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La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a French phrase meaning The Lady Without Mercy. The poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci written by Romantic Poet, John Keats is in conversation (in verse) between the poet and a knight who fell in love with a lady but she left him. The poem comprises 12 stanzas and has a rhyme scheme ABCB.
The first three stanzas comprise the questions raised by the poet to the knight.
The poem begins with the poet’s question to the knight, “O what can ail thee“. The phrase reflects that the knight is in ail or trouble distress. The poet asks him why he is sad and wandering alone near the lake where no green grass is left and no bird is singing. The season described in the poem is that of winter. In literature, winter symbolizes solitude, sorrow, and grief. This also refers to the fact that the knight-at-arms is grieved.
In the second stanza, the poet repeats the same question. He asks the knight-at-arms why he is tired and miserable in appearance. In this stanza, he refers to the winter season by telling that the squirrel is done with collecting its grains and even the harvest is also done. These two symbols also refer to a time of loneliness, coldness, and grief.
The poet tells the knight-at-arms that there is a lily on his brow i.e. his face is without color and is pale like a lily. There are sweat and pain on his forehead which depicts that the knight-at-arms is sick. In the final line, the poet says that the color of the knight-at-arms face is fading quickly like that of a withered rose. Till here the poet is talking and raising questions to the knight-at-arms.
In the following stanza, the knight-at-arms tells his story and the reason behind his condition.
Now after listening to the questions raised by the poet, the knight-at-arms answers that he met a beautiful lady in the meadows. She had long hair, white feet, and passionate eyes. She seemed to be a fairy’s child.
After meeting that lady, the knight-at-arms falls in love with her. As a token of love, he gifts her a garland (made up of intertwined flowers) for her head, bracelets, and fragrant zone i.e. a belt made up of flowers for her waist.
The lady also responds to his love by looking at him with affection and making sweet moans. Probably they do lovemaking and also had sex. In this perspective, the fragrant zone may refer to her female parts which the poet loved and kissed.
Afterward, he takes her along with him on his horse (pacing steed) and the whole day they spend time with each other. The lady also sings songs for the knight-at-arms that seem to him as the fairy songs i.e. very melodious.
The lady then gifts him tasty and sweet food to eat including tasty roots, honey of wild bees, and sweet gum of mana ash. Though he couldn’t understand her language, it seems to him that she said: “I love you truly” in her own language.
The lady then takes him to her “Elfin grot” which means small fairy cave. There she weeps loudly but the knight-at-arms do not reveal the reason for it. Perhaps it refers to the way of expressing her love. The knight-at-arms then kisses her “wild eyes” and shuts them so that she may sleep with him. Here again, her eyes are depicted as wild.
The lady lulls or in simple words sends him to sleep. The knight-at-arms in the dream sees one of the most terrifying dreams on the hillside. Ah! woe betide! is an exclamation that expresses knight-at-arms grief and fear.
The knight-at-arms see kings, princes, and warriors who have turned pale and have a dead-like appearance. All of them warn the knight-at-arms that “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” i.e. beware of that lady because she is without mercy. She is the same lady who has led them the dread fate.
Seeing their starved (and grieved) lips which were altogether warning him, the knight-at-arms wakes up at once and finds him alone on the cold hill’s side.
In the final stanza, the knight-at-arms says that this is the reason why he is wandering all alone along the lake where there is no grass and at a time when there is no bird to sing, in a miserable condition, pale face.
The poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci, in my view, conveys the message that love, like a flower, is short-loved. The joy is quite short and suffering is forever. It also reflects how beauty can deceive a person and make him fail or suffer.