The poem shows us how powerful a beautiful woman can be, luring men away because of their lust and desire. It tells us of the power of “Amour” against “Armour”, how a knight can be enchanted by the love and beauty of a woman and be made useless. The knight is lead by his desire rather than reason; he is intoxicated by the woman who does as she pleases with him. In the poem, the first speaker finds a lonely knight who tells him the story of a “wild” lady in the meads, which the knight met. “Her eyes were wild”, her wildness makes her seem to be uncivilised and uncontrollable, with no restraint.
She has elements of supernatural linked to her, described by the knight as “a faery’s child” living in her “elfin grot”. The knight uses supernatural description because the woman seems too good to be accurate; he sees her as a faery because of her enchanting and seductive powers. “For sidelong would she bend and sing a faery’s song”, the woman can also be compared to the Sirens from The Odyssey, who use their beauty and songs to bewitch men, drawing them to their island, where their ships would smash against the rocks, and then the cannibal Sirens would eat them.
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The first speaker describes the knight as having “a Lilly on thy brow”, “and on thy cheeks, a fading rose”. Keats originally wrote “death’s Lilly” and “death’s rose”, implying that the “haggard” knight had had a close encounter with death or that the knight was like a zombie, roaming the land endlessly with no goal in mind. The landscape is described to be barren, like the knight’s life, because he is “alone” and “palely loitering” and has no joy like no birds are singing. He is also described as being “haggard and so woe-begone” literally, haggard means old and weary, but in the poem, it could also mean that he is under the influence of a witch because hags are the same as witches (like in Macbeth).
The poem doesn’t tell us why the knight is so sad and lonely, we are told that he “met” a lady who took complete power over him, but after a dream where he is met by “pale kings and princes” and “pale warriors, death-pale were they all”. They are pale because of “la belle dame sans merci” who now has the knight “in thrall”, this does not mean that they have all fallen to the same woman, but “la belle dame sans merci” could be any woman who the princes, kings and warriors could have fallen in love with.
“In thrall” not only applies that the knight is enslaved or captivated by the woman, but it sounds like “enthral”, which means enchanted or obsessed, which the knight is with the woman. The woman, “in language strange”, tells the knight that, “I love thee true”, the strangeness makes it seem as if the woman didn’t say that she loved the knight, but something completely different, which the knight interpreted as her loving him. Also, the woman may have spoken to him in a supernatural elfin or faerie language.
The description of what the knight did with the woman is not to be taken. She feeds him “relish sweet, And honey wild, and manna dew”, these are all godly, mysterious and supernatural foods, manna being spiritual and divine nourishment. These foods can be related to mysterious creatures like elves or faeries, but not to a knight, so he probably loved the nourishment he received. The knight also says that “she took me to her elfin grot”, this is not exactly where the lady lives. Still, it could be the aura the knight felt coming from her dwelling, increasing the supernaturalism around the woman.
The knight does not only love the woman because of her beauty but also because of her sensitivity, “there she wept and sighed full sore”. “She lulled me asleep”, she also seems very caring about the knight acting motherly towards him, lulling him to sleep as a mother would to her children. The word “wild” is mentioned three times in the poem, “her eyes wild”, “honey wild”, and “her wild wild eyes”, this gives us a sense of the woman being uncontrolled and uncivilised, giving the knight some “honey wild”.
“There she wept and sighed full sore, And there I shut her wild wild eyes with kisses four”, this makes the woman seem vulnerable, but it also seems as if she is playing with the man, being his muse, encouraging him to get even more emotionally attached to her by using her “wild eyes”. So the knight finds himself deeply in love with the woman before she lulls him to sleep. But when the knight has a dream with the “pale kings”, “princes”, and “pale warriors” who were all “death-pale”, they tell him, “la belle dame sans merci hath thee in thrall”.
Then the knight wakes, finding himself alone “on the cold hillside”. The woman seduced and tempted the knight towards her, making him forget about his duties, but when the knight is genuinely in love, she leaves him alone, lonely and “cold”. This leads to the lone “loitering” of the knight, who is maybe on an endless journey trying to find “la belle dame”. He is now also pale, like the warriors, kings and princes in his dreams, all because of “la belle dame” who will not feed their “starved lips” which want more of her.
The knight’s cheeks are like “a fading rose”, as if the life force within him is being drained out and that he will be just like the pale and once-mighty warriors, kings and princes who “la belle dame” has conquered and destroyed. Apart from the first line, the poem’s beginning is almost the same as the ending; this tells us about the knight’s never-ending journey of finding the woman; he will always be trying to find her for “starving lips”.
For this poem, Keats’s muse could be a woman like the “belle dame” who did the same to him, as the “belle dame” did to the knight. When Keats had written this poem, he had been involved in a relationship with “Fanny Browne”, who distracted Keats from his poetry against his friend’s wishes. Still, they could not marry because of Keats financial and physical problems (he developed tuberculosis like his mother and father and died at the age of 26).
Keats writes the poem in ballad form to make the words flow through more, also the ends of lines 2 and 4 rhyme. He also repeats words like “wild” and “pale” in the poem, which are the key words behind the poem, how the woman is wild and uncontrollable, and her effects on the knight. In verse 4, the knight described her with lots of l’s and f’s, “lady”, “long”, “light, “full”, “faery”, “foot”, this shows her apparent softness and gentleness in character, which the knight is bewitched by. The poem is also set in medieval times to make it seem more like a fairytale, and French makes the poem more romantic and mysterious.
The love and loss in the poem seem only to be one-sided, this may be because of what Keats experienced in his life with Fanny Browne, but he tries to cover it up by setting the poem in a completely different time to his. However, the love the knight feels is short lasted, and the loss and obsession take over; he loses all his life to the devotion to a mysterious and supernatural woman.
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