If you are an English teacher you probably never considered that Keats’ ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci. A Ballad’ was a comedy. But actually it is. No – Keats wasn’t channelling his despair over Fanny Brawne or TB into his work whatsoever, it was all, in fact, a laugh.
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My GCSE borderline class got stuck into the poem pretty quickly with the help of an online comic. “God, he (the knight at arms) looks awful, what’s wrong with him Miss? Is he dead?” “Is he a tramp?” “Is he homeless?”.
Next activity, pick 5 phrases the passer by uses to describe the knight – ‘fever dew’ – “What’s he been doing, he’s all covered in sweat?”. ‘Palely loitering’ – anyone know what loitering is? “When you hang around outside shops and the shop keepers don’t like it.” Haggard’ – “well rough.” So, as you see the knight at arms is, in fact, a kind of sweaty pervert hanging around outside the offie trying to get someone to buy him 20 B&H.
Their opinion of him fared no better when they heard he was hanging out in the ‘meads’ looking for women. Although they appreciated his ‘garland’ and ‘bracelet’ making skills, they found the production of ‘fragrant zone’ hard to take in. “How long did this meeting take place in the meads, Miss?” I don’t know, maybe a morning/ afternoon? “How could he have made perfume in that time, and don’t you need equipment for that?”. Very true, very, very true Year 10. Keats really did not think it through. The timeframe is totally unrealistic.
What seemed unusual about the beautiful lady, the ‘faery’s child’? Well, for one she was feeding the knight strange roots “No wonder he loses it at the end,” “She puts drugs in those roots I reckon,” and she lived in an ‘elfin grot’ – “You gotta be suspicious at that! A cave – serves him right!” That knight at arms – what a jerk.
But the best bit had to be the discussion of the previous kings, warriors and princes who had been duped by La Belle – what do they have in common? “She drugged them all,” “She likes ’em rich so she can drug ’em and take their money!” and “She’s a gold digger!”
So what have we learned from this poem – why did Keats feel the need to tell us about what happened or didn’t happen here (“It was all a dream”/”It never happened, he was hallucinating”)?
“He wanted us to know this because she was clearly mental with her crazy eyes and we should watch out for girls like that.”
‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ – ambiguity and comedy rolled into one. Pretty good for a first interpretation I reckon.