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La Belle Dame sans Merci

In 1819, John Keats wrote the classic poem “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” a short work of twelve, four-line stanzas that is now considered to be a classic work of Romantic literature. La Belle Dame sans MerciKeats took the title, which translates from the French as “The Beautiful Lady without Mercy” from a 15th century work by Alain Chartier. The original French poem is a reflection of courtly love, some 100 stanzas of octaves, that describe the debate between a lady and her lover.

Keats’ work, in contrast to the 1424 original, is far more compact, but remains full of possible interpretations. Each of the stanzas employs three lines of iambic tetrameter, followed by a fourth diametric line. This technique, along with Keats’ ABCB rhyme scheme, allows each of the stanzas to feel like a self-contained unit. “La Belle Dame sans Mercy” is perhaps one of the most understated works of Romantic poetry. Keats never identifies either the lady or the knight, but he frames the entire work with the repetition of the final lines of the first stanza in the last stanza: “Though the sedge is withered from the lake/And no birds sing.”

Rachel Carson later used those two famous lines as an epigraph for her famous work Silent Spring, one of the earliest polemics in environmentalism. Overall “Le Belle Dame sans Mercy” remains highly popular and influential across popular culture, referenced in diverse settings as the film Coraline, Downton Abbey and Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

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