La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- John Keats
See note on Keats' life on page 27. This poem needs to be
read in conjunction with To Autumn
on page 4. I think that these two poems are linked in that they
deal differently with the concept of the transience of life
and the inevitability of death. It seems to me that in this
poem Keats is presenting a bitter response to this concept.
I perceive "la belle dame" as death herself, and see
the poem as being about the seductive but ultimately deceptive
appeal of death as an escape from the pain of the world.
The first three stanzas are addressed to the knight and indicate that both
he and the landscape around him are in decay: we read that
"The sedge has withered from the lake,
and no birds sing"
and that on his cheeks
"a fading rose
"The harvest's done"
and that time of fruitfulness is over.
The remainder of the poem is the knight's explanation of his
plight: the magical lady he met entranced, blinded and deceived
him before abandoning him without hope. I feel that the fact
that she looked at him "as she
did love" implies as if she
did love, and that in fact she didn't. When on his horse
she obliterates his view of the world and focuses his attention
on her so that he "nothing else
saw all day long", and she "lulled"
him to sleep. He is now utterly given over to her, and it is
at this point that she abandons him and he dreams of his fellow
victims warning him that he is "in
thrall", or slavery. He continues to wander "Alone
and palely loitering" though all around is dead,
because he seems to have nowhere else to go.
As I have said, I see this poem as being about death, and
link it with To Autumn. Others
see it as a poem about the death of love. There's nothing to
stop you reading it either way, or to stop it being both!
To Autumn - John Keats
The poem is directly addressed to autumn, which is personified.
We could say that autumn is apostrophised - spoken to directly
- if we wanted to wow the examiner with our technical vocabulary.
Thus, "In this poem Keats apostrophises autumn." The
sun is also personified, and it and autumn are presented as
colluding to overwhelm creation and nature with "mellow
fruitfulness", and the first eleven lines are packed
with vocabulary which speaks of productive completeness: "mellow
and bless with fruit", "fill
all fruit with ripeness to the core", "swell",
I'm particularly fond of the image of the confused and overwhelmed
bees who can't find room for any more nectar in the "clammy
cells" of their honeycombs. The line length and enjambment
we find adds to the sense of overwhelming fullness created in
The next verse presents a series of portraits of Autumn, in
a variety of harvest related poses. All of these poses are beautiful
and pastorally romantic, suggestive of contentment, fulfilment
The last verse recognises the appeal and challenge of Spring
but rejects it as irrelevant:
"Think not of them, - thou hast thy music
Autumn is being presented as a time of beauty in and of itself,
with nothing to fear or regret.
I'm interested in these "full-grown
lambs". Isn't a full grown lamb a sheep? Is Keats
suggesting that the purpose of the lamb is to become the sheep,
the purpose of Spring is to lead to Autumn? Is it true, as Wordsworth
would have it, that "The child is father to the man"?
Am I talking rubbish?
Link this in with the idea of death and the autumn of a person's
life, when death is approaching. My theory is that in this poem
Keats is presenting an acceptance of death which was not present
in La Belle Dame Sans Merci. The poem in this collection which
presents a similar view of death, it seems to me, is Amen by
Christina Rossetti, so I'll do that one now.
Amen - Christina Rossetti
See the note on page 23.
The title itself speaks both of ending and completion. Amen
is what is said at the end of prayers and means "so be
it." It denotes acceptance and assent.
Each verse follows the pattern of statement, question and development.
Verse 1 seems a little negative at the outset: "It is over"
seems a very final form of words. However, the question challenges
that negative assertion, opening the way for the realisation
that the end which has been reached is a fruitful and planned
"Harvest days we toiled to sow for;
Now the sheaves are gathered newly,
Now the wheat is garnered duly."
The next verse is loaded with biblical echoes. "It
is finished" were Christ's last words from the cross.
They can also be translated "It is accomplished".
From a Christian perspective, what had been accomplished by
this death was the breaking of the power of sin and the freeing
of mankind for a friendship with God. Furthermore, it wasn't
really an end because after death came resurrection. Now, you
don't have to believe this (though I do) but you have to know
about it, because Christina Rossetti was a Christian and, indeed,
a hymn writer. She would have known what she was doing when
she chose these words, and would not have used them lightly.
The remainder of this verse seems less certain; it is as if
there are unanswered questions left hanging in the air.
Nevertheless, the final verse asserts the acceptance implied
in the title. "It suffices"; it is enough. Indeed,
she states, "All suffices reckoned
rightly"; everything is enough, if looked at in
the right way. The last five lines show the triumph of life
over death, spring over winter. Opposing word pairs such as
"Spring _ice"; "Roses_bramble" demonstrate
this. The "quickening sun"
will bring life and warmth, the wind will create movement and
end stagnation, and riches and fulfilment will return to the
garden of the poet's life, which will "teem with spices".
Whether the poem is about the end of life or the end of love,
it certainly comes through to a triumphant acceptance of the
way things are. I feel that it is like To Autumn in this sense.
To A Mouse - Robert Burns
In narrative terms this is, indeed, a poem about Burns' feelings
on overturning the nest of a mouse with his plough. He directly
addresses (apostrophises) the mouse, telling it not to be afraid
of him, apologising to it, sympathising with its plight then
claiming to be in a worse position himself.
The ideas expressed in the poem are political and philosophical;
his reference to "Nature's social
union" and his regret that it has been broken by
together with his description of himself as
"thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal"
suggest a belief in the equality of all life.
Burns bases his claim to be worse off then the mouse on the
fact that, whilst the mouse lives only in the present, the poet
has both memory and foresight; he can remember past pain and
expect future suffering. In this sense the poem is, as the book's
notes would have it, "really about the apparent futility
of life and labour."
The four poems I have dealt with so far could all be
used in a discussion of how poems which are ostensibly to do
with nature in fact have another layer to them. The poems which
follow are, in one way or another, connected with the theme
First Love - John Clare
This is a very romantic poem about unrequited, hopeless love.
It's told from a male perspective. There has been no actual
relationship between the parties; it's merely an impossible
love at first sight.
Words like "struck" and "sudden" show
the immediate and powerful impact the woman has on the poet,
and the physical nature of that impact is later developed. He
is rendered powerless by her -
"My legs refused to walk away"
"my blood rushed to my face
And took my sight away"
"I could not see a single thing"
; his senses are in turmoil -
"seemed midnight at noonday"
- and his life is turned upside down -
"My heart has left its dwelling place
And can return no more."
And while this is all happening he realises that it is a love
which cannot be -
"Are flowers the winter's choice?
Is love's bed always snow?"
The feeling at the end of the poem is one of absolute hopelessness.
I can see a connection with La Belle
Dame Sans Merci here, in that the knight has experienced
a joy which has been taken away in the same way that this poet
has been shown a love which is unattainable.
Ballad - Anon
This is a poem told from a female perspective about betrayal
in love. The ballad form is very suitable for what is both an
age old and a timeless story. The story is simple: she has been
seduced, made pregnant and abandoned, and is now lamenting this
fact and trying to make plans for the future.
The first three verses tell the story of this seduction and
Verse 4 sees the girl wishing she could undo the past, realising
she can't and longing for death -
"O when will green grass cover me?"
In verse 5 we see a recognition that she is not alone in this
suffering. The reference to the thorny pillow is, of course,
Verses 6 & 7 present a series of contrasts between what
the girl expected and what she got, what she did and what she
should have done: "silk"
and "milk" are the
dream, but "clay"
is the reality; His heart seemed soft
but it was steel; she laments "O
had I walked ere I did run".
In verse 8 her thoughts turn more to the baby and its future, especially once
she is gone, which she seems to think will be soon,
"When thou without a friend shall be
Weeping on a stranger's knee."
Her grief is intensified by the absolute trust the baby has
in her, and its ignorance of its fate. I think it is at this
point that she decides to kill both herself and the baby. I
can't prove it, but it seems to me to be suggested by the last
two lines, as contrasted with lines 19 & 20. I think that
this "wish" which
she is voicing is in fact an intention, the only way out that
she can see for the pair of them. If this is so, it is tribute
to the power of this simple yet profound poem that we end up
sympathising with her rather than seeing her as an infanticidal
Shall I compare thee? - Shakespeare
The poet here is eulogising (praising) his love. He asks whether
a Summer's day, a lovely thing, is a suitable comparison, but
decides that she outstrips it, being "more
lovely and more temperate." He suggests she is superior
in that she is more beautiful, more consistent and longer lasting
- immortal in fact.
Summer is vulnerable to wind and weather; it ends too soon;
the sun is sometimes too hot but at other times is overcast;
all lovely things lose their beauty either as a result of accident
or the ravages of time. She, he claims, is the exception; she
will neither lose her beauty nor die. This is, on the face of
it, ridiculous, till we realise that he is claiming to be immortalising
her and her beauty in his verse:
long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
"This" is his poem eulogising her.
Let me not - Shakespeare
This is a poem not about a lover but the nature of love, what
it is and what it is not. He will not accept that "impediments"
can get in the way of real love, "the
marriage of true minds". Note that this love is
not a physical thing; it is the minds which are married. Love
is not affected by changes of circumstance, even if that circumstance
is the withdrawal of love on the other side. Shakespeare uses
a nautical image to describe the steadfastness of love; it is
like a landmark unmoved by storms; it is like a star to steer
by. (Though Shakespeare uses metaphor rather than simile: he
says love is these things, not that it is like these things,
so the image is stronger).
Love is not susceptible to time or its ravages. Indeed, in
the face of such love, the "breefe
houres and weekes"of time are irrelevant.
Shakespeare announces the self evidency of his statements
in the final couplet; since he has lived and
men have loved, he seems to be saying, he must
The Flea - John Donne
Donne was what is known as a metaphysical poet. So was Marvell
who wrote To His Coy Mistress.
Both are come - to - bed poems, which use extreme comparisons
(conceits) and the power of argument to carry their point.
In this poem Donne is trying to persuade his girlfriend to have
sex with him. He finds a flea which has bitten both of them
and argues that, since they are already united in the flea,
they might as well sleep together.
We would not normally expect to find a flea in a love poem.
John Donne is using a conceit - a ridiculous comparison logically
In the first stanza the flea has sucked both their bloods, enabling
Donne to argue that the two are already one. He claims that
she has not sinned in being enjoyed by the flea and implies
that she would not sin in being enjoyed by him.
Between stanzas 1 & 2 she must be about to kill the flea.
He argues that this would be committing multiple murder as well
as sacrilege. She would be taking the life of the flea, but
also their two lives since their blood is in the flea. Since
they are, he claims "more than
married" by their blood unity in the flea, she would
be destroying their "marriage
temple". Taking her own life would be suicide, which
was not only a sin but also, in Donne's time, a crime.
Nevertheless between stanzas 2 & 3 she kills the flea.
His tone in lines 19 -22 is angry and reproachful. The poet
seems to have suffered a reversal; despite the flea being dead
they are no weaker, as he had claimed they would be. At this
point she would seem to have won, indeed she "triumphest".
He seems to agree with her but then turns it around; just as
he was wrong to think that the flea's death would weaken him,
she is wrong to think that sleeping with him would damage her
reputation. This poem is more to do with sex than with love,
as is Marvell's poem.
To His Coy Mistress - Andrew Marvell
Marvell's argument is that, if they had all the time in the
world, he would happily wait for his lover to be ready for him.
He lists the things he would be content to do, giving her the
exotic pleasures of the Ganges whilst he waits by the more mundane
Humber. He stresses the eternal nature of his love by his references
to the flood - way back in pre history - and the conversion
of the Jews - set to happen at the end of time! He would spend
eons adoring the various parts of her anatomy "because",
as he & the cosmetic company say, "you're worth it!"
Well, he says "Lady, you deserve
this state", but you get my drift, yes?
All of this is just crying out for a "but", and
it comes at the beginning of the next verse. The problem is
that they haven't got all the time in the world.
Time is catching up with them, and time brings death. There's
no courting in death and even if she keeps her hymen safe from
him in life, the worms will get to it in the end. It's a horrible,
brutal, shocking image, isn't it, but we can't pretend it's
not there. This being the case, he says, they should go for
it "now". Look at the repetition
of that word. I love this verse. It's so passionate and energetic
and visual. He says that, rather than waiting for time to chew
them up slowly, they should "devour" their time, consuming
it in pleasure. He suggests that they should go out in a blaze
of glory (and, presumably, sex). That way, though they won't
be able to stop time -
"though we cannot make our sun stand still"
- at least they can give it a run for its money -
"yet we will make him run."
This ending is so fantastic I can almost forgive him the bit
about the worms!
This leaves us with Porphyria's Lover and My Last Duchess,
both of which are dramatic monologues by Browning dealing with
obsessive love and jealousy. Both narrators are, in their own
way, psychopaths, who can see nothing wrong with what they've
My Last Duchess - Browning
The story is that the Duke is showing around a servant with
whose master he is engaged in negotiations for a new bride;
the Duke wants to marry the daughter of the master. This makes
the fact that he tells the servant this story really quite remarkable.
He shows the picture, usually veiled, because he is possessive
of her in her death as he was in her life, and tells how she
came to die. She was "too soon made glad" and did
not, he felt, appreciate him enough. He was too proud to rebuke
her for this, feeling it would be demeaning -
"and I choose
Never to stoop"
Then all smiles stopped together."
In other words he becomes jealous of the fact that his young
wife is made happy by things not in his control, and kills her
I love the way that the servant seems to be trying to get to his master, presumably
to warn him off this nutter, but is prevented by the Duke:
"Nay, we'll go
together down, sir."
The reference to the bronze of Neptune taming a sea horse
is significant: he has tamed his "last
duchess" and added her to his collection in the
Porphyrias's Lover - Browning
The poem starts with a description of the weather - turbulent
to match the mood of the narrator. This is a common literary
device. Porphyria's behaviour on entering would, you would have
thought, changed his attitude, but he seems unresponsive even
when she is being quite provocative - lines.16 - 21.
The story seems to be that she is his social superior and
cannot break away from the high life which she enjoys in order
to be with him. She is just not up to the sacrifice-
"Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour
To set its struggling passion free
And give herself to me forever."
By coming to him through the storm she seals her fate. He
believes it is a proof of love-
"at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me"
He decides to hold onto the moment in which she is his absolutely
-"mine, mine" (note
the obsessive repetition) - by killing her. This will also protect
her from becoming a victim of her own weakness in future, and
maybe ceasing to be "perfectly
pure and good." He believes that in doing this he
is freeing her from her weakness so that she can be with him
which, he thinks, is her "utmost
will", what she wants most in the world. He believes
he has not hurt her, though one would think that being strangled
with one's own hair would be less than entirely comfortable!
Furthermore, he believes God has not judged him guilty: he has
sat cuddled up to her dead body all night, "And
yet God has not said a word."
The events are narrated by the lover, who has no sense of guilt,
yet Browning creates a sense of shock and revulsion in the reader.
The lover's own lack of awareness of his wrongdoing only adds
to this, in much the same way as that of the Duke in My Last
Duchess. Both narrators are chillingly dangerous because of
their complete lack of moral awareness.