A Feminist Reading of John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, or in translation, “the beautiful lady without pity” is a phrase appropriated by John Keats as the title of his 1820 poem depicting the story of a seductive and deceitful woman who tempts men away from the world of masculinity and then leaves them with a life in ruin. It has been argued that the poem is anti—feminist, reflecting the concept of femme fetale. Feminist critics question how the “faery child” is represented to the reader, focusing on power relations and why this is significant when considering the social context of the 19th Century. While it can be argued that a feminist reading is extremely useful in portraying the allegorical meaning of the character’s representation as a woman, recent criticism has questioned the extent to which this allegory holds truth.

Keats’ La Belle takes the form of a traditional medieval ballad with 12 quatrains alternating in iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines and a rhyme scheme written in ABCB. This form, having been revived by Romantic poets, creates a haunting, portentous effect throughout the poem, foreshadowing the “woe” that is to follow. Feminist critics have argued that in addition to the form, Keats uses of the motif of supernatural imagery to warn the reader of the power of women. The repetition of comments on the mysterious woman’s “wild wild eyes” acts as a warning to the “knight at arms” of the evil seduction power of this woman, and the destruction this could cause. It would have been demanding to expect a 19th century male audience to conceptualise feminine power as a positive when the ideal was of the pure and dependent woman, indicating that the intent of Keats when using said supernatural imagery was to portray anything other than this ideal expectation as dangerous. Similarly, feminist criticism points towards the idea of La Belle promoting the concept of man/woman binary opposition. Keats’ description of her use of “language strange” represents the woman as something “other”, implying women are “essentially different” in character than men. Feminist critics find this unacceptable, arguing that differences between men and women should be looked at as socially constructed and it is therefore more of a necessity than simply helpful to criticise La Belle from a feminist perspective in order to challenge gender roles.

However, Romantic context must be considered here – while the poem may initially appear as a “warning” against female power and the readers are undoubtedly supposed to feel sympathy for the male, it could be interpreted as a reminder of medieval chivalry. With this tradition, love was considered more of an abstract concept than something that could, or should, actually be experienced. La Belle is an example of courtly love poetry, being concerned with an idealised view of love. However, the motif of supernatural imagery in the poem complicates this concept, indicating that in reality, love is complex. This would imply that the poem acts as a warning against love in general rather than against the power of women. To read the poem from a feminist perspective forces the reader to ignore the context, and is therefore unhelpful. Furthermore, Theresa M Kelley argues that “Her (the faery’s) otherness is a provocative…reply to Keats’s early critics, the belle dame makes this reception history part of her meaning” further supporting the argument that the context of the poem is able to explain the seemingly anti-feminist aspects. It could be argued that the meaning of the Belle Dame is more an exaggerated parody in reply to criticism stating Keats’ earlier works were too simple rather than an allegorical representation against all women. The use of archaic language such as “withereth” and “hath” do imply Keats is making an explicit point of being purposely exaggeratory. Therefore, to read La Belle Dame Sans Merci from a feminist perspective would mean a complete misunderstanding of the poet’s intentions.

Furthermore, it can be argued that it is the “lady in the meads” that truly deserves our sympathy, the “faery” is the true victim. Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics examined male characters in classic works similar to Keats’ La Belle and found that male characters were “denigrating, exploitative and repressive in their relationships with women”. This idea is reflected throughout the poem when looking from a feminist perspective, and would therefore suggest such a perspective is very helpful in understanding the ambiguities surrounding male power. Keats uses a semantic field of entrapment when referring to the knight’s relationship with the mysterious woman. While on the surface the creation of “bracelets” and “garlands” appear to symbolise kindness and love towards the “faery”, when considering the poem in the context of 19th century attitudes to power, it seems more logical that they are to bind and capture her. The knight has clearly made the Belle Dame his possession, in telling us he “set her of my pacing steed” it is clear that La Belle has little control and it is arguable that in concurrence with Millet’s theory, the lady is being exploited for her “full beauty” to allow the knight to feel a sense of masculine control. Hence, when the couple get to the supernatural seeming “elfin grot”, we are told how the faery “wept, and sigh’d fill sore” – she does not want to be there. However, the question of the ambiguity surrounding the tears has been contested amongst critics who do not take a feminist perspective, it could be argued that the tears in fact represent the guilt of the Belle Dame – the plot devise of the dream implies this is not the first time she has left a man she promised to “love”, and she is already mourning the destruction of the knight. After all, the use of the “fading rose” metaphor in the third stanza reflects this sense of inevitable doom.

Feminist critics could point towards the question of to what extent the speaker can be trusted when telling the passing stranger of the supernatural temptress who destroyed him and left him full of “anguish”. It could be argued that it is not the obligation of women to “love” men in return and the view of the “pale kings, “princes” and “warriors” as the victims of this femme fatale is an unfair assumption to make, especially when this blame is being placed on the woman from the perspective of the speaker. Some feminist critics may look at the link between the “faery” and nature when looking at the gifts of “roots of relish sweet” and “honey wild and manna dew”, commenting on how nature was feminised in the early 19th century as having the same qualities of women; graceful, weak, simple and of course, “beautiful”. In contrast to this, we are told of the strong male “warrior”, suggesting this would be the perfect balance of the gender roles. However, it could be argued that the aim of the poem is not to present women in general as weak, and it does not have to hold a meaning that represents more women than the one the poem refers to. Furthermore, it could instead be argued that rather than connecting women to nature, these gifts encompass an element of suspicion – there are indications in the poem that these natural gifts are in fact drugs, twisting the mind and perspective of the “knight”. While telling us how she “look’d at me as she did love” and said “I love thee true” which would imply the Belle Dame truly is treacherous, we are also told she said so in “language strange” creating a sense of ambiguity surrounding the extent to which the knight has warped the truth. In a sense of romantic irrationality, he wants and needs to believe he is loved. Furthermore, feminist critics would expand on the word “strange”, questioning the idea of a “female language” and whether this is available for men to understand. This distinction in language creates further mistrust of the speaker, emphasising the communication barrier between men and women and the 19th century context of women being given no voice.

In conclusion, reading La Belle Dame Sans Merci from a feminist perspective leads to many interesting interpretations of the text itself and also helps readers to understand the context of 19th century gender roles. As a poem so centrally about the role of women, a feminist perspective for this poem is almost inescapable. However, readers should not get too engrossed in the idea that the Belle Dame is an evil force representing all women.