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Medieval sources for Keatsian creation in La Belle Dame sans Merci.

Critics have identified a considerable array of possible sources for Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci including, but not limited to, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and Canto 5 of Dante's Inferno. Ballads, such as Thomas the Rhymer and the kind of popular ballad collected by Percy and later by Child, have also been cited for their influence on Keats's ballad. One commonly accepted source is Alain Chartier's medieval work by the same name, though it is commonly asserted that Keats took only the title from Chartier's work. (1) As the plethora of other claimed sources merely suggests a general influence rather than a direct source for the poem's materials, and as there is no evidence except the ballad's title that Keats was ever in possession of Chartier's poem, I should like to question the latter attribution. Furthermore, I propose to demonstrate that the direct source for the ballad is more probably a Middle English (ME) poem attributed to Richard Roos, entitled La Belle Dame sans Mercy, an expanded translation of Chartier's work, at one time thought to be by Chaucer and thus included in a 1782 edition of Chaucer known to have been in Keats's Library. (2) Although the principal narrative of the ME poem (and of its source, Chartier) is not reproduced in Keats's poem, I propose to investigate the possible influences the ME work may have exerted on the form and language of Keats's ballad, and some implications for our reading of the Romantic text. Since the ME poem belongs to the love vision or dream genre, was considered in Keats's time to be by Chaucer, and Keats himself is known to have been familiar with other, genuine Chaucer poems, I shall locate discussion of the ME poem within the love vision genre and Chaucer's courtly poetics, with particular reference to the Book of the Duchess, because it is the most conventional of Chaucer's dream poems and also, as an elegy centred on a plainte d'amour, connects love and death, narrators and lovers, as do both La Belle Dame poems. I shall propose that these Chaucerian poems supplied, or initiated, an organizational structure, an emotional ambiance and, thus, a catalyst for Keats's creative energies; that they provided analogues of inspiration, rather than matter for direct imitation.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries there were a number of collected editions of Geoffrey Chaucer's works circulating that included pseudo-Chaucerian works: that is, works that have since been discarded from the Chaucerian canon, but which were accepted as Chaucer's at the time. On 12 March 1819, one month prior to the composition of La Belle Dame, Keats writes in a letter to George and Georgiana Keats: "I am writing this on the Maid's tragedy which I have read since tea with great pleasure -Besides this volume of Beaumont and Fletcher - there are on the tabl[e] two volumes of chaucer." (3) As Hyder Edward Rollins cites in his footnotes: "Keats's library contained an Edinburgh, 1782, edition of Chaucer, 14 volumes bound as 7, that is now in the British Museum." (4) Notably, this reference to a Chaucerian collection appears in the continuation of the same letter to George and Georgina Keats (beginning 14 February and concluding 3 May) that contains the original composition of the ballad. Volume 10 of this 1782 edition of Chaucer presents La Belle Dame sans Mercy as by Chaucer. While there is no evidence that Keats possessed a copy of Alain Chartier's work or read the French version of the poem at anytime, and in fact this is highly unlikely since French manuscripts of this period were not in wide circulation during Keats's lifetime, (5) his letter clearly indicates that he was in possession of a copy of the Middle English poem one month prior to the composition of his ballad and, as the letter implies, he was reading this Chaucerian edition at the time. Thus, it is more probable that Keats at the very least adopted his title from the ME text rather than from the original French poem.

According to Keats's letters, he was in possession of a copy of Chaucer's works as early as 3 May 1818, "or what say you to a black Letter Chaucer printed in 1596: aye I've got one huzza!" (6) The British Library General Catalogue of Printed Books does not list a 1596 black-letter Chaucer; however, as suggested by Forman, Keats might have mistakenly written 1596 for 1598. If this is the case, then we have firmer grounds for asserting Keats's probable knowledge of the ME poem since the 1598 edition, like its 1782 follower, contains that poem. (7) That is, Keats possessed two exemplars of the ME "Chaucerian" poem. Although his excitement about the "black letter Chaucer" may here be merely bibliophilia, Keats was also very familiar with the contents of his Chaucer. He makes a number of references to Chaucer throughout his letters, and was familiar enough with some of Chaucer's narratives to quote them off-handedly in his correspondence, such as a reference to Troilus and Criseyde on 22 November 1817 and to the Legend of Good Women on 17 July 1819. The possession of two editions of Chaucer's works, both containing the ME La Belle Dame sans Mercy, is not only evidence of the probability that this, rather than Chartier's work, was the source for the ballad's title, but also warrants investigating the question of influence.

Keats states in a letter on 19 September 1819 that he was reading Godwin's Life of Chaucer, and this, in conjunction with the various references to Chaucer preceding and following the composition of the ballad, further indicates Keats's ongoing interest in and familiarity with Chaucer. Keats' 1782 edition of Chaucer, now housed in the British Library, contains markings and scattered marginalia by the poet, and Keats wrote his This pleasant tale is like a little copse in February 1817 on the blank space at the end of the pseudo-Chaucerian Floure and the Leafe in volume 12 of Charles Cowden Clarke's copy of the 1598 edition. (8) Another pseudo-Chaucerian poem, the Complaint of the Blacke Knight, appears in the same volume, and this poem presents certain affinities with both the ME La Belle Dame and the Book of the Duchess. The repetition in its titling, in combination with Keats's own references to Chaucer and more specifically to these editions, suggests that the Middle English version is more likely the source for Keats's own La Belle Dame sans Merci than the French poem, which had almost no circulation and for which no evidence has been presented of Keats's acquaintance with it. In addition, certain rhetorical and imaginative similarities reinforce the probability that the ME poem not only provided the title for Keats's ballad, but also had influence on his poetic strategies. (9)

Although the ME is a basic translation of Chartier's La Belle Dame, the translator adds eight stanzas of original verse in rhyme royal, four stanzas at the beginning and four stanzas at the conclusion of the poem adding further to the frame structure. While maintaining the original ababbcbc rhyme scheme, the translator lengthens the octosyllabic lines of the French into decasyllabic lines in English, thereby providing a certain elasticity to the translation. Apart from a few obscurities in sense, the ME is a fairly faithful rendering of the content of the Old French work. It is not simply a transliteration; the change of meter and language, together with a typical ME expansiveness, positions the poem in the established poetic rhetoric of the medieval lyric and courtly poetry generally. (10)

Keats's letters evidence his admiration and poetic interest in Chaucer. He says of Chaucer's imaginative influence on his creative impulses in a letter to Taylor and Hessey on 16 May 1817: "At Canty I hope the Remembrance of Chaucer will set me forward like a Billiard-Ball." (11) Perhaps, incited by the ME La Belle Dame and Chaucerian poetics more generally, Keats like the Middle English narrator "... stode musying / And in my self greatly imaginying." (12) This is not to say that Keats appropriated the ME La Belle Dame as a direct model for imitation, but, as I shall suggest, it is probable that he was influenced by the traditional, almost formulaic images of the ME, and by the poetic tradition it represents. Although the poems vary greatly in form, length, and scope, they coincide in theme, imagery, and poetic agenda. Keats's ballad provides not so much a steady set of structural correspondences with the ME text, but rather seems reactive in nature. Chaucer's works and these pseudo-Chaucerian sources, which Keats would have understood to be Chaucer, constitute a poetic impetus and generalizing influence. The ME La Belle Dame in particular seems to provide a focal point for organizing elements of the narrative, principally the characterization of the Knight, the lady as a danger to the lover, the narrative frame, and the role of the dream vision.

Originally written as part of a letter to George and Georgiana Keats on 21 April 1819, and published in a revised version in The Indicator in 1820, La Belle Dame sans Merci is an intriguing imitation of the ballad form into which Keats has synthesized elements of medieval courtly romance. The framework of the plot is a courtly romance or, more precisely, a medieval plainte d'amour, imposed upon a traditional ballad form. With its Common Meter quatrain composed of a 4-3-4-3 stress pattern in which the second and last line of each quatrain rhyme, La Belle Dame in form closely imitates ballads such as Sir Patrick Spens and Mary Hamilton. Keats adheres to the structural elements of the form but diverges in the spirit of his ballad into the realm of courtly romance.

The initial three stanzas of Keats's La Belle Dame open with an inquiry from an anonymous individual to the knight, while the remaining nine stanzas constitute a response to that inquiry. This question-and-answer scenario is a common rhetorical technique in the ballad tradition. Usually the inquiry is, however, more directed than in Keats's ballad and is repeated with slight variation throughout the poem for mnemonic purposes and as a means to further unravel the plot, as in the case of Lord Randal:
   O where ha' you been, Lord Randal, my son?
   And where ha' you been, my handsome young man?
   I ha' been at the greenwood; mother, mak my bed soon,
   For I'm wearied wi' huntin', and fain wad lie down.
   And wha met ye there, Lord Randal, my son?
   And wha met you there, my handsome young man?
   O I met wi' my true-love; mother, mak my bed soon,
   For I'm wearied wi' huntin', and fain wad lie down.

   (1-8) (13)

Keats's ballad moves away from mere plot development to psychological and natural embellishment, a movement that may have been inspired by the more narrative nature of the Middle English source, a poem of 854 lines that slowly unravels the psychological reasons for the knight's despondent appearance. The first three stanzas of Keats's La Belle Dame places the main body of the text, the knight's encounter with the lady, into a larger narrative framework, the dialogue between the anonymous individual and the knight. The dream of stanzas 10 and 11 comprises a further subsection of the ballad's main body. Similarly, in the Middle English version the main body of the narrative, the lover's story, is enclosed within a larger narrative framework. In the ME text, the narrative is broken into three units: one, the introduction and conclusion by the anonymous ME translator of the poem (1-28; 829-56); two, the poem's narrator-poet who tells of his encounter with the lover and produces a moralizacio at the end of the text (29-252; 79%825); and three, the main body of the poem, the dialogue between the lover and his lady (253-796). In both texts the narrative frame is provided by a third person who observes the lover, wonders at his despondent appearance, thereby prompting a recitation of the lover's story. The second and third units, that is the main body of the poem, are paralleled in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, the pseudo-Chaucerian Floure and the Leafe, and in many ME and Old French love visions. In both texts the narrator-poet gradually is removed from the centre in the course of the narration. The purpose of such an elaborate framing system is manifold. First, the construction of a narratorial link between the narrator-poet and the subject of his discourse implies a reflective or contrastive relationship between the two. Second, it draws attention to the poem's literariness. The narrative frame makes the reader more conscious that it has a beginning and an end marked by the narratorial intrusions that emphasize the storytelling aspect of the narrative, thereby stressing the narrator-poet's role in his own fiction. Furthermore, the dialogue framework like the dream "explains the mere fact of the existence of the poem"--the narrator recounting his dialogue with the knight. (14) These are both poems whose origins are rooted in the narrator's personal experience, not elsewhere, and in which the poet-narrator plays a central role in his own fiction. The reader should remember the final stanza's "And this is why ..." (45) as a component of the poem's narratorial framework but more importantly as part of its self-justifying tendency, a tendency rooted in its medieval counterpart. (15) Thirdly, in suggesting a relationship between the narrator and the subject of his narration, and in the frame's apparent artifice, the narratorial layers suggest a more symbolic relationship between the poet and his material. As the narrative frame draws the poet into his own fiction, both poems can be read as reflections on the nature of poetic expression and of the peculiar nature and status of literary achievement. This stacking effect of various component parts of the narration, and its purposeful ambiguity, or at least lack of authority, functions similarly in Keats's ballad and his ME source, and suggests a closely analogous relationship between the two.

The narratorial frame present in La Belle Dame and two comparable works, the Complainte of the Blacke Knight (now attributed to Lydgate, a self-acknowledged Chaucer imitator) and the Book of the Duchess, implies a symbolic relationship between the questioner/observer and the observed. For example, in the ME La Belle Dame the narrator in his opening strophe reveals that he has lost his love and is described in the same terms as the knight, in pain and all woe-begone:
   Not long ago, ridyng an esie paas,
   I fell in thought of joyful desperate,
   With grete disese and pain, so that I was
   Of all lovirs the most unfortunate,
   Sith by his darte moste cruill full of hate
   The Deth hath take my ladie and maistresse,
   And left me sole, thus discomfite and mate,
   Sore languishyng and in waie of distresse.
     Then said I thus, It fallith me to cesse
   Eithir to rime or ditees for to make,
   And surely to makin a full promesse
   To laugh no more, but wepe in clothis blake
   My joyfull tyme (alas!) now doeth it slake.


The narrator-poet is figured as a double of the lover. The narrator discloses that he is mourning the death of his beloved; a loss that has deprived him of all joy rendering him disconsolate. He also announces that his experience has affected his literary agenda, "It fallith me to cesse / Eithir to rime or ditees for to make" and
   These sicke lovirs I leve that to 'hem longes,
   Which lede ther life in hope of alegeaunce,
   That is to saie, to make balades and songes
   Every of 'hem as thei fele ther grevaunce.


Here the narrator notes that his psychological state necessarily affects his creative agenda. He declares his intention to give up poetry, or at least the poetry of love and joy; that is, "ditees" and "balades," but as the reader is aware, the narrator and self-described poet is still in the business of literary creation. Chaucerian dream visions and dits amor (two modern categories which overlap greatly) emphasize the narrator's self-conscious literariness by forging rhetorical links between the narrator and his subject matter and suspending the narrative in a liminal dream state or casting it as a remembrance. The narrator-poet's intention to give up creative expression underscores his self-conscious literariness. In the anonymous form of the ballad the narrator is absent from the ballad's discourse, or at least de-centralized. Commonly the narrator is merely a nameless, disembodied voice, whereas, in the ME La Belle Dame, Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, and the Complainte of the Blacke Knight, the narrator becomes an actor in his own story. Keats follows his ME example in his ballad, as the narrator is initially present and then becomes subsumed into his own story, stressing the poem's literariness and its status as a creative artifact. Moreover, in the Book of the Duchess and the Complainte, as in the La Belle Dame, the poet-narrator is also suffering from the pains of love and presents a parallel for the lover. Thus, in the Chaucer editions possessed by Keats, there are three very similar models for the narratorial position of his ballad narrator. (16)

The ME La Belle Dame narrator identifies himself as the poet and this, in conjunction with the general tone of the text (there is no Chaucerian ironic distance here), seems to direct that we understand the attitudes of the narrator to be those of the poet. The narrator's opening seven stanzas stress his emotionally wounded state and its physical manifestations, which are linked later with the lover. The narrator's emotional pain is written on his body, manifested in his "clothis blake," in a tell-tale eye, and in the uncontrollable physical release of his body in tears,
   To speke thereof my tongue hath no delite;
   Tho with my mouthe I laugh mochil or lite
   Mine eyin should make a countenance untrue,
   My herte also would have thereof despite,
   The wepyng teris have so large issue.


He represents himself as a rather pathetic creature. Having established the emotional and physical disposition of the narrator himself, the reader proceeds to the main body of the text, the narrator's encounter with the unfortunate lover and La Belle Dame. The narrator portrays himself in the same language as he portrays the figure of the lover. Like the narrator, the lover is dressed all in black, "All blacke he ware" (130), and demonstrates a propensity for weeping. (17) His physical and emotional distress, which we will later learn is a symptom of his unrequited love, is, like the narrator's, written on his body:
   In his language not gretly diligent;
   His countinaunce he kept with grete turment,
   But his desire farre passid his reson,
   For er his eye went aftir his entent
   Full many' a tyme when it was non seson.

Both characters suffer the loss of bodily control as a result of their extreme emotions and this, in conjunction with the concordance of their physical and emotional states, directs the reader to see the lover as a refraction, if not a self-projection, of the narrator himself. In the ME La Belle Dame, after describing the lover, the narrator realizes "Soche one was I" (148), making the connection clear for the reader between the narrator-poet and the subject of his narration. As a reader, the narrative doubling directs us to understand the narrative as a reflection of the peculiar experience of the narrator, while universalizing that experience. If we consider this in relation to Keats's ballad, which I will demonstrate follows his Middle English source, a number of critical concerns surface.

Keats walks a thin line between structurally literalizing the narrator-subject connection and remaining relatively ambiguous on a syntactical level. The ballad can be read either as two dramatically distinct voices or the articulation of one divided consciousness. Since the ballad is a dialogue form, the correlation comes not in description or in circumstantial connections between knight and narrator but in the knight's repetition in nearly the exact same language of the narrator's opening query in the final stanza, and in the repetition of "pale[ness]" from the narrator's opening inquiry to the knight's "I saw pale Kings, and Princes too/ Pale warriors, death pale were they all" (37). As Wolfson points out "Keats enhances these provocative infinities by keeping the identity of the questioner anonymous (more a voice than a character) and by withholding any punctuation that might distinguish two separate speakers." (18) Keats provides no dialogic indicators to separate these voices and both the questioner and the knight play the role of the narrator. In fact, the questioner disappears from the ballad and his initial query is subsumed into the knight's dialogue in the final stanza. Wolfson goes on to suggest that "the Knight's summary statement, `And I awoke and found me here,' points to self division and the need to heal it, with the location of `here' suspended between a situation in the landscape and a situation in the mind." (19) I consider this as Keats's internalization of his medieval source. In a way Keats's ballad can be characterized as a dream vision. The main body of the text reads like a phantasmic vision of love and enchantment, with its fairy child and elfin grot, while the dream vision of stanzas 10 and 11, with its instructive vision or warning, further places it loosely within this canon. The ME La Belle Dame (a dits amor) also fits into this category as does the Book of the Duchess and the Complaint of the Blacke Knight. The ballad's summary statement suggests that all dream vision exists on two planes: one separate from the internal consciousness of the narrator, quite literally another plane of experience (dramatis personae), and one that reflects and, in fact, is the internal intelligence of the narrator (internal colloquy).

The unknown questioner in Keats's ballad, who can be associated equally with the poet and the reader, supposedly finding something in the knight arrestingly uncanny, inquires: "O what can all thee, Knight at arms, / Alone and paley loitering?" (1-2). The first two stanzas break into two units: the first two lines of each quatrain involve an inquiry into the spiritual or physical state of the knight; and the second couplet of the quatrain refers to the external, natural surroundings of the knight. And here, with the embellishment of landscape, Keats follows a well established rhetorical principle - a principle stated by Henryson in his Testament of Cresseid and evidenced in Chaucer among others, by styling his natural setting to his subject matter. The first two stanzas place the knight in an autumnal setting, a season commonly associated with the melancholy humour in medieval lyric, and which is linked to death and loss. He further images nature as depleted and deathly in the repetition of the "cold hill side" (36, 44) and in the description of the knight in stanza three. The whole ballad is imbued with a sense of depletion and absence, from "And no birds sing" to the "starved lips" (41) of the "pale kings, and princes too / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all" (37). The former image, in conjunction with the other natural imagery, present a distinct anti-pleasaunce. This is the other side of love--love unrequited, the love that wounds and kills. In Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls the two sides of love, happiness and despondence, are imaged in the two doors that lead into garden of the dream vision. One door represents the happier side of love with its pleasaunce imagery and the other represents the dangerous and unhappy side of love with its anti-pleasaunce setting:
   "Thurgh me men goon," thanne spak that other side,
   "Unto the mortal strokes of the spere
   Of which Desdain and Daunger is the gide,
   That nevere yit shal fruit ne leves bere;
   This streem you ledeth to the sorweful were
   Ther as the fissh in prison is al drye:
   Th'eschewing is only the remedye."


The first line of the second stanza of Keats's ballad repeats the initial inquiry on which the poem opens, "O what can all thee, Knight at arms," (5) but the next line of the second stanza elaborates on the physical appearance of the knight; "Alone and palely loitering" introduced in stanza one is embellished by "So haggard, and so woe begone" (6). The second half of the stanzas describe the natural setting: "The sedge has withered from the Lake / And no birds sing!/ ... The Squirrel's granary is full/ And the harvest's done" (3-8). The autumnal setting indicated by these lines and further imaged in the "cold hill side" and the "fading rose" (11) that "Fast withereth too" (12) follows the rhetorical principle of medieval lyric which posits nature as a reflection of man's emotional state, particularly in the case of the dream vision in which the elements of the narrative are constructed like a hall of mirrors reflecting and refracting the image of the narrator. These two components, the melancholy knight and the desolate natural setting, are juxtaposed in the first two stanzas, suggesting a reflective or empathetic relationship between nature and man. But the relationship is only suggested, as there is no direct syntactical link between these two thoughts. The syntactical ambiguity reflects the puzzlement of the inquisitor and the knight's division from the natural world. Concurrently, it represents the knight's division from his wild-eyed elfin mistress, a figure of nature. The placement of man within a symbolic natural setting, and the structural and symbolic blurring between the natural and human realms is an inherent part of Chaucerian poetics and would have reinforced Keats's own poetic tenets.

These two images, the spiritual and the natural, are organically fused in the next stanza as the questioner moves into a symbolic abstraction of the knight's appearance,
   I see a lily on thy brow,
   With anguish moist and fever-dew,
   And on thy cheek a fading rose
   Fast withereth too.

As Wasserman observes "All these balanced details, equally distributed to nature and the knight, now coalesce in the third stanza." (20) The natural imagery melds with the physical appearance of the knight. The speaker also melds the physical and the natural realms by modifying the physical and psychological state of the knight with natural images "anguish moist" and "fever dew": the latter is a particularly acute example of the transformation of the bodily into the natural. The stanza is remarkably abstract and subjective, quite uncharacteristic of the ballad form, which concentrates almost exclusively on the advancement of the action of the narrative. In balladry the emphasis is on a single line of action precipitately developed with little call for floral details, character development, psychological inquiry, or contextualization outside the specific event which is the crux of the ballad. Keats's medieval source may have inspired the more narrative nature of his ballad and its pivotal concern for the psychological status of the knight and his lady. For the reader not only encounters queries and revelations regarding the knight's psychological or spiritual state, but Keats also presents the reader with suggestions, even if unreliable, of the fairy child's psychological disposition. Furthermore, the short 12 stanza ballad contains a heavy concentration of descriptive words, which further distances it from the ballad tradition, positioning it more in the lyric form.

The final stanza repeats the content of the first, framing the narrative in a larger dialogue scheme. The paratactic structure of the stanzas, which has hitherto unraveled the action of the poem, is disrupted in the final stanza, in which the "And" of "And this is why" is imbued with significance--with the causality which has hereto been missing from the action of the poem. More important perhaps is the second couplet, "Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake, / And no birds sing" (47-8). With "Though" the poem clearly moves from a paratactic structure to a hypotactic structure. The relationship between nature and knight now has a logical and syntactic relationship which it did not have in the first stanza, in which these two elements were simply juxtaposed. The movement in the final stanza from the paratactic to the hypotactic signals the shift back from the story into the larger dialogue frame. The mystery of the knight "palely loitering" has now been elucidated. Like Keats's medieval sources the narrative has come full circle. The repetition of the initial inquiry in stanza one in the final stanza of the ballad clearly marks out the beginning and the end of the poem, thus indicating the ballad's status as a fully realized imaginative fiction, as a poem that consciously indicates its own prosody. The knight's repetition of the narrator's initial query in the final stanza provides an imaginative repetition, while concurrently invoking the initial dialogue structure. Furthermore, at this juncture in the poem, the persona of the narrator-poet is subsumed into that of the knight. As Spearing notes of the Book of the Duchess and of medieval dream-poetry generally: "the dream framework inevitably brings the poet into his poem, not merely as a reteller of a story which has its origins elsewhere, but as the person who experiences the whole substance of the poem." (21) The Romantic poem, then, is not simply a ballad-like piece with a general medieval motif of unrequited love, but is clearly more specifically related in its poetic strategies of imitation and reaction to at least one of the three models in Keats's Chaucer editions; and consciousness of these models both illumines the movements of Keats's poem and also clarifies its invocation of a particular medieval genre. Both in the narrative structure and in the concept of the lover-knight/narrator, then, there are obvious parallels (or echoes) between Keats's ballad and the ME La Belle Dame (and other Chaucerian works). In addition, echoes or parallels are to be observed in the imagery and language of the lover's specific position and the embodiment of his emotional state.

Keats's knight also closely echoes the ME text's depiction of the lover, suggesting a direct influence exerted by the ME text on Keats's poetic conceptions. Keats images the knight as a junction between love, life, and death, and in the course of the ballad he comes to embody poetic creativity and poetic failure. Keats's image of the knight "alone and palely loitering" is distinctly reminiscent of the lover in the ME La Belle Dame, who also functions as a junction between love, life, and death:
   Othir there were that servid in the hall,
   But none like hym, as aftir myne advise,
   For he was pale, and somwhat lene withall,
   His speche also tremblid in ferfull wise,
   And er alone but when he did servise;
   All blacke he ware, and no devise but plain;
   Me thought by him, as my witte coud suffise,
   His herte was nothyng in his own domain.


   Out of the prese he went full esily
   To make stable his hevie countinaunce,
   And wote ye well he sighid wondirly
   For his sorowes and wofull remembrance,
   Then in hymself he made his ordinance,
   And forthwithall came to bryng in the messe,
   But for to judge his moste wofull penance
   God wote it was a pitous entremesse.


Keats's knight "Alone and palely loitering" (2) directly echoes the above description of the lover, "pale," "lene," "wofull," and "alone." The lover of the Middle English text is described as "ravished uttirly" (111) with a "hevie countinaunce" (150), his voice "tremblid" (128, also 112, 121-22), and he is prone to "sighyng wondir sore" (197, 151) and "wepyng" (218). The image created in the ME text is of a man ravaged physically and emotionally by love, and Keats seems to have picked up this image and perhaps even the language with his lone, pale, haggard, and woe-begone knight. Considering the evidence regarding Keats's exposure to the Medieval text and the parallel between the characterization of the knight and other textual parallels I will discuss, the ME La Belle Dame forms an important source for Keats's ballad. (22)

Keats appropriates the courtly romance figure of the lover, utterly possessed by his beloved to the point of complete physical and mental decay as represented in the ME La Belle Dame, and places him in the realm of enchantment, with a "faery's child" (14) for a beloved who transports the knight to her "elfin grot" (29) and there lulls him asleep. Traditionally, sleep is viewed as a little death, which every night reminds us of our mortality. As Keats writes in On Seeing the Elgin Marbles "My spirit is too weak - mortality / Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep" (1). To sleep is also to dream, which is the realm of imagination, creativity, truth, and the ideal, in both Keats and Chaucer, and the knight's dream in stanzas 10 and 11 embodies all these elements. The knight's lady has the "wild eyes" (16, 31) of a sprightly figure and she enchants him with a fairy song: "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" (21). The fairy child completely consumes the knight's thoughts, and like Keats's medieval source, the knight can see nothing but his beloved. Comparably, in the ME La Belle Dame the lady is figured both as a danger and as an enchantress. The language of enchantment begins in the opening self-description of the narrator who says that he has lost his will to his dead lady: "She hath my will, myne hert `is ordinaunce, / Which lyith here within this tombe igrave" (59), and "For when she dyid that was my maistres / My welfare then ymade the same purchase; / The Deth hath shette my bondis of witnesse, / Which for nothing myne hert shal nevir pase" (73-96). As previously discussed, in the ME La Belle Dame the lover is figured as a reflection of the narrator, and thus it follows that their respective beloveds should follow the same pattern. Although the word "enchantment" is never specifically used, the passages above clearly indicate the rendering up of one's will for love, a kind of all-consuming and self-annihilating enslavement to the beloved. The language of enthrallment forms a more developed motif in relation to the lover and La Belle Dame. The first hint comes in line 132 with "His herte was nothyng in his own domain," and moves from this suggestion of emotional possession by another into the courtly love idea of total subservience to the beloved, "For I am whole submit to your service; / Right as you list it be right so will I, To binde my self where I was in fraunchise" (234-36), and likewise into an image of bondage,
   That I unware am crafted in your chaine;
   And sith so is, as Fortune list ordaine,
   And my welfare is in your handis fall,
   In eschewyng of more mischevous paine
   Who fonift dieth his care is left of all.


In the ME La Belle Dame the narrator-poet and the lover are refractions of each other. If like the lover, the knight of Keats's ballad is enchanted and enslaved by love, are we then to understand that the poet (both the unnamed questioner/balladeer and Keats) suffers the same fate?

Keats's ballad repeatedly returns the reader to images of living death, and the final warning or moral of the poem crystallizes the link between love and death, imagination and its failure:
   I saw pale Kings, and Princes too
   Pale warriors, death pale were they all;
   They cried, La belle dame sans merci
   Thee hath in thrall.

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


The "death pale" Kings and Princes correspond to the knight's description as "palely loitering" repeated in the first and last stanzas of the ballad, thus framing the narrative as a whole. These lines also place the knight in an universal continuum. The knight is but one victim of love among many. Keats posits him as part of an universal human experience, while concurrently placing him within literary genres and archetypes. The poem does not strive to create a sense of an individual's particular and highly personal experience, although as critics we might emphasis what we view as its veiled autobiographical nature (the connection to Fanny Brawne). (23) Keats would have encountered a similar sense of high artifice, literary self-awareness and self-referencing, and, in particular, the tendency to place the central character's experience in a universal and generalized continuum, in the ME La Belle Dame. Furthermore, the Chaucerian poetic agenda that Keats follows concurrently places the central figure's peculiar experiences in a literary continuum, as can be seen in both the ME La Belle Dame and the Book of the Duchess among other works. The narrative framing of the ME La Belle Dame, as in Keats's ballad, creates a temporal as well as a symbolic continuum of experience between the narrator and knight. The ME narrator-poet neatly frames his self-reflexive tale with a moralizacio to "The true lovirs thus I beseche you all ... And ye ladies" (813-20), thus generalizing his particular experience. Keats's final moral is clearly analogous to that of his ME source. From its conception Keats's ballad has been filled with obvious literary artifice (the frame, the figures of the knight and the fairy child, the medieval romance structure). It is a poem filled with textual cues to its generic qualities and to the text's existence as a text. (24)

If we consider the ME text's depiction of the lady as a danger to the knight, the images of death and illness embedded in the poem, and the final warning by the narrator, then we can see in the overlapping of these aspects between poems how the ME La Belle Dame may have influenced or reinforced characteristics of Keats's own poetics. An interesting parallel is the concurrent naming of the poem and the lady in both texts. The narrator-poet in the Middle English text ends his discourse by warning women not to be cruel to their admirers with the lines:
   And ye ladies, or what estate ye be,
   Of whom Worship hath choise his dwellyng place,
   For Godd'is love doe no soche cruiltie,
   Nore in no wise ne folowe not the trace
   Of her that here is namid right wisely,
   Whiche by reson me semith in this cace
   Maie be callid La belle Dame Sans Mercy.


In this manner he names the lady and the poem, thus ending the poem with the title with which it began, drawing attention to its literariness as well as casting a direct critical light on the lady. Likewise, Keats's penultimate stanza mimics this self-conscious literariness, embedding it in the warning:
   I saw pale Kings, and pale princes too,
   Pale warriors, death pale were they all;
   They cried- "La belle dame sans merci
   Hath thee in thrall!

Furthermore, like the ME version, Keats's ballad universalizes the knight's experience by presenting a cast of apparently prior victims. It also stresses the courtly, medieval atmosphere of the ballad with its kings, princes, and warriors. It is a direct invocation of this world of courtly romance, a world of high artifice, and, concurrently, the ideal. In both texts, the lady is the object of the warning figured as a danger to the lover. In the ME version the narrator images La Belle Dame in militaristic terms, stating: "A garison she was of godelinesse, / To make a frontier for a lovirs herte; ... And underneth the standerde of Dangere" (175-80). Like a moth he is drawn to her flame: "But er emong he drewe to her alone / Whiche that he moste drede of livyng creature" (163-64), and the narrator in a premonitory statement chronicles the result of this love "the herte began to swell within his chest, / So sore strainid for anguishe and for pain, / That all to pecis almoste it to breft" (205-7). In the conclusion of the poem his heart is indeed said to break. The lover himself admits to the lady's lethal charms "I suffre pain, God wote, full hote brenning, / To cause my deth, all for my true servise," (221-22) and in the final stanzas of the poem the lover, unrequited (and thus purposeless), promptly dies:
      This wofull man rose up in all his paine,
   And departid with wepyng countinaunce,
   His wofull herte almoste to braste in twaine,
   Full like to die, walkyng forthe in a traunce,
   And sayid, Deth, come forthe, thy self avaunce,
   Or that rayne herte forget his propertie,
   And make shortir all this wofull penaunce,
   Of my pore life, full of adversitie....
   He rent his heer for anguishe and for pain,
   And in hymself toke so grete hevinesse
   That he was dedde within a daie or twain.


The death of the lover enacts the figurative death of the narrator induced by the loss of his beloved as described at the beginning of the poem. The reader following the narrator's recitation has been brought to a more literal understanding of the narrator-poet's own figurative death. By analogy, what the narrator-poet only briefly explicated at the beginning of the poem, his stance as a mourner of ill-fated love, has now been fully illustrated in a refractive tale. The Book of the Duchess also follows this pattern in which the central figure re-experiences his loss, through which he and the narrator are subsequently brought to a more profound understanding of the psychological and physical situation. As in these ME sources, Keats's knight re-experiences his loss, and thus the reader, the narrator-poet, and the knight (particularly if the narrator is in fact merely a product of the knight's own internal colloquy) are brought to realize more fully the knight's physical, psychological, and literary situation.

The Book of the Duchess, the ME La Belle Dame, and Keats's ballad all function as remembrances. The sense of loss or mourning that pervades Keats's poem is linked to the ME text, which figures the lover as clad in the colours and plain dress of mourning, "All blacke he ware, and no devise but plain" (130), which is paralleled in two other texts in Keats's Chaucer editions, the Book of the Duchess and the Complainte of the Blacke Knight. All three texts deal with the loss of a beloved and the act of memory as a consolation and a recapturing or recreation of the lost beloved. Wedded to the prevalent images of loss in these poems is the constant references to "remembraunce." The ME poem opens with the narrator in a liminal state between sleep and waking, remembering a poetic directive to translate La Belle Dame,
   Halfe in a dreme, not fully well awaked,
   The goldin Slepe me wapped undir his wyng,
   Yet not forthy I rofe, and well nigh naked,
   Al fodainly my self rememberyng
   Of a mattir, levyng all othir thyng,
   Which I must doe without in more delaie
   For them whiche I ne durst not disobaie.

      My charge was this, to translate by and by,
   (All thyng forgive) as parte of my penaunce,
   A boke callid La bel Dame Sans Mercy,
   Whiche Maistir Aleine made of remembraunce,
   Chief Secretarie with the Kyng of Fraunce;
   And hereupon a while I stode musyng,
   And in my self greatly imaginyng.


The poem by "Maistir Aleine" that the ME narrator must translate is a "remembraunce" itself, that is, a past event which Chartier felt the need to document and that the translator is now impelled to recite himself. The Book of the Duchess functions similarly, and as mentioned, Keats's La Belle Dame may be considered as an act of "remembraunce" or re-experiencing and simultaneously as a creative act, that in the end appears to fail.

But we need not wait until the end to receive this universal warning. The narrator throughout the introduction to the lady and the lover's dialogue makes generalized moral digressions that intrude into the action of the text. "Soche a one was I" he says, drawing the lover's experience into a larger framework, and, as with Keats's fairy child, the narrator alternates between suggesting that she is the danger and that the lover is at fault for his own tragic circumstance. In a premonitory warning the ME narrator states:
   To mine advise gode was his puveiaunce
   When he her chose to his maistresse alone,
   If that her herte were set to his plesaunce
   As moche as was her beauteous persone,
   For who so evir setteth his trust upon
   The report of the eyen withoutin more
   He might be dedde and gravin undir stone
   Or er he should his hert 'is ese restore.


The text implies that the lover has been led astray by his own fancy and, in the final analysis, it is the knight's inability to reconcile himself to reality that leads to his tragic end. After Keats's knight encounters the fairy child, the knight recounts a courtly act of seduction, "I made a garland for her head, / And bracelets too, and fragrant zone" (17) and "And there I shut her wild wild eyes / With kisses four" (31). In both instances the knight makes the proverbial first move. Later he makes two interpretative acts "She look'd at me as she did love / And made sweet moan" (19) and "And sure in language strange she said- / I love thee true" (27). Note that Keats infuses both of these interpretive acts with an ambiguous quality, as indicated by the use of "as" (as if) and the use of the phrase "And sure in language strange." Whether the fairy child loves the knight truly remains ambiguous, even questionable. The ambiguous seduction of Keats's knight forms another textual parallel, further suggesting the role of the ME text as a general influence and in providing a centripetal point for organizing elements of Keats's narrative.

Both the ballad and the ME La Belle Dame are elegies for a lost or unrequited love, and both deal with the disjunction between an ideal and the harsher present reality. In the ME La Belle Dame, the ideal of courtly love is seen to fail the lover, who despite his "servise" does not receive mercy. Keats's ballad presents the romance adventures of a knight who, wandering through the meads, falls in love with a fairy child, who takes him to her elfin grot. Yet, like his ME source, the lover does not retain his beloved. It is a narrative of enchantment imbued with literary signifiers of its status as a medieval romance narrative. Keats's lover's posture and language inscribe him in the powerful medieval courtly literary myth of the lover dying for the unrequited love of the cruel mistress, which universalizes and valorizes the posture, both of the lover and his creator. The title and the inspiration for Keats's La Belle Dame sans Merci is the ME poem, and not the Old French text. Instead of some generalized medieval influence and nostalgia, the La Belle Dame is from the structures, motifs, and language of a specific, limitable Middle English poetic genre, the love vision, and the central focus of this genre, the mournful, unrequited lover whose song memorializes his experience, complements a common Romantic posture, the alienated, rejected, suffering poet.

University of Toronto


(1) John Keats, Complete Poems, ed. Jack Stillinger (Belknap Press of Harvard U. Press, 1978, 1982), p. 468.

(2) The ME translation is no longer considered to be by Chaucer. It has been attributed to Sir Richard Roos by Ethel Seaton in Sir Richard Roos c. 1410-1485: Lancastrian Poet (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961), along with a large number of anonymous ME works, mainly on the basis of anagrams and similar material. It is also attributed to Roos in Tyrwhitt's edition of Chaucer in 1775, and this is repeated in Skeat's The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, vol. 7 (Oxford U. Press, 1897). However, the ascription has not been commonly accepted, and Seaton's work has almost universally been rejected. Neither of the Chaucers in Keats's possession ascribes the work to Roos, and it and the other dream poems referred to in this article were generally accepted as the work of Chaucer until the mid-nineteenth century. I shall, therefore, refer to its author as the anonymous translator.

(3) The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Harvard U. Press, 1958), 2:73.

(4) Letters, ibid. The 1782 Chaucer owned by Keats is The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Edinburgh: At the Apollo Press, by the Martins, 1782), 14 volumes, bound as 7. All references to the ME La Belle Dame are to this edition (bound as 5), 10:133-67. A more accessible edition of this work and other "Chaucerian" poems referred to in this article is The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: Supplementary Volume, ed. Walter W. Skeat (Oxford U. Press, 1897), vol. 7.

(5) According to Ethel Seaton, only one manuscript copy of Chartier's La Belle Dame sans Merci exists in England, British Library Royal 19.A.iii.

(6) Letters, 2:193.

(7) Frank N. Owings in "Keats, Lamb, and a Black-Letter Chaucer," PBSA 75 (1981): 147-55, points out in an addendum that the black-letter edition of 1598 contains the English translation of Chartier's poem, but makes no claims for it as a source for Keats.

(8) Frank Owings, The Keats Library Descriptive Catalogue (London: Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, 1978). The present location of Keats's black-letter Chaucer is uncertain.

(9) Though it could be argued that Keats's title, giving the French form "merci" rather than the "mercy" of Middle English, indicates a French source, the conclusion from orthography is dubious. In Old French the spellings "merci" and "mercy" are interchangeable. In Middle English "mercy" would have been pronounced In the French manner in the context of the title. Moreover, Keats's himself varied the spelling, giving "mercy" in the Indicator text (1820). See The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (London: Heinemann, 1978), p. 357; and Theresa M. Kelley, "Poetics and the Politics of Reception: Keats's `La Belle Dame sans Merci'," ELH54 (1987): 335-36.

(10) For a discussion of the translation see: Grohler, H., Uber Richard Ros mittelenglishe Ubersetzung des Gedichtes von Alain Chartier "La belle dame sans merci" (Breslau, 1889), p. 9, cited in Edward J. Hoffman, Alain Chartier: His Work and Reputation (New York: Wittes Press, 1942); and Melissa L. Brown, "The Hope for `Plesaunce': Richard Roos's Translation of `La Belle Dame Sans Merci,'" pp. 119-44, in New Readings of Late Medieval Love Poems, ed. David Chamberlain (U. Press of America: Lanham, 1993). Brown asserts that both Chartier and the ME translator, whom she identifies as Richard Roos without argument or any sign of awareness of the general rejection of the attribution and Seaton's study, are "ironic" in their treatment of the narrator and of erotic courtly literature. Like many "ironic" readings, Brown's is mainly a circular, self-fulfilling validation of her unsubstantiated premise.

(11) Letters, 1:147.

(12) ME La Belle Dame sans Mercy, 12-13.

(13) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis James Child (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1882-98; repr. 1904, 1932), 1:22-23 [1932 edition].

(14) A. C. Spearing. Medieval Dream Poetry (Cambridge U. Press, 1976), p. 5.

(15) For a discussion of the emergence of a self-conscious literature and poetic stance in the fourteenth century, see Spearing's chapter, "The Nature of Dream-poetry," to which the above remarks are indebted.

(16) The narrators of the ME La Belle Dame and the Complainte are not as individualized as Chaucer's narrator, but all three are `characterized' by the conventions of their function in the courtly love dream genre. John E. Grant's observation in "Discovering `La Belle Dame Sans Merci'," in Approaches to Teaching Keats 5 Poetry, ed. Walter H. Evert and Jack W. Rhodes (New York: MLA, 1991), p. 46, that the "anonymous, featureless narrator" in Keats is "almost uncharacterized" is literally correct, but his "identity" is fashioned by the stylized postures of the convention Keats here evokes (or is influenced by). His character, that is, is the evocation of a known literary type, not an "individual." This "uncharacterized," but not untypified narrator, who is, as Grant remarks, "our only access to everything that follows" (p. 46), is closer to the more traditional narrator of the ME La Belle Dame than to Chaucer's more intrusive narrator.

(17) In both the Book of the Duchess and the Complainte of the Blacke Knight the lover is clad in black.

(18) Susan Wolfson, "The Language of Interpretation in Romantic Poetry: `A Strong Working of the Mind'," in Romanticism and Language, ed. Arden Reed (London: Methuen, 1984), p. 38.

(19) Wolfson, p. 39. In a later essay, "Keats's `Gordian Complication' of Women,' in Approaches to Teaching Keats's Poetry (New York: MIA, 1991), she sees this as reflecting Keats's own anxieties and ambivalences about women (pp. 81-83).

(20) Earl Wasserman, The Finer Tone: Keats' Major Poems (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1953), p. 67.

(21) Spearing, p. 5.

(22) Many critics have cited the connection between the knight's love and Keats's unrequited love for Fanny Brawne. Perhaps in the ME figure of the lonely lover physically depleted and on the verge of death (if not already a figure of living death), Keats may have seen his own illness and the restraints that such a physical reality imposed on his love and his creative potential. On 13 October, 1819, the same year as the composition of the ballad, Keats, unable to concentrate on his verses, writes to Fanny of his all-consuming love and of his physical and mental depletion. While the general position of Keats to Fanny in this letter has an equally general parallel to the lover in the ballad, Keats's verbal presentation of his state more closely echoes the medieval language of love languishing.

(23) See Wolfson, "Keats's `Gordian Complication' of Women" (pp. 81-83) on the intersection of the autobiographical wath the politics and poetics of gender.

(24) See Wolfson, ibid., p. 81: "The very confusion of these statements and their ambiguous significance mark the degree to which Keats has figured `la belle dame' less as a lady than as a text bound to the rhetoric of the men who interpret her."
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Author:Finlayson, J. Caitlin
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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