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.

Dive in: 
  1. What does the French title mean in English?
  2. In keeping with the ballad tradition, Keats doesn’t directly identify the speaker of the poem. What clues does the poem offer about the speaker? Who do you imagine the speaker to be?
  3. “La Belle Dame sans Merci” begins with a series of questions that animate the knight’s story. What answers does the poem provide?
  4. This poem is full of double entendres. Underline or copy down phrases that might have more than one meaning.
  5. The poem opens with two stanzas of questions. Who do you think is asking those questions of the knight? How could you shape your recitation to show the audience that there are two speakers in the poem?
  6. A ballad is a community song, typically with a narrative that elides detail. Write a ballad about a story important to a community you belong to. As a nod to the traditional ballad, write the poem in quatrains with the second and fourth line being shorter than lines one and three.

Useful Links

 

More on “La Belle Dame sans Merci”:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69748/john-keats-la-belle-dame-sans-merci

 

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