What folklorist Katherine Briggs has called “one of the most beautiful fairy poems in the English language”, and William Morris “the germ” from which all the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites sprung, seems to have been written on 28th April 1819. Keats included it in a packet of letters addressed to his brother George and his brother’s wife Georgina, who had moved to a settlement in America the year before. Keats wrote regular letters to the couple, including among them finished and unfinished verse, and would add to the pile till he could find someone to deliver the lot, rather than sending one at a time. The bundle containing “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” was begun on 14th February, with a complaint that he was finding his latest composition, the never-to-be-completed Hyperion, difficult, and that he must wait for “spring to rouse me up a little” so he could continue. “I know not why Poetry and I have been so distant lately”, he writes in March. The bundle continued to accrue until 3rd May, by which time he’d resumed writing poetry, though not Hyperion. His poems contained in the bundle included a playful tale in which a princess wants to show her latest finery to the fairies and, finding them not at home, instructs her dwarf to open the fairies’ door and let her in anyway; the dwarf refuses, saying he was a handsome prince till he made the mistake of entering the fairy realm unbidden, so she lets herself in, and isn’t heard from again. There was also a mock-Spenserian verse, a sonnet on Dante’s damned lovers Paolo and Francesca, and a “Chorus of Fairies”. Fairies, or faery generally, ran throughout Keats’s poetry, as Freudian critic Maureen Duffy writes:
“With Keats faery isn’t simply a convenient idiom… it is a mode of the imagination so natural to him that he can’t write poetry in any other way.”
Keats took the title “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” from a French poem of one hundred 8-line stanzas written in 1424 by Alain Chartier, and translated into English around 1526 (by Richard Ros, though for a long time it was thought to be by Chaucer). And he had in fact referred to the title already, in his long poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes”, composed earlier the same year. “St. Agnes” is a Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of Porphyro seeking to win the love of Madeline, who belongs to a rival family house. Madeline has performed the rites and prayers of St Agnes’s Eve, by which a woman is granted a dream of her true love. Porphyro sneaks into her bedchamber, so he can make it seem he is the prayed-for vision. To wake her, he picks up a lute and plays Chartier’s “La Belle Dame”, perhaps hoping its tale of a knight who dies when scorned by a heartless woman will warn Madeline against the cruelty of rejection and the risks of loneliness.
Keats’s own “Belle Dame” owes more to fantastical incarnations of the cruel-hearted woman, including Nimue, who imprisons Merlin in Le Morte Darthur, the fairy queen in folk ballads of Tamlin and Thomas the Rhymer, and, most of all, the story of the Enchantress Phaedria, who lures a knight to an island, woos him to sleep, then abandons him, in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was a volume of The Faerie Queene that set Keats on the path to becoming a poet himself.)
But there may have been more concrete, biographical origins for Keats’s poem. His life had its share of women he’d lost or longed for (Andrew Motion, in his biography of Keats, says the poet’s relationships with women had a “pattern of possession and abandonment”). This included his mother, who died when he was fourteen, and his latest amour, Fanny Brawne, whom he either couldn’t commit to, or wouldn’t commit to him, sickly and impecunious poet that he was. But the most relevant episode from Keats’s life seems to have been the death of his younger brother Tom the previous December. Looking through Tom’s papers, Keats came across letters purporting to be from a woman, “Amena”, who said she loved Tom, and who Tom at one point seems to have gone to France in search of. But she was, Keats realised, an elaborate joke by Tom’s friend Charles Wells. In those days, it was a common belief that intense emotion could kill you, and Keats was convinced this futile search contributed to his brother’s death.
There are two versions of Keats’s poem. The one in the letter to his brother George is the earlier version, whereas the first published version appeared in Leigh Hunt’s journal The Indicator in May 1820, where it was signed not Keats but “Caviare”. There are only a few differences between the two, one of which is that in the first verses of the early version, the lost and forlorn victim is called a “knight-at-arms”, while in the published version he’s a “wretched wight”. Although the published version sounds more poetic, the earlier version feels more concrete, but perhaps one of the reasons Keats changed that “knight-at-arms” is that the invented “Amena” addressed her supposed lover Tom as her “knight”, too. Perhaps Keats felt this veiled reference to his brother’s death was too raw for him to publish, even under a pseudonym.
In the end, it was the earlier version of the poem that became the accepted version, as it was included in the Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats (1848), edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, and that was how it was discovered by the next generation of Keats’s admirers.
In the poem, the last thing this knight-at-arms remembers is balmier days, when he met a lady, “a fairy’s child”, who took him to her elfin grotto, lulled him asleep, and abandoned him, whereon he woke after a vision of “pale kings and princes too,//Pale warriors, death-pale were they all” who had been the fairy’s woman’s previous victims. But is “victims” the right word? What exactly happens in this elfin grotto? In the revised, first published version of the poem, the lady merely gazes at her “wretched wight” and sighs deep, which makes you wonder if, though she regrets what she’s about to do, she’s intent on casting her spell on this young man anyway. But in the earlier version “she wept and sighed full sore”, making it seem as though she’s too taken up with her own sorrow to love this young knight, or is genuinely helpless to prevent what’s about to happen. When he sleeps, and wakes to find himself alone and now in winter, it could be she hasn’t cast a spell on him at all, but he has somehow been infected by her sadness. More than any other difference between the two versions of the poem, the revision of this line feels like Keats trying to make his poem make sense — make the lady into a properly wicked enchantress — whereas the earlier version, in which both knight and lady are sucked into an overpowering and ensorcelling sadness, is the stranger and more evocative idea.
So what is this “fairy child”, this lady who attracts a knight only to woo him to sleep and have him wake, seasons later, on a cold hill side, bereft and alone? Robert Graves, commenting on the poem in The White Goddess, found in Keats’s “Belle Dame” another incarnation of his own dangerous muse:
“…the Belle Dame represented Love, Death by Consumption (the modern leprosy) and Poetry all at once… She was Death, but she granted poetic immortality to the victims whom she had seduced by her love-charms.”
The muse of Romantic poetry was both inviting and dangerously addictive. She was Keats’s “Lamia” (written soon after “Belle Dame”) and Coleridge’s Life-in-Death from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. She could be laudanum, consumption, imagination, passion, the brief fiery brightness of genius, and poetry itself. This seems even more underlined for Keats, whose poetic muse took the form of a fairy lady because he was awakened to his own poetic ambition quite literally by a faerie queen — Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. In the light of this, it’s interesting to read his comment in the bundle of letters sent to George and Georgina where he hoped spring would bring with it a renewed poetic inspiration, as “La Belle Dame” begins with its knight lost and forlorn in winter, when “sedge has withered from the lake,//And no birds sing”. The abandoned knight-at-arms is also, then, a wintered poet, bereft of his muse’s inspiring presence, in need of spring. (And when that spring comes, it’s not a heartening warmth, but a poetically-inspiring sorrow.)
The poem’s power, I think, comes from its being such a distilled version of a tale with so many potential meanings. And this fits perfectly with Keats’s poetical ideal, his determination to stand back from the central image of his poem and let it be what it is without any attempt to interpret it. He called this:
“Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…”
Coleridge and Keats — the more sickly and imaginative of the Romantics, though of different generations — met just the once, while Coleridge was out for a walk with another (unnamed) man, rambling endlessly over many subjects as he apparently did. Keats joined in (or at least listened in, as Coleridge doesn’t seem to have needed much by way of responses) then left, but immediately returned. What happened next was reported in a collection of anecdotes about Coleridge, supposedly in his own words, Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Keats came back and said:
“Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!” — “There is death in that hand,” I said to —, when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly.”
Keats died in 1821 of tuberculosis, as had, and would, most of his family. (Even his brother George and sister-in-law Georgina, out in America, did not escape.) His reputation really caught fire with the Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian poets of their age, such as Tennyson, Swinburne, and William Morris, and with painters such as John William Waterhouse, Walter Crane and Arthur Hughes.
I think that, as a fantasy poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is significant for the way it allows its central situation to be whatever the reader wants it to be. In it, fantasy breaks from allegory into pure poetry, and thus gains a new and ageless power to enchant those with a fairy turn of mind.