At the centre of Keats’s imaginative achievement lie the two narrative poems, ‘Isabella’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and the ballad ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. What links these three poems is their attention to the concept of love and relationships between men and women. There are many parallels between ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, ‘Isabella’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, and owing to the fact that ‘Isabella’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ were written within months of one another, one might reasonably expect to find similarities of interest, theme or mood between them, however unique and distinctive each poem may be.Order now
Whilst ‘Isabella’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ are both narrative poems, ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’s “brief, restrained, ballad-like form” has been said to “raise different questions from those which arise in extended narrative.” What is noticeable about Keats’s work is that it can be related to inner conflicts, as love is intertwined with pain, and pleasure is intertwined with death, in the three poems ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci,’ ‘Isabella’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’.
‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, which translates as ‘The beautiful lady without mercy’, takes its title from an early 15th Century poem by Alain Chartier and is thought to have been inspired by the 17th Century ballad, ‘Thomas the Rhymer’. Although the poems share the same name they are remarkably different; whilst Chartier’s work belongs to the tradition of courtly love, Keats’s own version appears to antagonise the very concept courtly love. In short, the ballad has been read as the story of a seductive and treacherous woman who tempts men away from the real world and leaves them vulnerable, alone, their dreams unfulfilled and their lives cursed. Whilst the ballad is appears superficially simple, it is arguably one of Keats’s most difficult poems to fully explain and therefore is subject to many interpretations. The most common reading of the ballad is that of0 the ‘femme fatale’ figure who tempts her knight with beauty and ultimately causes his downfall.
The subject of ‘Isabella’ or ‘The Pot of Basil’ was based upon a 14th Century macabre tale in Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’, which tells of a love borne by Isabella, a damsel of Messina, for Lorenzo, a youth employed by her calculating merchant brothers. Although Keats’s dismissed the poem as “weak-sided” and being “too smokeable”, it was very popular with the Pre-Raphaelites and inspired several paintings, however, it was disliked by many 19th Century critics and has only recently been considered worthy of reconsideration. The original tale is though to have presented Keats with “a number of entrees into his own personal and psychological territory,” and to have spoken to him about his “worst fears about his origins, his parents’ wasted lives and his own anxieties about his identity and future as a poet.”
‘The Eve of St Agnes’ is based on the belief that on January 20th, a girl could see her future husband in her dreams if she performed certain rites on the eve of St Agnes, the patron saint of virgins. It was believed that if she went to bed without looking behind her and lay on her back with her hands behind her head, her future husband would appear in her dreams, kiss her and feast with her. The poem has been described as the closest Keats came to “achieving a satisfactory fusion between idealised secret love and mortal life” and the wealth of description within ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ has meant that like ‘Isabella’, the poem was a favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. Dealing with the issue of ardent young love in a hostile adult world has caused many comparisons of the poem to Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with the two lovers being the children of sworn enemies, Porphyro’s stealing into Madeline’s home and the “old beldame” resembling the character of the Nurse.
Within ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ there are two voices; namely a questioner and the knight, to whom the questions are directed at. The poem opens with the unnamed questioner talking to the knight-at-arms who is said to be “alone and palely-loitering”. It is this description of the knight along with his wandering alone in a desolate landscape where the “sedge has wither’d from the lake” and “no birds sing” that immediately implies his solitary feelings. Arguably, the wasteland that the knight finds himself on can be said to correspond to his psychological state.
Keats’s use of nature imagery in the first two stanzas work effectively, first, in setting the mood for the lonely and pondering knight, and second, to juxtapose the air of solitude that the reader is greeted with by referring to images of harvest and the autumn. The knight appears weak and is described as having a “lilly on thy brow” with “anguish moist and fever dew”, and it is in the knight’s attempt to describe to his questioner that the reader first becomes suspicious of the lady whom he encountered. Described as a “faery’s child”, speaking in “language strange” and having “wild wild eyes”, the reader comes to understand that she is some sort of supernatural being.
The reader learns that the lady feeds the knight “roots of relish sweet”, “honey wild” and manna dew”, which not only denotes her intoxication of him, but also links to the scene in Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ where Titania, the fairy queen, feeds the mortal Bottom. She takes the knight to her “elfin grot” where he shuts her eyes “with kisses four.” What is paradoxical about his closing of her eyes is that she is then said to “lull” him asleep, which suggests her potentially treacherous nature, lulling him into a false sense of security. Her responsibility for the knight’s circumstance is confirmed by the dream he has of “pale kings and princes too” who cry “La Belle Dame sans Merci Hath thee in thrall!” His dream is to realise that he was just another one of the many men who have been tricked by ‘La Belle Dame.’ He wakes a changed man in a changed world, as the bleak “cold hill side” juxtaposes the previous images of passion he shared with his lady.
The brief affair between the lovers in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ is ambiguous owing to the fact that it is not explicit as to who seduced who, but also since their communication is implicit, the reader can never be sure of who was in control. After actively pursuing her, the knight and his lady change roles several times. He claims her by making a “garland for her head” and “bracelets too” and she reciprocates by looking at him “as she did love.” This is the knights interpretation of how his lady feels, however, this line is ambiguous in that the reader cannot be sure if it means that the lady looked as him when they were making love or if she looked at him as thought she loved him. He then takes charge by setting her upon his “pacing steed”, however it is she who feeds him and later leads him to her secret hideaway.