La Belle Dame sans Merci, John Keats, Analysis, Summary, Themes

A study guide for "La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad" by John Keats

The Poem

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

O 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 lullèd 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
Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd 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.


- The poem begins with a knight-at-arms who appears troubled and desolate. The surroundings are depicted as barren and devoid of life.
- The knight's appearance shows signs of distress, with a lily on his brow and a fading rose on his cheeks.
- The knight recalls meeting a beautiful lady in the meads who resembles a fairy. He creates adornments for her and she reciprocates with love and affection.
- The lady takes the knight to her Elfin grotto where she displays sadness and eventually lulls him to sleep.
- In his dream, the knight witnesses pale and death-like figures warning him about the lady's power over him.
- The knight awakens on a cold hillside, explaining why he remains there alone and desolate, even though the surroundings have changed.

Major Themes

- Love and Enchantment: The theme of love and enchantment is central to the poem. The knight becomes entranced by the beautiful lady but ultimately falls victim to her spell, resulting in his desolation.
- Nature and Decay: The imagery of withered plants, lack of birdsong, and the cold hillside reflects the theme of nature's decline and decay, mirroring the knight's emotional state.
- Illusion and Reality: The poem explores the blurred line between fantasy and reality. The lady's enchanting appearance masks her true intentions, leading the knight to a tragic outcome.
- Isolation and Desolation: The knight's solitude and pale loitering symbolize his isolation from society and his emotional desolation due to his encounter with the lady.
- Power and Manipulation: The lady's power over the knight and her ability to manipulate his emotions highlight the theme of control and its destructive consequences.

Critical Analysis


  • Lily and Fading Rose: The lily and fading rose on the knight's brow and cheeks symbolize his fading vitality and impending death.
  • Faery's Child: The lady's fairy-like nature symbolizes her enchantment and otherworldly allure.
  • Elfin Grot: The Elfin grot represents a realm of illusion and escapism, where the knight's senses are deceived.
  • Pale Kings and Princes: The pale kings and princes signify the victims of the lady's enchantment, emphasizing her power and destructive nature.


  • Imagery: Keats utilizes vivid and evocative imagery to portray the knight's emotional state and the desolate surroundings.
  • Figurative Language: Metaphors, such as the knight's appearance resembling a fading rose, enhance the poem's emotional depth.
  • Symbolism: The poem employs various symbols to convey deeper meanings and themes.


  • Ballad: The poem follows a ballad form with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.
  • Four Stanzas: The poem consists of four stanzas, each containing eight lines with an ABABCBCB rhyme scheme.
  • Repetition: The refrains "And no birds sing" and "Alone and palely loitering" emphasize the knight's desolation and the absence of life.

Sound devices

  • Alliteration: Keats employs alliteration, such as "palely loitering" and "faery's song," to create musicality and enhance the poem's rhythm.
  • Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds in words like "ail thee," "fever-dew," and "Elfin grot" adds to the poem's melodic quality.
  • Rhyme: The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme, contributing to its ballad-like structure and musicality.


  • Desolation: The knight's desolate state is depicted through his pale appearance and his choice to remain alone on the cold hillside.
  • Enchantment: The knight is initially enchanted by the lady's beauty and affection but eventually realizes the destructive nature of her spell.
  • Vulnerability: The knight's vulnerability and susceptibility to the lady's enchantment highlight the theme of power dynamics and manipulation.

Similar Poems & How they match

  • "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Both poems explore themes of isolation, love, and enchantment, as well as the consequences of breaking free from societal norms.
  • "Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti: Like "La Belle Dame sans Merci," this poem delves into themes of temptation, illusion, and the destructive power of desire.
  • "Annabel Lee" by Edgar Allan Poe: Both poems involve a narrator's encounter with a beautiful but otherworldly woman, leading to tragic consequences.
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