Close Reading: La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Looking in detail at how a poem works (either out of copyright or else with the author’s permission). Starting with an old favourite.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (John Keats, 1819)

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
Hath thee 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.

Formally, this is a ballad. The stanza form is slightly unusual (a traditional ballad stanza has stress counts of 4/3/4/3 whereas this is 4/4/4/3) but it’s unmistakably plugging into the medieval ballad tradition of knights and quests and wild magic.

It is also a spell. If all poems exist on a spectrum with music at one end and algebra at the other (with newspaper prose close to the algebra end and Yeats at his least restrained close to the music end) then this is definitely down with the curses and incantations. Listen to the complex weave of sound effects in the first stanza:

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

There’s a melodic line of L-sounds and long vowels (“ail-alone-pale-loiter-lake”) interlaced with the shorter sound-phrases of “loiter/wither”, “O-alone-no” and  “wither/sing”. We are being lulled into another realm, gently hypnotized and led astray by the poem. We don’t know where it’s taking us, but it sounds too beautiful to ignore.

You can trace a kind of assonance-fugue through the rest of the poem: O/woe, arms/harvest, haggard/granary/anguish, lily/withereth, faery/hair, child/light/eyes, bracelets/fragrant/made/pacing, set/else/bend/relish, roots/dew, honey/love, etc. (and that’s without counting any of the stanza full-rhymes). In parallel with this there’s a similar pattern of alliteration.

By this point the music has bewitched us so much that we’ve forgotten to ask who’s speaking (it doesn’t matter) or what exactly is going on (not as straightforward as it first seems).

This kind of intense sound-play takes years of practice to get right: slightly too much and the assonance sounds ridiculous; slightly too little and the poem comes across as an imposter lacking conviction (like someone with no natural authority trying to control a room by shouting self-consciously). But when it works – when it’s truly congruent – it can mesmerize.

So far, so melodious. It’s undeniable that “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is a master-class in sound patterning, but the poem’s brilliance is about more than well-judged alliteration and vowel chords. At the same time that the music is lulling us into the otherworld and saying let down your guard, something else is unnerving the hell out of us. Not a big slavering monster in the foreground but something distant, something not quite right. A tiny copy of ourselves banging on the soundproof glass in a futile dumb-show to get our attention. Wake up: you’re in mortal danger. And that unnerving is all in the rhythm.

For me, what makes this one of the greatest poems in the language is the way the sound-play and the rhythm pull in opposite directions: one towards harmony and the other towards horror. We’re probably not aware of this consciously when we read/hear the poem, but there’s a difference between enjoying the trick and knowing how the trick is done. All we’re aware of is the tug of supernatural unease.

But since in this context we’re interested in how poems achieve their effects, here’s how the trick is done:

We’ve already seen that the poem uses a slightly unusual version of a ballad stanza with a 4/4/4/3 stress pattern. What’s more unusual still is the way many of the final 3-stress lines are arranged.

Stresses don’t like each other very much. They behave like the positive poles of two magnets: it’s not easy to push them directly next to each other without slipping some unstressed syllables in between to calm things down – which is why a metrical foot of two adjacent stresses (called a spondee) is unusual in English verse.

Seven of the poem’s 12 stanzas have something rarer still, with three adjacent stresses in the final line (called a molossus). This is unnatural in English speech and a very difficult thing to pull off even once, let alone five times in the same poem (two of the lines are repeated in another stanza to make up the seven instances).

Let’s go back to that first stanza again:

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

We have to slow down on the fourth line and give each of the final three syllables its full emphasis, however odd that feels: “And no. Birds. Sing.” The same goes for “made sweet moan”, “cold hill side” (x2), “love thee true”, “thee in thrall” and the final reprise of “no birds sing”. The rest of the stanza gets us comfortable with a natural rhythm then the fourth line warps it into something unworldly.

Unless we’re metrical obsessives or have had this pointed out to us before, we probably don’t notice what’s causing this. But we certainly notice the feeling of unease that the poem gives off.

Keats springs another, subtler metrical effect on us at the end of the poem to reinforce our sense of disquiet. The poet James Methven and I once spent several hours over several bottles of wine unpicking every syllable of the poem’s metrics, and came to the conclusion that the worst unnerving didn’t come from virtuoso triple-stress effects but from something much simpler.

The end of the poem repeats the beginning almost verbatim. Almost, but with one small change (actually two if we count the shift from “has” to “is”, but that’s achieving a different effect). Keats has added an extra unstressed syllable to the penultimate line:

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

“The sedge” has become “Though the sedge”. The change looks immaterial, but try saying both stanzas aloud. One tiny syllable (albeit picking up the closing vowel music of “alone/though/no”) has thrown everything else ever-so-slightly out of alignment. Something is wrong in the world, but so deep and so well hidden that we can’t see it to name it.

There’s a lot more to say about this poem: its choice of words and diction, use of repetition, strange dramatic structure, why the version above outplays the Examiner version, and so on. But there’s enough in its sound and rhythm to keep us enchanted for a long time.


Share Button