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Poems

La Belle Dame sans Merci

Manuscript


I

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.


II

Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.


III

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.


IV

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.


V

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.


VI

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.


VII

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said -
'I love thee true'.


VIII

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.


IX

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed - Ah! woe betide! -
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.


X

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'

XI

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill's side.


XII

And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.





Published Version


I

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.


II

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.


III

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too.


IV

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.


V

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery's song.


VI

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look'd at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.


VII

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew;
And sure in language strange she said -
'I love thee true.'


VIII

She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she gazed, and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
So kiss'd to sleep.


IX

And there we slumber'd on the moss,
And there I dream'd - Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill side.


X

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried - 'La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!'


XI

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke, and found me here
On the cold hill side.

XII

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.

 


La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Walter Crane

La Belle Dame sans Merci, by John William Waterhouse 1893

La Belle Dame sans Merci, from Punch, 1 December 1920

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1926)

Frank Dicksee. La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Arthur Hughes. La Belle Dame Sans Merci

 

There are two versions of this poem. The original one written by Keats on April 21, 1819 differs from the published version, which appeared in Hunt's Indicator on May 20, 1819.

Keats imitates the ballad form. At the time he wrote the poem, Keats was concerned about his brother Tom, who was deceived in a romantic liaison. He was courting Fanny Brawne, whom he loved but whose friends disapproved of a possible marriage with Keats. Keats also recorded a dream in which he met a beautiful woman in a faery place, which turned out to house her pallid, enslaved lovers. Keats was acquainted with Spenser's account of the false Florimel, in which an enchantress impersonates a heroine to her boyfriend, and then vanishes.

"La Belle Dame Sans Merci" means "the beautiful woman without mercy." It's the title of an old French court poem by Alain Chartier (14thc). "Merci" in French means "thank you". Keats probably knew a current translation attributed to Chaucer.

Lines 1, 2, and 3 of each stanza have four feet and eight or nine syllables. Yet, the last line of each stanza has only two or three feet and only four or five syllables. This change calls attention to the short line.