had fallen in love with a beautiful lady, “a faery’s child” (14), who then abandoned him after professing her love and spending one night together. The speaker is recounting his experience with the knight to his audience.
Structurally the poem is a ballad written in twelve quatrains. Keats wrote the poem with the intention of it being read as opposed to sung (Cummings). The first three lines of each quatrain are written in iambic tetrameter, while the fourth varies between iambic dimeter and anapestic/iambic dimeter. This is a variation from traditional ballad form, which alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. In some cases, Keats’s meter variations emphasize certain words, while in other cases it leads to awkward syntax. However, the rhyme pattern of abcb remains constant throughout the whole ballad. This creates a sense of unity.
The story begins in the first stanza, when the speaker discovers the knight “alone and palely loitering,” (2) and then questions his condition in the second stanza. He describes the night as appearing “haggard and so woe-begone” (6). The imagery provided by describing the autumn also sets a sorrowful tone. Everything is eerily quiet and fading: the “sedge has wither’d” (3), “no birds sing” (4), and the harvest is “done” (8). The speaker’s inquiries continue into the third stanza when he notices the knight’s pallid face; he is losing his color because of his sickness and despair. Each description of the knight is based in nature: the “lily” (9) on his brow, the “dew” (10) on his forehead, and the “fading rose” (11) on his cheeks describe his pale face and physical sickness.
The knight’s personal recount of the lady begins in the fourth stanza. He meets the faery lady in a meadow. He seems instantly captivated by her beauty, stating that “her hair was long, her foot was light / and her eyes were wild” (14-15). The use of the word “wild” may suggest that the faery has a feisty, untamed nature. Throughout stanzas four through six, the knight appears to be dominant, as he states he makes all of the moves: “I made a garland for her head,” (17) and “I set her on my pacing steed” (21). Keats’s use of “steed” is quite peculiar. It could be taken literally, as in a horse that one rides, or it could be interpreted as an innuendo. The reference to the faery lady making “sweet moan” in line 20 could allude to an innuendo as well.
In stanza VII, we see a shift in focus from the knight to the faery lady. Instead of the knight describing his own actions, he describes the faery lady’s actions. She provides the knight with “roots of relish sweet, and honey wild, and manna dew”...