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Critical Analysis of ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1177
  • Category: Poetry

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The difficult aspect of reading D’avanzo’s text was putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. Like a jigsaw, it is only once you manage to fit it all together that you can come to an informed view of the whole picture. Also, each section or point is not able to stand by itself. All the parts interlock and must be thought of as a single entity to understand the analysis made by D’avanzo. However, after several re-readings, I now feel able to tackle a critical analysis of my own, augmented by what he has raised in his article. I will attempt to convey a full understanding of both D’avanzo’s article and Keats’ poem. I feel the challenge in writing this essay is to do so in a way that is not disjointed.

A strangely appealing aspect of ‘La Belle Dame’ is that Keats began the poem with the end of a story. In this respect is similar to modern “Who done it?” novels, in which one popular technique is to start by revealing the murderer, then working through the book showing the process of the story leading up to that point. This method has a very unique impact to it, and in my opinion strengthens the descriptions in the first stanza. For example, the words ‘alone’, ‘palely’ and ‘withered’ all describe the mood of the poem. D’avanzo has a very fitting summing up of Keats’ first stanza, “The poet begins…with a stark picture of a dying season….anguished and deathly pale.” However, this is a look at the ‘knight of arms’ after an event. Keats has created intrigue here, as he makes us want to know what has happened to make this knight so downcast and dreary.

Stanza two begins with just that, “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,”. Another point to note is that Keats has cleverly added to the intrigue by suggesting something is missing, or conveys emptiness, by having a short line at the end of every stanza. It disrupts what would otherwise be a smooth rhythm. It is not until stanza four that the ‘main story’ begins, in the style of a flashback. He met an extremely beautiful lady one day in the meads, and obviously got to know her. He says she is “a faery’s child”. This is a way of emphasizing her beauty through giving her a supernatural identity. In reference to this passage in the poem, D’avanzo says that this description of the faery-child is more significant. He explains that curly hair is indicative of Apollo, the God of poetry. Why is this worth noting?

Imagination, and carrying secondary connotations of beauty, fertility, youth and vigour, is transferred to La Belle Dame. She becomes in this poem the female presider of poetry.

(D’avanzo on La Belle Dame sans Merci)

There are several points to be taken from this passage. The first and most important one is what Mario has made of La Belle Dame. Keats’ preoccupation with the imagination is personified and embodied in this lady. Secondly, D’avanzo says that Apollo’s hair is associated with controlling the imagination. I feel it necessary to comment further on Keats’ own fascination with imagination. He thought it to be impossible to fully harness this God-given (Apollo-given) ability to write most excellent poems. It is something very special to him, and something I feel he was not so much preoccupied with, as obsessed. This indescribable beauty is irresistible to man, and he feels compelled to control it.

The imagination’s power is displayed through this lady, as she seduces the knight-at-arms. He is made to carry out tasks for her, and in return she will remain with him longer. In my opinion what Keats is saying here is that to ‘meet’ the imagination, you must be diligent in your commitment to poetry, give it your undivided attention and even then it may be by chance that you manage to catch a glimpse of it. It reveals itself to you; you cannot find it or search it out. However, once you do see it, you can’t help but look at it, it consumes you, and you are drawn to it.

We see that the knight places her on his steed. I fully agree with D’avanzo, when he states that this action is conveying the idea of Keats (the knight-at-arms) trying to control the imagination; the regular, methodically pace of the horse trying to control the somewhat unpredictable, supernatural being. We see that La Belle Dame, at least for a short while, ‘sing’. This to me is the imagination ‘opening the floodgates’ as it were into Keats’ mind, overwhelming him.

However, the first sign that things may soon go downhill is in stanza five, with the ominous phrase, “And made sweet moan.” This juxtaposition of the two words describes an imbalance, perhaps. He is saying that this relationship is bittersweet. A possible reason for this is that the imagination, the faery, knows that Keats will be unable to keep her with him for much longer. Caught in a deep trance, “intoxicated by manna-dew, honey, and her fairy song,” the knight hears protestations to his love for her in ‘language strange.’ D’avanzo believes this is because Keats himself believed the imaginative frenzy to be truly unfathomable to the poet, and this leads her to lull him asleep and leave him.

The loss felt by the poet is brought to the reader by this return to the scene of the first three stanzas. The transition from the warm, sweet images in the middle stanzas, to the cold harsh hillside is astonishingly sharp, and this gives me an empty feeling, and an uneasy one. He awakes not in a flowery meadow, with honey wild and manna-dew, but on a cold hillside. People bring it to his attention that he was a captive of La Belle Dame, in slavery to her. He then closes by saying this Is the reason why he canot bring himself to leave. He loiters alone. Again we hear this fantastic line, which describes a lack of harmony, a lack of normality, and a subdued state of nature:

And no birds sing.

In conclusion, I personally found this to be a dark poem, and somewhat depressing in that my pity went out to Keats, who continues to serve poetry, even though he believes the imagination that he so craves is unobtainable. It is one of the better Keats poems I have read, and I should think if I had written such a work I would indeed be extremely proud. His combination of descriptions and layout, of metaphors, similes and tone, is unlike any other. As regards Mario D’avanzo, without his insight I do not think I could have understood this poem to its fullest. That is what gave me pleasure as a reader, to comprehend an artist and follow his path, as it gave me the opportunity to override the limitations of time and connect with one of the great English poets, John Keats.

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