Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One
An analysis of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to C.S.
Composed on April 21, 1819, in a single afternoon or early evening, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” has haunted the minds of readers for almost two centuries now. In twelve stanzas, Keats says more than whole worships of writers say in their entire existence. The poem is so sleekly, treacily, and elegantly composed, without a single false word, that it is imperishable. Indeed, it is one of the few perfect English poems.
I will analyze the ballad stanza by stanza.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The question is the narrator’s—whoever the narrator might be—to the honey-starved knight. For the published edition, Keats foolishly substituted the words “wretched wight” for “knight-at-arms.” “Wight” recalls the Isle of Wight, where Keats would write lust letters to Fanny Brawne, the lust of his brief consumptive life, which makes the published text of the poem faintly ludicrous. “Knight-at-arms” is a much better choice of words, since it invokes strength, which contrasts nicely with the knight’s ailment, which is clearly love-psychosis. It also sounds and reads better, infinitely better, than “wretched wight.”
The narrator is asking an epidemiological question (when one compares the first stanza with the twelfth): What is the source of your illness? Even though the autumnal landscape is withered and songless, the knight is loitering around like a beggar. The flora are desiccated, much like the knight; there are no fauna, it seems, in the expanse. Nature has dried and shriveled up. The birds that are not there are perhaps nightingales. If this is the case, then the supernatural has withdrawn from the deathscape.
A nice instance of parechesis appears in the first stanza—a repetition of the grapheme LON in the words “alone” and “loitering.”
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.
The granaries and the harvest have yielded a superabundance of food — food that is suitable for human consumption — but the knight will never eat it. He will never eat the food because he cannot eat the food. The knight is famished, starving for food that no human mouth can eat: It is the food that only his beloved faery princess can feed him.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
The syntax here is confusing: The lily that is embroidered on the knight’s brow is moist with anguish and moist with fever-dew. The anguish-moist lily and the fading rose embroidered on the knight’s face-flesh: These are symptoms of his love-starvation.
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.
This is where the knight’s answer begins—an answer to the question, “What ails thee?” Already, the reader is getting subliminal cues from the poem that the knight should run like hell away from the faery princess. For one, she is the daughter of a faery and therefore any romance between the knight and the princess would be an interspecies romance. Secondly, the wildness of her eyes might very well be the wildness of craziness.
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.
The number three is important in the poem: The faery princess’s physical attributes come in threes (her long hair, her light foot, her wild eyes), the food that she feeds to the knight comes in threes (relish root, wild honey, manna-dew), and here we have a triumvirate of decorations for the Beautiful Lady to wear (garland, bracelets, perfumed belt). We might know three of her physical attributes and three things that she is wearing, but who is she, really, on the inside?
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.
What kind of a knight is he, to let a woman he does not know ride his pacing steed? And how can someone set someone else on a steed that is pacing? Her sidelong look lets us know that she is unconcerned with him and that his love will be unreturned; sharp readers should question the integrity of her intentions. That he can see nothing else besides her radiance suggests that the knight has already plunged into total lunacy.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
How, precisely, does the knight know that the faery princess has declared her love for him? The answer is: He does not. Her words are inaudible to him. She speaks in a language that he cannot understand, and the suggestion is that the knight has projected his desire-to-be-loved upon her incomprehensible dark words.
The fact that communication between the knight and the faery princess is impossible intimates that contact between the knight and the faery princess is impossible.
“Honey” is sensuous, but the manna-dew is ethereal, heavenly: bread that rains from heaven. “Manna” is customarily a noun, but here, it is used as an adjective and evokes, of course, The Book of Exodus.
“Manna-dew” was not in Keats’ original draft. The lines read, in the original version: “She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and honey dew.” Keats was very wise to modify the wording. The manna-dew that she feeds the knight reminds us that the faery princess is not a child of nature, but rather an otherworldly entity, one who comes from a transcendental province, much like the Grecian urn and the nightingale. She exists outside of time and is not bound by the laws of nature.
The food that she feeds the knight is supernatural nutriment, and he will never be able to eat anything else. All other food has become inesculent to him, even though the granaries are full and the harvest is done.
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.
She dwells in an elfin grotto, then. If there is still any question on the subject, at this point, the argument over whether she is human has been settled: She is a chthonic being. The fact that she dwells in an elfin grotto might imply that she is the Queen of Elphame, the elf queen who transported Thomas the Rhymer into the otherworld.
Why is the elf-girl weeping and sighing? Is it because she knows that contact between her and her human lover is impossible? If she is weeping and sighing over the impossibility of interspecies romance, does this not militate against the interpretation that she is wicked?
“Wild wild”: the use of anaphora (repetition) underlines her chaos, her untrammeled nature. In Stanza Four, her eyes were described as “wild.” Her eyes appear even wilder now.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
The faery princess anesthetizes the knight, drugging him with Ketamine. “The latest dream I ever dreamt”: The knight will never dream again. Will he ever sleep again?
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’
Listen to the chorus of love-hungry kings, love-hospitalized princes, and love-hurt warriors. They tell you who they think the girl really is: The Beautiful Lady without Pity! They are the ones who call her “The Beautiful Lady without Pity.” She never identifies herself, nor does the narrator, nor does the love-slaughtered knight at arms. Why, precisely, should you believe them? Why should you believe the chorus of pallid loverboys?
The word “thrall” connotes enslavement. To be in thralldom is to be in bondage to a master or a mistress. In this case, the chorus of once-powerful men, of which the knight is now a member, is enslaved, enthralled, to the Beautiful Lady without Pity.
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
After the love-drug wears off, the knight awakens and finds himself in desolation and a place of natural destitution. The only things in the dream-men’s mouths are warnings. Much like the knight, only the food of the faery girl can nourish them; no other food can sate them.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The faery-intoxicated knight is doomed to walk along the withered shore of the lake in a perpetual autumn, sapped of his vitality and potency. He has been enervated by the psychosis-inflicting Beautiful Lady without Pity. The poem suggests that she is a witch, but she might as well be a lamia or a succubus. The women in the Keatsean poetic universe are all Belles Dames sans Merci. “Misogyny” is a label too easily applied these days, but how can we avoid calling this a misogynistic poem?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
There is yet another alternative interpretation that is possible: The figure of the woman would be the vessel into which the misogynistic delusions of the knight are projected, into the vacuum which stands for that which cannot be symbolized. This evacuates the pallid, forlorn night. The figure of the female has now become an agglomeration of split-off parts that represents him. The figure is then a void to which the male is inexorably drawn and from which he is driven in horror. Keats’s pallid, forlorn knight has an experience of horror vacui.
The knight-at-arms would then have projected all of his disjecta membra into the figure of the female, thus rendering himself as servile and exhausted.
In other words, the Beautiful Lady without Pity is a construction. What we are left with is only the imaginary. This is, sadly, psychosis. It is all too common. The poem might then be a descriptive instantiation of delusional misogyny.
My only reservation with this alternative interpretation is that it is ahistorical.