“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” Analysis

What good did five years of French do me? Well, read this analysis of John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and see if it was worth anything.

If you would like step-by-step instructions on how to do a poetry analysis, follow the link.

La Belle Professor sans a Clue

I received this letter the other day from an old classmate.

Dear Trent,You may not remember me, but I was your high school classmate. You picked on me incessantly, referring to me as a nerd. While you were taking four years of French, I was learning about computers. One day your French class came over and pelted the computer class with apples (I’ve hated apples ever since). I just want you to know, I’ve made billions of dollars with computers. What has your French class done for you?

Sincerely, Bill

Here was my response.

Dear Bill,

French has opened up gates of learning for me. For example, I understand the title to this John Keats poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and am able to write a John Keats poetry analysis or as you fancy computer geeks might call it, a literary analysis.



Title Analysis

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” translates as “The Beautiful Woman without Mercy.” You probably don’t need to take French for five years to figure that out. I did take French for five years. I also took several Literature courses. I read many Arthurian romances. Many were written in French, Le Morte D’Arthur being the most famous. Keats choice to create a French title alludes to a genre of literature where knights and damsels in distress were commonplace.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

English Romantic Poetry Lesson Plans

Yes, you can spend multiple class periods on poetry without the dreaded 2-minute reading followed by 49 minutes of stammering. The British Romanticism Teaching Guide includes an overview of British Romanticism and an analysis of selected poems by William Blake, William Wordsworth. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Keats.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
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 cheek 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 ligh,
And her eyes were wild.I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery’s song.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.She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said,
“I love thee true!”

Poetic picture with link to poetry lesson plans.

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She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild, sad eyes—
So kissed to sleep.

And there we slumbered on the moss,
And there I dreamed, ah! woe betide,
The latest dream I ever dreamed
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cried—“La belle Dame sans merci
Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill side.

And that is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Literary Analysis

  1. Rhyme scheme: xaxa – it follows a common pattern for quatrains.
  2. Meter: The first three lines of each stanza are written in iambic tetrameter. The last line is iambic duometer, or a 5 syllable variation. The shortened last line of each stanza marks an abrupt change in rhythm, focusing the reader’s attention.
  3. Alliteration in line 1 “wretched wight”; consonance in line 3, “palely loitering.”
  4. Stanzas 1-3: The narrator meets a wretched knight in autumn, who is dying: “I see a lily on thy brow / With anguish moist and fever dew / And on thy cheek a fading rose / Fast withereth too” (9-12). The last lines in these stanzas are sad.
  5. The poem’s speaker switches in stanza 4 as the knight tells his story: he meets a beautiful fairy woman and they swear their love to one another. The last line in stanzas 4-7 are about the fairy woman.
  6. There is an abrupt change at the end of stanza 8 as the knight dreams a horrible dream “on the cold hill side” (36): he sees “pale warriors, death pale” agonizing with the knight. They have “starved lips” (41). The knight shares their fate as he wanders aimlessly “on the cold hill side” (48).
  7. Repetition of the world “pale” represents death.
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