John Keats, who belonged to the younger group of Romantic poets, was born on October 31, 1795, Moorgate, London, United Kingdom, the son of a livery stable keeper. At the age of fifteen he was orphaned and taken out of school. He abandoned his medical profession to become a poet. In 1818 he met Fanny Brawne and fell in love with her. In the same year Endymion was published which was severely attacked by critics. Meanwhile Keats’s domestic worries reached their climax. His younger brother, John, died of tuberculosis. in 1819, a period of mental turmoil. He wrote in rapid succession ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, the great odes and sonnets and ‘Lamia’. In 1820 he himself fell victim to consumption. In September 1820 he went to Rome for medical treatment, but died there in February 1821. The epitaph on his tomb reads: ‘Here lies one whose name was written in water.’ But in his brief poetic career, spanning just five years, he produced some great works.
Keats was gifted with an exquisite and powerful poetic faculty. It would be hard to name anyone in the nineteenthcentury with natural gifts of genius and character superior to his. He proclaimed that ‘if Poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had betternot come at all.’ His poems explore the joy of imagination and beauty and their ability to transmute life and reality.
‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ tells the haunting story of a Knight who was enticed by a charming but soulless enchantress. She offered him some moments of supreme bliss which ultimately spelt his doom. She took him to a strange cave where he fell asleep and had a nightmare. When he awoke in the morning, he found no beloved and was left, lonely on the cold hillside where ‘no birds sing’.
The poem with its interest in knight-errantry is suffused with the spirit of chivalry, mystery, and the suernatural. The lovelorn knight-at-arms, who is smitten by the sight of the femme fatale, ‘a faery’s child’, the ‘elfin grot’, are all abundantly suggestive of Keats’s interest in mediaevalism.
The poem has been written in the form of a ballad. A ballad is usually a folk song, set to music and tells a story. As in the traditional folk ballad, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ also tells a stirring narrative tale of adventure in the form of questions and answers which makes it highly dramatic. Other ballad devices used are the use of quaint and archaic words and spellings, direct speech, repetitions, simple monosyllabic words, and the utmost economy in the use of language.
Written on 21 April 1819, this poem is an expression of Keats’s feelings about Fanny Brawne. The poem is in the form of a dialogue between two speakers, a stranger who questions the knight and the knight who responds to the queries.