Here’s a full analysis of the poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ including vocabulary, context, language techniques, and structure / form devices. It’s great for students taking it for GCSE or IGCSE on exam boards such as Edexcel, AQA, WJEC, OCR, CIE (Cambridge), CCEA, and Eduqas. However, it’s also tailored towards exploring some of the higher concepts required for A-Level and beyond.
If you like this resource, take a look at our other Edexcel IGCSE Poetry analyses here.
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.
Sedge — a type of grassy/leafy plant that grows by water.
Haggard — dishevelled / rough looking / old or tired looking.
Grot — grotto, a cave where humans or animals live.
Manna-dew — the food/nectar of the gods, said to be delicious and edible.
In thrall — under a spell / enthralled / captivated / under the power of — ‘thrall’ has connotations of menace, evil, power, monstrosity (archaic — slave, servant, captive).
Sojourn — to stay / hang around / leisurely temporary stop in travel — connotations of staying briefly, leisurely acts such as trips and holidays.
Gloam — the time of day after sunset- going dark.
In the first three stanzas, there is a sad and lonely knight who is ‘loitering’ on a hillside, who is encountered by a traveller (the speaker) who asks him what is wrong. The knight is visibly sick, sweating and turning pale.
In the fourth stanza, the narrative voice switches to the lonely knight, he explains that he met a lively and wild-looking woman with animalistic-seeming behaviour, seems natural but would be feared- long hair, not neat, wild eyes, who is pitied by the knight because she seems to be in a distressed state, as a knight’s purpose is to protect vulnerable people - a knight in shining armour.
5th stanza - he is captivated and is courting the lady in the meads- dressing her in wild jewellery to mirror her wild character.
6th stanza - can only see her because he is so focused on her / her singing and is oblivious to his surroundings.
7th, 8th, and 9th stanzas: the narrator is further captivated by the lady, she takes him back to her ‘elfin grot’ and is under her spell and is not thinking clearly, and then wakes up and it seems as though he has dreamt it.
11th stanza - opening mouths as if to warn the knight, but he wakes up to be another victim of the woman.
12th stanza - a repetition of the first stanza- the knight is trapped- cyclical structure
La belle dame sans merc - the lady without mercy - only known by people who know french - people don’t realise she is dangerous/evil.
As though other knights and noble men have been caught before him- other victims of the lady- ‘pale kings and princes…pale warriors’
Anaphora — the first two stanzas are spoken in a voice different from the knight’s and ask ‘what can ail thee’, emphasising the loneliness of the knight.
Pronoun shift — the second person in the first two stanzas, then first person as the knight tells his tale.
Speaker/Voice — the speaker of the poem directly addresses the knight and asks in a concerned tone about his condition, perhaps suggesting that the speaker is a woman.
Harvest is done-must be in October/November when it is cold, and no birds sing suggests a lack of joy and happiness-barren and cold.
Skipped seasons to winter-plants in full bloom in summer are shown to be withered, meads= grassland and swamp-shows time of year, SYMBOLIC because shows his own spiritual beliefs and feelings.
Lillies - symbol of death, restored innocence of a person’s soul after death- they return to a state of innocence- either symbol of Lilly on the forehead or a Lilly- shows he is in a ghost-like state, deathly state.
Red cheeks (‘fading rose’) and less pale complexion show more life flowing through someone.
‘garland’ and ‘bracelets’ that the knight makes from the wild surroundings — presumably out of plants and flowers — imitate a courtship ritual, where gifts are exchanged between potential suitors.
Volta — stanza 11 is a volta, a turning point in the poem — until this moment, his encounter with the lady has been enchantingly pleasant, but when he falls asleep his visions turn to images of horror and create a darker mood / tone. At this moment we realise the lady was tricking him all along.
Semantic Field — of sickness (perhaps lovesickness) ‘haggard’ ‘pale’ ‘alone’ ‘sojourn’ ‘lulled’ ‘anguish’ ‘moist’ suggests that the knight is in a state of constant suffering, and that the other men before him are in the same situation.
Cyclical Structure — shows that the cycle of what the lady does is neverending, and the knight feels trapped in his mind (although not physically trapped)/ his soul is trapped because the lady stole his happiness-unsuccessful relationship.
Caesura- ‘ — Ah! woe betide!’- an interruption as though the memory is so shocking that he has to pause before carrying on with the sad part of the story, signals a disruption in the flow of the narrative which creates suspense before the sad ending.
Keats is considered a ‘Romantic poet’, who dealt with common themes/ ideas — nature, extremes of emotion, symbolism, god/religion as an extension of worshipping nature, love, death.
Written in 1819.
Hair that was loose and not in a neat bun was a sign of wildness/insanity.
Appearance reflects people’s inner personalities - theory of physiognomy.
Chivalry - the medieval idea of male politeness-treating women well, honourable, educated, etc.
Men superior to women because they worked and were educated, and so had a duty to look after women.
The woman in the poem disrupts the idea of chivalry because she is smarter than the knight and tricks/manipulates him.
Keats had a tragic love life himself-fell in love with a woman but couldn’t marry her because he had less money than her-was socially unacceptable-thinks the idea of chivalry is outdated and inaccurate, shows this in poem-men can also be sensitive and are not always superior to women.
- Masculinity / Femininity > male vs female power
- Hubris (excessive pride / arrogance)
- Villains / Victims
- Femme Fatale
- Tragic heroes
You can also download the complete analysis of 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' by following this link.