LA’s Notes: Critical Appreciation

The title of the poem,  ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ is in French and it means the beautiful lady without mercy. This is the only ballad written by Keats. Though short (48 lines) it is recognised as one of the finest romantic and narrative poems. Each stanza has a rhyme scheme a,b,c,b. The sad and pensive atmosphere is suggested by the short lines, the last line being still shorter.

The theme of the poem is unrequited love- the pain and suffering of one who loves but is not loved in return. It tells us about the love of a human being for a fairy.  For this ballad Keats has drawn his inspiration from old legends and literature.  Keats’ own experience of unfulfilled love may have given him the idea to express his feelings of frustration in this moving ballad. The haunting atmosphere of the medieval world has been created by the poet. There is the elfin grot, soul stirring music, magic spell, and hideous nightmares.

The poet/speaker in the course of his wanderings happen to meet a young knight in astrange place. He asked him why he looked (the knight) so frightened and miserable. The knight replied that sometime ago he had met a beautiful lady withand wild eyes in a far off meadow. He fell in love with her and and with fragrant flowers made her a wreath , bracelets and a belt. She signalled that she loved him so he placed her on his horse, and led her to a small cave (This is what Lakshmi Akka says, but the poem says ‘she took me [the knight]  to her elfin grot’) . There she served him delicious food and then lulled him to  sleep.  In his dream he dreamt of Kings, Princes, and warriors. They warned him that the lady was cruel, and that he had been enslaved by her.  The knight tells the poet/speaker  that that was the reason he was loitering all alone in the intense cold weather, looking pale.

There is a touch of mystery about this poem, Partly this mystery is the result of the  supernatural elements.  Partly, it flows from the personality of the lady. Who is she? Is she human, or is she one of the nature? Why does she attract people, and leave them so miserable? All these questions will remain unanswered forever.

The romantic quality of the poem is further enhanced by its atmosphere of medieval ages. This incident happens to a knight. The knight goes about on a pacing steed. There is a mention of pale knights, princes, kings, and warriors. These touches build up the medieval atmosphere.

Suggestiveness is the main beauty of the poem. The poet does not state or elaborate anything, he only hints. The strange lady, for example, is described merely with the help of brief but striking images. The atmosphere of supernaturalism and medievalism is also created using these suggestions. The poem also presents the romantic idea of love. It is presented as an all consuming passion. It haunts the night and also brings him to ruin.

The poem is highly successful, as it appeals to our sense of wonder. Keats has used metaphors as a  literary device, but other than this, the ballad has no other adornment.  The metaphor of the lily and of the ‘fading rose’ suggest the depletion of physical strength with the red color of the face turning pale.


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