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La Belle Dame sans Merci(1820)

John Keats

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
MeterO what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
MeterAlone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
MeterThe sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
MeterAnd no birds sing.

Note on line 4:This curtailed line stands out after the careful regularity of the three tetrameters that precede it. Measured in feet, it’s only half the length of the previous lines; but its three heavy stresses assimilate it to the 4/3 pattern with which Keats’s artful ballad stays in touch. The result gives an early taste of the last-gasp feeling of wasted starvation to which the pending narrative gives expression. Watch how this pattern of foreshortening recurs, with variations, in each stanza to come.


O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
MeterO what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
MeterSo haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
MeterThe squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
MeterAnd the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
MeterI see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
MeterWith anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
MeterAnd on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
MeterFast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
MeterI met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful– a faery’s child,
MeterFull beautiful– a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
MeterHer hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
MeterAnd her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
MeterI made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
MeterAnd bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
MeterShe looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
MeterAnd made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,
MeterI set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long
MeterAnd nothing else saw all day long

Note on line 22:A last-foot spondee renders the knight’s stunned trance. How long to extend that trance is a reader’s choice. The longer the better, in 4B4V’s opinion, with “saw” attracting stress by assonance with the stressed “all” and “long” just ahead. Five stresses in a row, to end an eight-syllable line: stunning indeed!

For sidelong would she bend, and sing
MeterFor sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
MeterA faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
MeterShe found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild and manna-dew;
MeterAnd honey wild and manna-dew;
And sure in language strange she said,
MeterAnd sure in language strange she said,
“I love thee true.”
Meter“I love thee true.”

She took me to her elfin grot,
MeterShe took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore;
MeterAnd there she wept and sighed full sore;
And there I shut her wild, wild eyes
MeterAnd there I shut her wild, wild eyes
With kisses four.
MeterWith kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
MeterAnd there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed– Ah! woe betide!–
MeterAnd there I dreamed– Ah! woe betide!–
The latest dream I ever dreamed
MeterThe latest dream I ever dreamed
On the cold hill’s side.
MeterOn the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
MeterI saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
MeterPale warriors, death-pale were they all;

Note on line 38: The clinically diagnostic adjective “pale” occurs three times in these two lines, always in what is metrically a slack position yet always calling for stress. This descriptive fixation deserves comparison with the repetition of “wild” in line 31 above, and with the odd and repeated adverb “palely” in the first and last stanzas.

They cried, “La Belle Dame sans Merci
MeterThey cried, “La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
MeterHath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam
MeterI saw their starved lips in the gloam
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
MeterWith horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here
MeterAnd I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill’s side.
MeterOn the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here
MeterAnd this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
MeterAlone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
MeterThough the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
MeterAnd no birds sing.

Rhyme
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