Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
    Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
    And no birds sing.

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
    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 cheeks 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 light,
    And her eyes were wild.

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.

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.

 

She found me roots of relish sweet,
    And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said -
    'I love thee true'.

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.

And there she lulled me asleep
    And there I dreamed - Ah! woe betide! -
The latest dream I ever dreamt
    On the cold hill side.

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!'

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.

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


John Keats poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci translates to The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy. It is a beautiful poem, dripping with scenic language that perfectly shows not tells. It is sometimes referred to as the last Romantic work and is the subject of much pre-Raphaelite painting. In reflection of the poem’s narrative, Keats manages to mesmerisise the reader with his words. The story of a lady who enchants men with her beauty; She is not merciful and sucks them dry, leaving them alone forever wanting for her.

A triumphant tale of tragedy, circular in narrative, for it begins as it ends. A bitter sweet story, from the honeymoon period of a relationship: love at first sight, romance and courtship. To the end of a journey: drained, used and abused by a love once so sweet.

It seems to be a fairytale in a poem, short but fully rounded. The words give it a mystical air, staying with the old traditional English Shakespearian style.

Some details are left to the readers’ imagination. The woman’s actual features are not so much said literally, but her ways are described which put a picture in your head without needing to paint it fully. This style of characterization, (describing things a person carries, their body language, their voice etc) was visited in a unit of the Professional Studies Masters degree at one stage and is a supreme way of creating a depth with subtlety.

As a child, my sister told me this poem and had the picture by Frank Dicksee hanging on her wall. It always had a great impact on me and made me think of feminine independence and strength as a woman. Power and control are also worthy themes, but so is pain, suffering and the effects of love.

One last thing comes to mind, a quote by William Congreve, in The mourning bride, 1697…

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”   

Oh, so true!