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18 Oct

La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats

La Belle Dame sans Merci (Pearls from the Deep)

John Keats

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 

Hath thee 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.


Comprehension Questions

Section A

A1. Why is the knight asked, “O What can ail thee”?

The knight is asked thus because the narrator finds him alone and palely loitering. He looks tired and ill and appears very sad. The poem in fact opens with this question. The narrator repeats the question in the second stanza as well.

A2. What changes in nature suggest that autumn is ending and winter is around?

The sedge has withered from the lake and no birds sing. The squirrels have filled up their granary for winter and the harvest has been completed. All these indicate that it is the end of autumn and the beginning of winter.

A3. How does the poet use flower imagery to convey the mood of the knight?

On the knight’s brow, the narrator sees an “anguish moist and fever dew” lily, illustrating the depressing and sickly state of the knight. The rose on his cheek is fading and withering, suggesting that his romance is over. (Earlier, when he was in love with her, he had made flower garland and bracelets for her.)

A4. At first sight how does the lady in the meads look like?

At first sight the lady in the meads looks like a faery’s child. She is very beautiful, has long hair, light foot and wild eyes. The knight falls for her grace and physical charms.

A5. What does the knight gift the lady?

The knight gifts her flower garland and bracelets. He makes a garland for her head and decorates her (“fragrant zone”) with flowers.

A6. What does the knight see all day long?

Infatuated by the physical charms of the lady, he sets her on his horse. He sees nothing all day long except the lady who bends sideways and sings a faery’s song. Clearly he has forgotten everything else after his romantic meeting with the lady.

A7. What does the lady find for the knight when he meets her in the meads?

When they meet in the meads, the lady finds sweet roots for the knight. She offers him wild honey and dew-like manna.

A8. What does the lady tell the knight?

When they meet in the meads, in a strange language the lady tells the knight that she truly loves him. Though the language is strange, the knight seems to understand her because he is trapped in her magical charm. Alternately, because of his infatuation towards her, the knight hears what he loves to hear.

A9. What does the knight see in his dreams at the elfin grot?

As the lady lulls him asleep at the elfin grot, the knight sees a horrible dream. He sees death-pale kings, princes and warriors warning him that the beautiful lady without mercy has entrapped him. As they cry out the warning, he sees their starved lips gaping wide. 


Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, St Goege's College Aruvithura

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