Keats' first poem was published in 1816, and my favorite, La Belle Dame San Merci, was written in 1819, early in his sadly short career (just two years later, he died of tuberculosis, the family disease). Depressed by the recent death of his brother, and inspired by Dante, Chaucer, Robert Burns, and others, Keats depicts a lonely and despairing knight who has been enchanted by a mysterious woman and then rejected.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Many poets embrace themes of love and loss but in La Belle Dame Sans Merci Keats created images that would not only be remembered by readers but also fueled the imagination of many artists. The best known is this 1893 painting by Pre-Raphaelite John William Waterhouse:
In the poem, the contrast between the pale knight and the heartless temptress is drawn carefully. In the first three stanzas, the “haggard” knight is introduced, and in the following nine, he tries to explain what happened to him. At first he tried to assert authority by making her a garland and setting her on his steed. She then takes over by feeding him wild honey, and takes him to her “elfin grot” where he is in her thrall. He kisses her but is distracted by seeing the shades of her former victims, then wakes up alone and disconsolate. He tells the reader he is loitering, clearly in hope that the lady will reappear and take him back to her enchanted grotto, but the reader knows she will not return.
Thanks for reading. Thank you to Katherine Cox for inviting me to participate in the Keats Blog Tour. I urge you to visit the other stops beginning on May 27th. For more about Keats, I recommend John Keats by Nicholas Roe. Here is the entire poem: