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Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad" (1820)


Keats' later poem, "La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad," carries forward the theme of "Lamia." Much shorter than "Lamia," "La Belle" does not tell a whole story, but, rather, sets up a scene: a knight is "alone and palely loitering" and he explains why. In his answer, the reader learns how he came to his state of anguish. The cause, as the title indicates, is a woman. Left nameless, La Belle Dame sans Merci stands for more than one woman; rather, she provides a warning about all women in general.

Without a name, however, La Belle can also be interpreted as a title for the figure of Lilith. Keats makes this connection himself in Lamia where he describes Lamia/Lilith as "the cruel lady, without any show / of sorrow," a phrase almost identical to the translation of this poem's title "The Lovely Lady without Pity" (I.290,291, Norton 787). The aspects of this woman include many of those exhibited in earlier representations of Lilith, including the poem "Lamia."

"La Belle" adopts the form of a folk ballad, wherein the first three stanzas are addressed to the knight by an anonymous narrator and the following stanzas comprise his reply (Norton 787). The scene established in the first three lines cues the reader that something is askew, for not only is the knight in a state of pale weakness, but nature is also dying. The fading rose on the knight's cheek parallels the withering sedge and other wintering natural objects. Since a knight is generally held to be a symbol of power and courage, the reader is alerted that something or someone quite powerful must be at work here.

That powerful someone turns out to be none other than "La Belle." After meeting with the knight, La Belle allows him to temporarily make her his object of affection. Quite coyly, she returns this affection with her looks of love and "sweet moan[s]" (19, 20). The consequences for the knight are disastrous. Caught in the snare of her beauty and wiles, the knight is blinded to everything other than La Belle.

When she takes him back to her "elfin grot," La Belle puts on a show of weakness -- "there she wept, and sigh'd full sore" -- which only makes the knight more enthralled (30). As soon as he feels that he again is the one in power -- he has just stopped her weeping with "kisses four" -- La Belle lulls him into to a sleep from which he will soon awake to find that she is gone, forever (32). Completely devastated by the loss of his "love," the knight is left to wander the "cold hill's side," alone, for the rest of his life (44).

As the figure of power in this poem, La Belle destroys more men than just the knight. These other men are seen in the brief dream the knight has before awakening to his loneliness, and they include kings, princes, and warriors, all men of power and all plural, indicating their large number. That La Belle could ruin the most powerful of men indicates that she is supernatural. Her power is one that surpasses the boundaries of death, for the pale kings, princes and warriors continue to be tortured by the memory of her after their death -- their "starv'd lips" crave her kiss and her love (41).

The poem, therefore, serves as a warning against the ultimate love. Like many of Keats' poems, including perhaps his most well known -- "Ode on a Grecian Urn" -- "La Belle" sits in the moment when conflict is crystallized. It reminds the reader that once one experiences quintessential love, all other experiences pale in comparison, and it asks the question, "Is it worth it?" The "death" of the knight and his powerful male companions, along with the desolation of nature, point directly to Keats' answer: No. For Keats, the sustained anticipation of an event is better than experiencing the event itself. Thus, "La Belle" can be read as advice from Keats to all (gender-specific) man-kind: the ultimate experience of love is not worth experiencing, for once one touches and completes that experience, there is nothing left but desolation and death.

This theme is remarkably similar to the theme implicit in many stories of Lilith. Recall, for instance, the text of a Nippur Bowl (illustration #2) as translated by Patai. In part, it read: "The evil Lilith, who causes the hearts of men to go astray and appears in the dream of the night and in the vision of the day. . . " (Patai 229, c.f. Chapter 1, section 6). The theme of "Lamia" was also quite similar, for it was Lycius' desire to hold onto the quintessential experience of love with Lamia (by marrying her) that set off the events which lead to his demise. Therefore, "La Belle" can be read as one of many poems which calls upon the ideology of "sustained anticipation" to show how the love of a woman as quintessentially "perfect" and beautiful as Lilith, Lamia, or the mysterious femme fatale known only as "La Belle" will always lead to one's destruction and death.

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