English Literature: Keats – La Belle Dame sans Merci – The role of the nature

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In Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci, the role of nature is relatively simple. In this poem, nature represents all that the protagonist (the knight) loves and needs. Obviously that desire is embodied in the lady he meets in the meadows, but the subtle symbolism within nature runs throughout the poem as well. If everything is right with the knight, nature is blossoming. Indeed, perhaps part of the knight himself is nature, as hinted at in stanza three when the unseen questioner comments “I see a lily on thy brow/With anguish moist and fever dew/And on thy cheeks a fading rose/Fast withereth too.” On the surface, the two flowers can be taken to designate the colour of the knight’s facial features – he is obviously tormenting himself over some matter, and it is causing him to sweat and become pale. However, that the metaphors used are flowers represents the force, the almost representation of nature within the knight.

In literature, the sun is always brighter and the flowers always hold more beauty when the main character is going through happy times. Humans tend to associate good weather and health in the land around with good times in characters’ lives (and vice versa). This is exactly what happens in La Belle Dame sans Merci. It is even evident from the very first line the knight says, in stanza four: “I met a lady in the meads”. A meadow is the perfect location in this instance for the knight’s woeful tale to begin. In the reader’s mind, it is a simple setting, but clearly a place of great natural growth. We imagine everything as bright and grass-covered, with perhaps a sprinkling of flowers here and there. This is the very essence of nature at her best, and so begins the knight’s happiest time.

Soon after the knight and the lady meet, he makes three garlands for her out of the flowers found in the meadow. Stanza five, where this event can be found, is entirely a metaphor for making love. The knight, in a way, is nature, so when the lady puts on the garlands, she is actually adorning herself with the knight. To solidify the lovemaking theory, the last two lines speak of the lady’s reaction: “She looked at me as she did love/and made sweet moan.” The connection is quite evident – the lady is enjoying the knight’s advances intensely, in both the surface scene and the sexual underneath.

The same symbolism that is true for stanza five also applies to seven. Finally, we see that perhaps the lady represents nature in a way as well when she gives the knight “roots of relish sweet/And honey wild, and manna dew.” These things are sweet, it is true, but have little real substance. “Man does not live on bread alone;” likewise, one cannot survive on honey alone. The “manna dew” is especially symbolic. Manna is the substance sent by God to the Israelites in order to survive in the wilderness. Obviously the lady cannot have given the knight real manna, but what she did give him he thinks of as equal to that which God gave the children of Israel. However, she only gave him manna dew. As the knight reflects upon his encounter, he speaks of it in those terms because, while at the time he thought it was the stuff of life, the end-all be-all of experiences, he realises now that it was merely a hoax, and has no real substance.

In the final stanza, the symbolism is clear. “…the sedge is withered from the lake/And no birds sing” exemplifies the knight’s intense sadness. The whole experience can be summed up in that nature meets something that looks like its counterpart, but is rather its undoing.

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