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

Oh 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 cheek 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 eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed--ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dreamed
On the cold hill's 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 gaped 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.

John Keats, 1819

A favorite subject of the Preraphaelite artists; one Waterhouse painting is entitled "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", as well as one Dicksee. Personally, I prefer the Waterhouse. (I'm sure there could be others by different artists, but none come to mind.)

John Keats poemThe Belle Dame Sans Merci” is in ballad form and told in twelve stanzas. The basic plot line here is someone coming across a troubled looking knight who tells a story about a women who seduced him. The romantic sensibilities of Keats are apparent in this poem that teaches no lesson but which focuses on the knight’s feelings. The first three lines of each stanza are iambic tetrameter with the fourth line being shorter and changing in number of syllables. “ABCB” is the rhyme scheme for each of these stanzas.

-   /   -   /   -      /    -     /
O what can ail thee, knight at arms,    A
 - /   -   /  -   /  -   / 
Alone and palely loitering?             B 
 -    /    -   /  -      /   -    /
The sedge had wither’d from the lake,   C
 -   /   -     / 
And no birds sing.                      B


The first three stanzas set up the poem. We find an anonymous traveler who has apparently stumbled across a knight who doesn’t look quite right. Something “ails” the knight, who is “alone and palely loitering”, and “so haggard and woe-begone.” The traveler, who is the narrator at this point, also sees in the knight signs of anguish, fever, and more paleness in his face. Not only does the knight appear in such a bad state of health, but he is also conspicuously out of place. He is alone where the traveler found him, seemingly lost at a time of year when he should be inside or at least closer to somewhere normal. The imagery of Autumn in the lines “The sedge has wither’d from the lake, / And no birds sing” and the lines “the squirrel’s granary is full, / And the harvest’s done” further serve to make the knight appear more desolate and give the impression that something is wrong.

During the middle six stanzas of the poem the reader will find out what has brought the knight into his predicament. These stanzas are narrated by the knight himself who delivers his tale to the traveler of the poems title character, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” These lines are full of hints that this woman is some sort of supernatural occurrence. Her appearance is different, she was “full beautiful, a fairy’s child” and twice described as having wild eyes. She seems to not have spoken the knights language as he tells of her singing “a fairy’s song” and declaring her love in “language strange.” Further setting her apart are the facts of her feeding him “honey wild” and “manna dew” while she lives in an “elfin grot.” The knight says, “I set her on my pacing steed,” perhaps the horse was pacing because it was nervous with sensing something mystical about this woman. In any case, the knight recalls the romance he had with this unlikely woman and it seems perfect until the after she brings him to her home and began to weep and sigh.

In the last three stanzas the knight tells how it seems he got to be where he is. He tells of the dream he had after the woman lulled him asleep. This dream is what casts the woman as a true malevolent, supernatural creature. The kings, princes, and warriors he sees in his dream are all pale and in fact, “death pale were they all.” These men in the dream are those who tip the reader and knight off when they warn, “La belle dame sans merci hath thee in thrall.” The knight sees “their starv’d lips” that are gaped with the “horrid warning” to get away from this woman. The men in the dream must be those past victims of this woman and they don’t want to see the knight go through it all like they have. On the hill wandering about is where the knight finds himself because the dream vision couldn’t come in time. The woman is gone, the knight is all alone and he seems to be trying to find her again as if the briefly perfect romance was worth it.

Duality is exhibited in this poem through the thoughts of the knight. He has been ruined by a supernatural woman yet it wasn’t half bad and he wouldn’t mind going through it again. No lesson is learned in this poem and Keats isn’t trying to teach one. Vivid description of feelings and situation are what is given to the reader and are what makes this an example of Romantic ideals.

Revised Version:

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
Alone and palely loitering;
The sedge has wither'd from the lake,
And no birds sing.

Ah, what can ail thee, wretched wight,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel's granary is full,
And the harvest's done.

I see a lilly on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever dew;
And on thy cheek a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a Lady in the meads
Full beautiful, a fairy's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long;
For sideways would she lean, and sing
A faery's song.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look'd at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.

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 gaz'd and sighed deep,
And there I shut her wild sad eyes--
So kiss'd to sleep.

And there we slumber'd on the moss,
And there I dream'd, ah woe betide
The latest dream I ever dream'd
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd--"La belle Dame sans mercy
Hath thee in thrall!"

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

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

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.