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John Keats

La Belle Dame sans Merci

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1819

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Summary and Study Guide


“La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a 48-line rhymed narrative poem by the Romantic poet John Keats. Written in the style of a folk ballad, the poem is structured as a call and a response. The first three stanzas pose a question to its protagonist, a knight, while the remaining nine stanzas constitute the knight’s reply. The poem was written in 1819, the year of Keats’s great creative flowering. Along with the six great odes of Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” can also be seen as a culmination of the poet’s later meditative style. Containing elements of Romanticism, such as the supernatural and the wonder and terror associated with nature, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” follows a knight’s encounter with a mysterious, beautiful woman. The poem’s title is in the French and translates to “the beautiful lady without pity.” Ostensibly the story of a dangerous romance, the poem is also a thoughtful allegory about sickness and mortality.

Poet Biography

John Keats, born in October 1795, is now considered one of the major poets of the Romantic tradition in English. Though Keats has become synonymous with Romanticism, in his own lifetime the sensitive, melancholy poet did not associate with the period’s important literary figures. Keats did not consider himself a part of a literary movement, nor was his work reviewed in that light. “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” for instance, was not even published in Keats’s final book of poetry in 1820: Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems. The original draft of the poem only came to light in 1848 in Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats by Richard Monckton Milnes. With its emphasis on sensorial experience and articulated emotion, critics considered Keats’s work overtly sentimental, especially in the first part of his career. Some of the disdain was undoubtedly rooted in class-bias: The Keats family was by no means poor, but nor were they particularly wealthy or cosmopolitan. Keats spoke in what is known as a cockney or a working-class accent, leading some reviewers to mock his speech.

Keats was part of a loving brood of four siblings. His parents, Thomas and Frances, had a cordial marriage and provided well for their children. When Keats was only nine and attending the progressive school Enfield, his father Thomas died in a horse-riding accident. The family came under enormous financial and emotional strain, and Frances remarried shortly thereafter. Her second marriage was rumored to be unhappy. Frances passed away from tuberculosis when Keats was 14. After the death of Frances, the children were left in the care of guardians. Keats became an apprentice to surgeon and apothecary Thomas Hammond and received his doctor’s license in 1816. The decision to train as a surgeon must have been dictated by the family’s financial circumstances, since Keats’s real passion lay in poetry. An avid reader and self-taught scholar, he had familiarized himself with the works of Milton, Spenser, and Shakespeare in his teens and written his first poem, “An Imitation of Spenser,” in 1814. Though he tried to write poetry while interning at a hospital, the work left him with no time to pursue his passion. Therefore, after receiving his medical license, Keats chose to become a full-time writer.

In October 1816, Keats was introduced to Leigh Hunt, an influential critic and poet. Hunt began to promote Keats’s poems, and Keats published his first volume Poems in early 1817. The volume was a critical dud, with critics considering its poems overtly emotional and imitative. Keats did not lose heart and had soon approached another set of publishers for his second volume. Meanwhile, he continued to publish his poems in literary journals of the time, gradually drawing the attention of the likes of critic William Hazlitt.

Family tragedy struck again when Tom, Keats’s younger brother, contracted tuberculosis. Keats and his other brother George began caring for Tom, even though Keats himself was suffering from ill health. Tom died of tuberculosis on December 1, 1818. Eager to get away from London, Keats moved to Wentworth place, the green estate of his friend Charles Armitage Brown, soon after. “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” was written a few months after Tom’s death. 1819 was the year in which Keats also wrote his famous odes. This creatively fertile period was also happy in other ways: Keats became engaged to the writer Fanny Brawne. At the same time, Keats knew his own symptoms of tuberculosis were worsening.

In 1820, Keats published his third and last collection of poems, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes and Other Poems, to positive reviews. While his literary career was taking off, his health began to decline. Wracked by fevers and cough, Keats was forced to distance himself from Brawne to avoid infecting her. Soon, he moved to Rome to get away from England’s damp and chilly weather. However, Rome did not prove the curative that Keats and his doctors had hoped; the poet’s condition continued to decline through 1820. Fearing Keats was in a suicidal state, doctors in Rome refused to prescribe him opium as a painkiller. Keats died in Rome on February 23, 1821. He was only 25. In his short lifetime, he wrote 54 poems, some of which would come to be considered the finest in English literature. Seven weeks after the funeral of Keats, his contemporary Percy Bysshe Shelley, the great Romantic poet, wrote the elegy “Adonais” in his honor. Keats is buried in a cemetery in Rome, and his tombstone is marked with this epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

Poem Text

Keats, John. “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” 1819. Poetry Foundation.


Spotting a pale-looking knight in armor by a desolate lake, the poem’s anonymous speaker wonders why he is loitering about such a spot. There is nothing much to do around the lake. The grass around the water has dried up and the birds have left the trees. The time of the year is probably autumn turning to winter.

The speaker asks the knight what ails him, since the knight looks tired and filled with sorrows. He tells the knight that the squirrel has hoarded up nuts for the winter and farmers have harvested autumn’s crop. In this he implies that the knight too should go home.

The knight’s forehead is pale and white as a lily flower, while roses—or red spots—bloom in his cheeks. Even this redness seems to be fading under the sweat on the anguished knight’s face. Before the speaker can ask the knight again about the crisis that ails him, the knight begins to narrate his story.

The knight met a lady in a grove in the forest. Her beauty was so otherworldly the knight thought she must be a faery (this study guide uses Keats’s spelling of the word fairy throughout). The lady had long hair, she moved with light grace, and her eyes were filled with a wild joy.

Moved by her beauty, the knight plucked flowers from the forest and made garlands for the lady’s forehead, neck, bosom, and waist. The lady gave the knight a look filled with love and moaned in joy at his gifts.

The knight lifted the lady on his horse and rode with her in the forest. All day long they travelled together. The knight didn’t see another soul in the forest, and the lady bent around him charmingly, singing sweet faery songs to him.

For succor, the lady gave the knight sweet roots, honey, and dew that tasted like the food of the gods. She said something to the knight in a language he did not know, but he understood she told him: “I love thee true” (Line 28).

At long last, the lady brought the knight to her faery home, a cave in the forest. Here she wept with deep grief, and the knight hugged her and closed her eyes with four kisses.

The lady sang the knight a lullaby till he fell into a deep, dreaming sleep. It is the last and freshest dream the knight remembers. In the dream he saw pale kings, knights, and warriors, their faces wan and sick-looking. They cried to him in unison that “La belle Dame sans merci” (Line 39)—the beautiful lady who is devoid of pity—has the knight under her dangerous spell.

In the gloomy dream-light, the knight saw the starving lips of the kings and warriors stretched open in agony and warning. He awoke with a start and found himself where he is presently, near a lake by a cold hillside.

This is why the knight is taking a sojourn by the lake, waiting as he grows pale, even though the plants died and the song of the birds ended.