The poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" by John Keats is a ballad that expresses all of Keats' philosophies of happiness and the ideal world while, at the same time, being an enchanting love story on a simpler level. The poem contains his "pleasure thermometer" which leads to Keats' idea of happiness. The poem also contains Keats' vision of an ideal world where nothing ends or dies.
The poem begins with a narrator questioning a Knight at arms. The Knight is seen wandering around lifelessly and listlessly. Not only is he lifeless, but, around him, the whole forest is dying as well. "The sedge has withered from the Lake/ And no birds sing!" (Keats, p506 lines 3-4) The Knight is feverish, a word Keats uses to depict starvation and intense longing. The color on the Knight's cheeks is fading like the flora.
The Knight begins his narrative of his encounter with La Belle Dame. He describes her as a beautiful fairy with wild eyes. The inclusion of fairies and elves is important in Keats' poems. It helps depict the ideal world that Keats wrote and dreamed about.
Keats had a fear of endings. He wanted every pleasant sensation and every love affair to go on forever with the same intensity. There are two aspects of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" that expresses Keats' wish to immortalize fleeting happiness. One is the existence of fairies and elfin magic in the poem. The "Lady in the Meads," (Keats p507 line 13) is "a faery's child."(Keats p507 line 14) She sings "A faery's song" (line 24) and takes the Knight at arms to her "elfin grot." (line 29) In mythology fairies are immortal and eternally youthful and beautiful. They live in a realm known as Faerie, which is always summer and forever twilight. This magical land would appeal to Keats imagination as a perfect land, a land without death.
The other aspect that reflects Keats search for immortality is the connection between "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and Canto V from Dante's Inferno. Keats wrote in a letter to George Keats that he was delighted with Canto V in which Dante meets Paulo and Francesca. Keats tells George that he had a "delightful" dream that he was in Hell with those guilty of carnal sins. He is whirling around with all the sinners, as is the punishment in that area of Hell, with his lips pressed against those of a beautiful woman. He wrote that he was pressed against her "it seem'd for an age." (Kauvar122) Soon after this letter he wrote "On a Dream" and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The inspiration for both poems, according to Kauvar, had a lot to do with Canto V.
It is interesting that an experience that, in Dante, was supposed to be torture and was intended as a punishment for sinners is a "delightful experience" to Keats. The punishment is torture because is goes on forever. Paulo and Francesca are forever joined and endlessly whorled about; they have tired of each other, as they would have soon after their affair if they hadn't died. By being forced to commit the same act over...