Home  »  Volume XII: English THE ROMANTIC REVIVAL The Nineteenth Century, I  »  § 6. La Belle Dame Sans Merci

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

IV. Keats

§ 6. La Belle Dame Sans Merci

What remains of the companion piece, The Eve of St. Mark’s, though conceived at the same time, was written some months later, and it remained unfinished. Once more, a saint’s day legend sets astir the devout heart of a young girl. But the pictorial artistry, even more exquisite, is in the subtler, more reticent, manner of Christabel. “It is quite in the spirit of town quietude,” wrote Keats. An old minister, “on a coolish evening,” echoing footfall, drowsy chimes and Bertha’s chamber in the gloaming with the play of her flickering shadow upon screen and panel—subdued effects like these replace the “bitter cold,” the gules and argent of St. Agnes. And there are hints of a delicate grotesquerie equally foreign to that poem, but, like its delicate finished realism, its miniature description, fore-shadowing Rossetti, who regarded it as, together with La Belle Dame,“in manner the choicest and chastest of Keats’s work.” The other, not less wonderful, romance of this spring, La Belle Dame sans Merci (April, 1819), may, also, be called a companion poem of The Eve of St. Agnes; but the ways of Keats’s genius are here seen in a totally different, almost opposite, aspect. The woeful knight at arms, like Madeline, has awakened from a dream; but his awakening is poignant disillusion, not blissful fulfilment; the desolate moor, not the fragrant chamber and the lover’s presence. And his weird chant is in subtlest sympathy with his forlornness. Instead of the jewelled richness, the saturated colour of The Eve of St. Agnes, we have a style of horror-stricken reticence and suggestion, from which colour and definite form have been withdrawn; and a music of brief haunting cadences, not of eloquent, articulated phrase. The character of each poem is accentuated in the final line of its stanza: the Alexandrines of The Eve of St. Agnes are points of heightened entrain, the short slow closing verses of La Belle Dame (“And no birds sing”), moments of keener suspense.