top of page

A Journey Through "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" with A Hopeful Romantic

Or, "Le Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John Keats

Reading and analysis by Kirk Barbera

Show Notes

I am a lover of love. To me, as the dramatist, Edmond Rostand said, the dream alone is of interest. What is life without a dream? Romantic love is the grandest of all dreams. Productive creativity provides the organizing principle and purpose of a human life. Romantic love is its greatest reward. If you're like me, you're a deep romantic. You desire nothing more than to become lost in a beautiful woman.

One who is worthy of your stature, strength, hard work, and success. This desire, or the act of getting lost, is as addictive as it is wonderful, and you should seek it out. But it has a deadly side. It can kill you bodily, but more often it can kill your soul. Your ability to create, to produce, to achieve, to love, to press on in the face of adversity.

Dante was lost in a wood, and he had the great poet Virgil to guide him to celestial light to his lost love, Beatrice. Milton had his religion and God. Wordsworth had nature. The poet John Keats had Fanny Brawne. As I have once again found myself personally obsessed in love with a woman unwilling to return that love, I cannot help but return to the great poets for solace and wisdom.

So, take a chance with me. Cross the unknown abyss of confusion into understanding by exploring this great poem with me. I'll now read the poem, then give you a stanza by stanza analysis to help you further enjoy this poem. Poetry is meant to be reread. It is not meant to be read a single time. I have read this poem and loved it for many years.

But it is during this time of heartache that I return with force and meaning. With a deeper connection and understanding. With sorrow and with gladness. Let us begin.

The poem I'll be reading today, followed by an analysis to help you understand it further, is "La belle Dame sans Merci" by John Keats. So I'm going to do a reading. Don't worry about understanding it. Just listen to the words, and then we'll go through it and I'll read some more of it again later.

La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

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 cheeks 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 made a garland for her head,

And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;

She looked at me as she did love,

And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,

And nothing else saw all day long,

For sidelong would she bend, and sing

A faery’s song.

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 wept and sighed full sore,

And there I shut her wild wild eyes

With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,

And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gapèd wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,

Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake,

And no birds sing.

Now, one of the ways to read poems and poetry is to understand the entirety of the poem in a certain light. When we read, we are given clues by poets to help orient us. This is similar to what filmmakers do today, like in "Braveheart" or "Lord of the Rings".

Poets do the same kind of thing in their own way. And one thing that John Keats is doing here is calling it a ballad. He's structuring it like a ballad. We're not going to go into the details of what a ballad is other than it's a poetic story. It's a story told in verse. That's it. So it's a story.

So we're getting a story here. Hopefully, you got that there was something about a knight who wasn't happy. Something bad happened to him after he met a woman.

The way that Keats structures the stanzas, lines, meter, and imagery throughout this poem is valuable and thought-provoking.

Here's the primary question of the poem. Any time you see a poem that starts with a question you should hope the poet is going to answer it. The first question here is, "Oh, what can ail the knight at arms, alone and pale, loitering?" So we have an image of a knight standing alone, pale. Maybe it's the poet, maybe it's an angel, or it could be the woman. As we go through this, it could be a variety of things. But we know that someone is asking a knight, some knight in shining armor with a sword, alone and pale, loitering.

The sedge has withered, much like the appearance of a grass-like plant. Think of it poetically, it's like saying the greenery or verdure around has faded, and there's no bird song to be heard. This paints an image of a knight, alone and pallid, loitering by a lake surrounded by withering vegetation. It likely signifies the onset of winter, illustrated further by the silence indicating no birds around. It's a somber, dark setting wherein the knight stands.

The subsequent lines provide more detail about the scene. Why does the knight appear so drained, almost ill, and desolate? There's a note of something positive in the air, indicated by the full granaries of the squirrels and the completion of the harvest. This suggests winter is approaching, but in a way that everything is ready for it.

The narrative then shifts. The indication is that the knight might begin to share his perspective, detailing his story. He recounts meeting a mesmerizing lady in the meadows, likened to a fairy's child because of her wild eyes and elegant demeanor. The knight, seemingly smitten, crafts a floral crown and bracelets for her, which she receives with evident affection.

The vivid imagery continues as he describes setting her on his horse, losing track of everything else as they journeyed together. The tale touches upon intimacy, though veiled in poetic language. The knight elaborates how he felt sustained by her, drawing parallels to a heady phase of a romantic relationship where the world fades away and only the two of them exist.

The account ends with her feeding him, symbolizing perhaps emotional sustenance, and declaring her love for him. This period of their relationship is painted as a time of intense closeness and passion.

Have you ever wondered why it might sound strange if a woman said she loves you? In the context of this poem, it's important to consider the plight of the knight in arms. This woman, enveloped in love, possibly engages with him intimately. She professes her love for him and leads him to her elfin grotto.

Picture a mystical cave. Fairies are closely linked to nature and the mystic. Venture deep into the forest, and you may encounter enchantment. Yet, in this tale, she weeps until her eyes are sore. To console her, he kisses her eyes four times.

The number four might have significance, but that's not clear here. She then lulls him to sleep, and he dreams a sorrowful dream, an unsettling vision that plagues him with despair.

In this dream, he's back on the cold hillside. There, he sees pale kings, princes, and warriors. All seemingly dead, they cry out to him about being enthralled. They are possibly her past lovers, warning him about the dangerous allure of the femme fatale.

In the dream, he sees their lips in the gloom of dusk, issuing a chilling warning. When he awakens, he finds himself on the hillside. This is why he lingers there, alone, even though the scenery has withered and the birds no longer sing.

This poem tells of experiences, of a deep and visceral emotional journey. It could be about the psychological experiences many men face, especially those deeply romantic men who cherish love and the pursuit of it. It's about the internal struggle a man faces, the challenges of unrequited love, and the dangers of obsession.

Romantic love can be wonderful, but there are dangers in obsessing over it. The poem seems to convey a cautionary tale about the risks of intense, uncontrolled love. The pale warriors, the past lovers, had experienced this before the knight, and they warn him of the perils of being enthralled by such love.

The beautiful woman without mercy has you in her grasp. He sees their starved lips in the dying light, giving a horrid warning. He awakens to find himself in this desolate place. Personally, I envision a man wandering aimlessly, drained of all energy and life.

He sits palely, alone, lost in his thoughts and disconnected from the world. In the end, he reveals the reason for his state: "This is why I sojourn here, alone and palely loitering, even though the grass has withered by the lake and no birds sing." Let's revisit the poem one last time, and I hope you've enjoyed this discussion.

Whether you choose to stay or move on, I encourage revisiting poetry. Think about the knight. Reflect on experiences in your own life or those of others that echo this tale. And if you've never faced such heartbreak, remember that while the highs of passion and romance are incredible, there are risks involved.


Technical Analysis

Title: "La Belle Dame sans Merci"

The title is in French and translates to "The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy." Immediately, this sets an intriguing and somewhat ominous tone, suggesting both beauty and danger.

Form: Ballad

The poem is structured as a ballad, which traditionally is a song or poem that tells a story. Ballads often contain regular, rhythmic patterns and can sometimes have refrains, although Keats does not use a refrain here.

Stanza Structure: Quatrains

The poem consists of twelve quatrains (four-line stanzas).

Rhyme Scheme: ABCB

The rhyme scheme is consistent throughout the poem, which gives a rhythmic flow and supports the song-like quality of a ballad.

Meter: Iambic Tetrameter and Trimeter

The poem alternates between lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This means that the first and third lines of each quatrain generally have eight syllables (four iambs), while the second and fourth lines have six syllables (three iambs).

Language and Tone:

The language Keats uses is both romantic and haunting. He uses vivid imagery like "starved lips," "pale warriors," "wild eyes," and "cold hillside" to create a landscape that is both beautiful and bleak. The poem's tone is melancholic, suggesting a beauty that is transient and a love that is both enchanting and destructive.


The Power and Danger of Love: The knight falls for the fairy lady and is enchanted by her, but by the end of the poem, he is left "alone and palely loitering." Love has a consuming power that can leave one empty and longing.

The Supernatural: The fairy lady and the "elfin grot" point to elements of the supernatural, suggesting that the world of romance and emotion has a mysterious, otherworldly quality.

Mortality and Transience: The images of the "sedge" that has "withered from the lake" and the lack of singing birds give a sense of decay and death. The knight's pale state and his encounter with "pale kings and princes" emphasize the theme of mortality.

Imagery and Symbols:

The Belle Dame: Represents the dangerous allure of love that seems wonderful but can be destructive.

The "Wild Eyes": They signify the enchantment and allure of the fairy lady.

The "Cold Hillside": A symbol of loneliness, death, and desolation. This is where the knight awakens after his enchanting dream, representing the harsh reality after the intoxicating allure of love.

Pale Kings and Princes: Represents those who, like the knight, have been enchanted and abandoned by the belle dame.


"La Belle Dame sans Merci" by John Keats is a haunting ballad that masterfully blends romanticism and melancholy. Through its rhythmic verses, evocative imagery, and resonant themes, Keats paints a picture of the consuming nature of love and its potential to enchant and devastate.

Harold Bloom on "La Belle Dame sans Merci":

Harold Bloom, in his contemplations of Keats and his works, often turned to the core of Romantic tradition. "La Belle Dame sans Merci" for Bloom could be seen as an encapsulation of the Romantic ambivalence towards the self, the world, and the ineffable.

Keats, in Bloom's perspective, is always at the nexus of the mortal and the immortal. The knight in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" is representative of this dichotomy. He is at once infatuated by the ethereal beauty of the fairy-like woman, drawn to her otherworldly allure, but is ultimately left desolate and haunted on the cold hill's side. This dichotomy might be a reflection of Keats's own life experiences, particularly the juxtaposition of intense passion and the melancholic realization of its fleeting nature.

The poem's tragic dimension, as per a Bloomian interpretation, might be viewed in the light of the Romantic poet's quest for transcendence. The "belle dame" embodies beauty, imagination, and the ineffable — all elements that a Romantic poet like Keats is perpetually in pursuit of. However, the same beauty leads to the knight's desolation, a sentiment Keats was all too familiar with in his personal life.

Bloom might also consider the poem's structure, a ballad, as a conscious choice by Keats. The ballad, traditionally a form associated with oral culture and the common people, becomes a vehicle for Keats's profound meditations on beauty, love, and sorrow.

In sum, for Harold Bloom, "La Belle Dame sans Merci" is a testament to Keats's genius, encapsulating the profound paradoxes of beauty and melancholy, mortal love and timeless desolation, that define the Romantic ethos.


PayPal ButtonPayPal Button
bottom of page