Comparison of Keats' To Autumn and La Belle Dame Sans Merci
In the poems "To Autumn" and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" Keats uses an Ode and a Ballad respectively, two forms that have been greatly used throughout the centuries. What makes both of these poems different however is the use of Keats’ own personal features which are added to the poem while still retaining a traditional structure. This brings us to the first major difference between the two poems; the form they are written in. To Autumn is an example of am Ode, it is addressed to somebody, written in stanzas, has the traditional pentameters and is very complicated. La Belle Dame Sans Merci apart from the obvious difference of a French title contains all the necessary elements of a Ballad; it is a quatrain with the second and fourth line of each stanza rhyming and has noticeably shorter lines. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a good example of Keats adding his own style to the traditional structure. The last line of each stanza is significantly shorter than the other three, it is elegiac.
Apart from the technical and formal differences there are many more in the content, the most notable being that To Autumn is written as an address to a season while La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a dialogue. Or more simply To Autumn is a descriptive poem while La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a fairy tale adventure.
It is obvious from the outset of poems that they share a common setting – Autumn. As well as the title in To Autumn Keats writes about the landscape - "With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run" and "…still more, later flowers for the bees", two extracts from the first stanza which describe Autumn. In La Belle Dame Sans Merci also in the first stanza it says "The sedge has wither’d from the lake" a typical Autumn scenario.
There is one theme which runs through both poems - nature. In To Autumn, the season Autumn is personified as young maiden "…sitting careless on a granary floor". As well as nature being changed, things are changed into nature. The soft "winnowing wind" is blowing through the maiden’s hair but it is not a natural wind it is the by-product of a man made process used during harvest. In La Belle Dame Sans Merci there is a very natural scene, set in the days of knights and princesses before man had destroyed the natural landscape. The "Belle Dame" mentioned in the title is "a faery’s child" – she is magical and traditionally in folklore faeries are very natural creatures, she may be a personification of the natural just as Autumn was in the other poem. This is backed up in line 25 where the faery takes "roots of relish", "honey wild" and "manna dew" all magical items but also natural, the two seem to go hand in hand.
An integral part of both poems is the sensuality they contain. Both contain words or phrases designed to appeal to a person’s senses, all five of them!
In To Autumn the maiden is "Drows’d with the fume of poppies" the natural opium is affecting her as she smells the poppies. She experiences touch: "hy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind". Sight is used: "Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store". The "Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft" a sensual natural sound. Finally Keats uses taste to lull the reader "With a sweet kernel".
Not coincidentally all the senses are referred to in La Belle Dame Sans Merci also. Smell – "in fragrant zone", touch "with kisses four", sight is constantly referred to "I see a lily on thy brow" or "I saw their starved lips in the gloam" are two examples, sound – "And (she) made sweet moan", lastly taste - "roots of relish" and "honey wild".
The nature and sensuality are very closely linked in both poems, everything to do with senses is natural. However there is a difference in how nature is referred to in La Belle Dame Sans Merci. As a final twist the faery who is most natural thing in the poem and who has given the knight so much pleasure sucks the life from him when he doesn’t expect it "And there she lulled me asleep". He is spiritually dead. The faery seems to personify nature and life itself giving pleasure and then taking it away so suddenly, what at first seems unnatural is really very natural.
As well as many similarities there are also just as many differences between the poems. The tone of the poems are very different. To Autumn as well as being sensual is rich, positive, happy and praising the goodness of life. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is magical yet very sad and melancholy. Referring to structure again the physicality of the words chosen affect the overall feelings of the poem. To Autumn is full of long wholesome words with many syllables, for example "fruitfulness", "winnowing" and "conspiring". As well as these Keats uses hyphenated words - "bosom-friend", "soft-dying", "soft-lifted" and "half-reap’d". These words add to the rich feelings and complex structure of the poem. La Belle Dame Sans Merci is written in a much simpler direct way using many short monosyllabic words – "And no birds sing" or "And her eyes were wild". This makes the poem very sharp and hard-hitting. When you read To Autumn it has to be read slowly to savour the words and get the full feeling form them but La Belle Dame Sans can be read at fast to keep up with the pace of the story being told.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a story rather than a description but not a normal story, it is magical and fantastic. The use of the word faery (rather than the usual fairy) adds to the strange atmosphere.
"She found me roots of relish sweet
And honey wild, and manna dew"
All strange items adding to the idea that the faery is not human. Manna is the food used by God in the Old Testament to feed the Israelites to stop them starving, something magical, something not of the earth or of humans but still very natural - the idea that the faery is so natural but still so non-human.
In conclusion the two different styles of writing poetry (the Ode and Ballad) which would normally be so different are only made similar by what Keats has added to them, he has added his unmistakable touch and it is these personal features that run through both poems which links them.
Epilogue. Another similarity which can separate the poems is the allegorical meaning which La Belle Dame Sans Merci may contain. The poem itself may be a metaphor for events in Keats’s own life. Keats had recently lost a brother to tuberculosis and he himself was. "…a lily on thy brow" and "…on thy cheeks a fading rose", both these lines could be interpreted as symptoms for the disease.
"La Belle Dame" may (or may not) be referring to a woman Keats met who distracted him from his vocation, writing poetry. In this poem she is seen as the "evil seductress".