Thursday, 26 March 2015

John Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci : A Critical Analysis

La Belle Dame sans Merci is a ballad, a medieval genre revived by the romantic poets. As a ballad was usually written to be sung or recited by the common people, its very form demands a simple and straightforward narrative in an equally simple language.  Though the poem offers an apparently simple story of a Knight abandoned by his lady love, a very common motif of many love lyrics in English literature, the poem is full of doubts and misgivings about the nature of love spoken of here. Moreover a feeling of frustration pervades the entire poem. Behind this simple narrative structure the poem is highly symbolic in portraying love as a self-destructive, self-consuming passion (as Shakespeare has done in many of his sonnets) with suggestive images. The poem can be also taken as an illustration of the unbridgeable gap between the ideal and the real, the ideal mystic world of the elfish lady and the desolate reality of the Knight.
            The frame narrator of the poem asks the Knight at arms the cause of his present state of misery. Then the knight proceeds to tell his sad story of love. He met a lady “Full beautiful—a faery’s child” in the meadow and fell in love with her. Her wild eyes made a hypnotic spell on him. While admiring the lady he made a garland for her. The lady sang an extremely enchanting song, a “faery’s song”. She treated him with sweet roots, honey and nourishing dew. She reacted with great love. Though the Knight does not know the strange language of the lady, he was sure of her confession of her love for him: "And sure in language strange she said—/ “I love thee true.” These lines cast doubt upon this mysterious woman and her nature of love. It also indicates that the Knight’s assertion comes only out of his intense passion for the lady. Then the lady takes the knight to her faery cave and weeps and sighs. The reason of her unhappiness may be her realisation of the fact that they can never be united as they are from different worlds. Otherwise it may be the pretension of a mischievous elf. The knight soothes her agony with kisses. Then the knight falls asleep by the magic spell and horrific dream follows. The pale Knights and warriors come in his dream and declare that he has been enslaved by the beautiful woman without mercy. It appears from their “death-pale” faces that they also been cheated and betrayed by the lady. He wakes up to find him “…on the cold hill’s side”, symbolising a life devoid of warmth of love. This is the reason why the knight at arms explains that he is here when it is extremely cold and nobody even no animal is seen outside.
                  The setting of the poem is the coming of winter suggested by the images like withered sedge, lake without birds, saturated granary of the squirrel and empty field after harvest etc. The cold, desolate and empty condition of the environment at the coming of winter reflects the inner world of the knight which is lonely and devoid of the warmth of love. Lily which signifies death, “anguish moist and fever dew” that suggest the feverish death -like condition of the knight and  the “fading rose” that signifies dying spirit of the knight are all negative images that helps to build the gloomy atmosphere of the poem. At the end the cold hill’s side where the knight roams symbolises the knight’s own life devoid of warmth love.
             Written in the traditional ballad stanzas of four lines each, the form seems to be perfect for stating the unhappy existence of the knight. The sad undertone, the mournful elegiac note is obviously as well as effectively carried on through the free flowing movement of the stanzas.
                Keats as we know is famous for being the poet of negative capability, the capability of being in mysteries, uncertainties and in doubt. That is why in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, he comes down to reality after having flight into the realm of the Nightingale, the ideal existence for him where everything exists in perfect order. In La Belle Dame sans Merci the Knight too meets with hard reality after flight to the realm of supreme satisfaction in love.

             Keats as Romantic poet shows a love medievalism. In many of his poem he idealised the  Middle Age. The Eve of St. Agnes is such an example. Though the poem is shaped around a series of intense contrast of cold and warm, of dark and white, of hardness and softness, of cruelty and love and though sometime it appears the negative images make stronger sway on the paradigm of the poem, yet the hero and heroine Porphyro and Madeline reach the destination for which they crave. The end shows uncertainties as to the future of these two, but we can never doubt the oneness of heart and the warmth of love of the hero and the heroine. But the present poem deconstructs the Romantic assumption concerning the aspect of medievalism.

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