The narration of the ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats is not complicated, as readers can easily understand the dialogue between the unknown speaker and the knight who shares his story of love and loss with the audience. When a question was asked by an unknown passerby, the knight answers that he has been in love and has lost a beautiful lady, and that life is now worthless to him. Also, the nature and origins of the Belle Dame, the meaning of his experience is shrouded in mystery: was it a dream? Or was it just an illusion? Was the knight tricked by the beautiful lady, or, did he trick himself into believing that love story? Although the answers to these questions remain unclear, it seems that the key to understanding La Belle Dame sans Merci lies in a profound understanding of the knight’s experience. From this point of view, life seems worthless to the knight after losing La Belle Dame. The knight’s disenchantment with day to day life suggests that Keats is using knight experience to warn his audience that a boring life can be escaped through using one’s imagination but it comes at a price.
Keats’ inspiration is a form of a ballad, a relatively uncomplicated literary genre focusing on one event which is described using simple language and imagery. This could also account for the scarcity of details regarding the characters, i.e. the beautiful girl, the knight and the unidentified voice. In addition, this genre merely illustrates a chain of events that the audience can reflect upon without offering a conclusion or any kind of judgment on the part of the author. However, Keats adds mystery to the traditional recipe of the ballad by providing us with a combination of realistic and seemingly unearthly details – “roots of relish sweet,” “her elfin grot,” the knight’s dream. What is truly intriguing about the ballad is the feeling of eeriness and mystery created by the knight who looks back on his encounter with the beautiful lady. In fact, this is precisely the perspective which has puzzled readers over the decades as the meaning of the poem has never been fully revealed.
The knight’s narrative of his encounter with the beautiful and mysterious lady is made up of three parts: stanzas four through eight refer to their meeting, and describe how the knight had fallen in love with her; stanza seven describes the climax of the story, i.e. when the knight follows her into her “elfin grot,” whereas the last four stanzas present his mysterious sleep and dream, as well as his abandonment and disillusionment. From this point of view, one could argue that the poem is symmetrical, as the first four stanzas of the knight’s tale speak of love and happiness, while the last four stanzas of the ballad focus on loss and disenchantment. In this sense, the poem returns to where it started to complete its circular movement with the image of the lonely knight sitting by the empty lake: “And this is why I sojourn here/ Alone and palely loitering,/ Though the sedge is withered from the lake,/ And no birds sing.” The final line of the ballad, “And no birds sing” reinforces the idea of loneliness and emptiness, and creates an invisible link with the beginning of the poem, more precisely the first stanza which ends with the same line.
At a closer reading, one would notice that the roles of the knight and the lady change throughout the following stanzas, with each of them being successively dominant over the other. In stanzas four to six, the first two lines focus on the knight who is clearly in control – “I met,” “I made,” “I set her” – the use of the first person pronoun is a clear indication as far as the power relations in the poem, whereas lines 3 and 4 refer to the actions of the lady. Moreover, stanza seven is completely devoted to her with verbs such as “she found” and “she said.” The following stanza grants the lady the dominant position as far as the narrative level of the ballad: “she took me” and “she wept and sigh’d.” This power struggle expressed through pronouns is actually very relevant to the task of understanding how this mysterious woman enters and ultimately changes the knight’s life. In the beginning, the audience sees a depressed and lonely knight whose anguish is also expressed through the use of setting imagery: “the sedge has withered from the lake,” “the harvest’s done” and “fading rose.” These images suggest that the knight is feeling sad and lonely after his meeting with the Belle Dame. However, one could argue that the knight was feeling depressed before his encounter with the mysterious lady. In fact, it could have been this depression and inner void that determined the knight to escape to the world of imagination where he is able to create a world according to his needs and desires, a world where his dreams can come true. This is why he imagines an encounter with a beautiful woman who shares his feelings, and gives him the sense of worth and pride that he is desperately lacks in real life. Moreover, in his imagination the “pale” knight feels more powerful and in control of his own life.
However, there are several clues which point to the theory that the knight had in fact imagined this encounter; these include the repetition of the word “faery,” “the elfin grot” and the lady’s eerie song. Nonetheless, even in his imagination he starts to lose power and head towards unhappiness as his imaginary world seems to be slowly collapsing in front of his eyes: “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!’” In fact, the kings, princes and warriors are all avatars of the real world pointing to the fact that one cannot escape their problems by living solely in our imagination. He awakes and realizes that it had all been a dream. Depression sets in again as the knight is unable to seize control over his own life: “And I awoke and found me here/ on the cold hill’s side.”