La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad

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.

POL participants and judges: in this poem's third-to-last stanza, recitations that include “Hath thee in thrall!” or “Thee hath in thrall!” are both acceptable.

Source: Selected Poems (Penguin Classics, 1988)

Writing Ideas

1. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is a ballad—one of the oldest poetic forms in English. Ballads generally use a bouncy rhythm and rhyme scheme to tell a story. Think about an event that has happened to you recently and try to tell it in ballad form. 

2. The poem is a narrative of an encounter that entails both pleasure and pain. Think of a person you have met in your life who has brought you both joy and unhappiness. Write a poem that describes your first encounter and, like Keats, the moment you realized they had you “in thrall.”

3. Take the final word from each line of Keats’s poem (arms, loitering, lake sing). Use them as the first words of lines to your own poem, which either recreates the mood of Keats’s poem, or creates a totally opposite mood. 

4. Make an erasure of Keats’s poem. Cross out words or entire phrases to make a new poem “within” or “underneath” the real one. 

Discussion Questions

1. Keats wrote in a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse, “A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no Identity.” Keats thought poets should remove their egos from their poetry, to better allow for poetry to happen unfiltered by personality. What similarities do you detect between the Knight in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and Keats’s idea of a poet?

2. Go through and circle all of the poem’s adjectives. What do you notice about them? Why does Keats use so many? What effects do they create? What happens when you read the poem without them?

3. There are a few voices talking in this poem. Go through the poem and figure out who is speaking, and when: what does each voice say, and not say? What is the effect of having multiple voices frame the poem? Who speaks and who doesn’t?
4. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is a kind of fairy-tale gone awry. What are the “fairy-tale” elements in the poem (words, themes, emotions) and how do they relate to other poems you have read? You might compare this poem’s content to “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, or its structure to “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Teaching Tips

1. Use “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” to do a brief introduction to meter and prosody. Ask your students to recite the refrain of a popular song, or one that gets stuck in their heads easily. Pull different kinds of metrical feet—anapest, dactyl, iamb, trochee, spondee—from the lyrics they give you (having a few songs in mind yourself may be helpful). Emphasize that these names just describe the system of stressed syllables already inherent in English. Go through the different kinds of metrical feet with your students. Tell them they are going to play “Meter Madlibs,” and then hand out a few stanzas of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” with some of the words removed. On the board, write down the kind of foot that belongs in each blank space. “O what can ail thee ______________”[dactyl], for example. Have students work in groups to fill in the blank with their own words.

2. Have students try to map the events of  “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” on two timelines—one that shows the events as they happen in “real” time, and the other as Keats relays them in “poem” time. Talk about how narrative works in poetry and fiction. Why do poets and authors play with sequence and chronology in their work? What might it tell us about how we experience time ourselves?

3. The rhyme scheme in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is consistent, but not exact. In groups have students go through and circle all the exact rhymes, put a square around all the slant rhymes, and underline the words that don’t seem to rhyme at all. Review the different kinds of rhymes as a class. Then form a rhyme circle. Make whatever stipulations you want (no exact rhymes; only slant), say a word, and go around the circle using different kinds of rhyme on that word.

More Poems by John Keats