Illusions of Keats’ Femme Fatale

In “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” Keats places focus on the concept of illusions, like he did in “Lamia.” The dying knight, who meets the beautiful lady, ultimately falls victim to the illusion of her love and beauty. Interestingly, the knight only becomes aware of her false allure after being revealed a certain truth by a third party, just like Lycius from “Lamia.” The two poems are similar because these two men have fallen in love under unnatural circumstances and do not seem aware of the lack of feasibility of their love until someone reminds them of the truth. Could these two men have avoided their fates if they had been able to see the truths all along? Was this fate inescapable? Were these men never truly happy to begin with because the happiness they enjoyed turned out to be lies and false hope? And if they choose to embrace this truth and the false hope that they had believed in all along, can they choose to be happy and be content knowing that this deception can be shattered again?

In my opinion, it feels like in both of these poems for these two men, Keats gives these illusions of these beautiful women such a negative connotation because ultimately in the end, these men have no choices of their own. It seems as if Keats emasculates these men by ultimately stripping them away of the powers they once had, placing the decisions solely in the palms of the “femme fatale.” Keats sort of plays upon this gender imbalance, showing that despite the brains and physique that these men possess, they are no match against the allure of these beautiful, cunning women. Through both these poems, do you think that Keats is trying to portray an aspect of female strength by reversing the stereotypically defined powers of the opposite sex?

Once the illusion becomes shattered and the truth becomes revealed, the knight and Lycius have no choices in which direction they want to face- whether they choose to accept this illusion and live in this superficial sense of happiness or whether they can object to these lies and start over again. These men lose any sense of hope and escape because in the poems, the knight wakes up with ultimate depression and Lycius dies. Through these outcomes of both of these men, what do you think that Keats is trying to show the reader about illusions? Do you believe that Keats is portraying illusions in a negative, positive, hopeful, or hopeless perspective?

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Interestingly, in “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” the men who fall prey to this beautiful woman turn out to be all powerful men: kings, princes, and warriors- all men of such high statuses and power. Perhaps Keats uses these men to show the powerful delusion that they can victim to. It strengthens the power of the “belle dame” and grimness of the hopeless situation. Keats shows that although all these men are powerful in terms of their career, their weaknesses lie in their inability to judge truths and see past the fatal spells of a beautiful woman. The pictures above portray the men in their seemingly weakest states, clinging their last hopes onto the beautiful woman they find along the road.

“I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.”

There were two versions of “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” the manuscript version of April 21st of 1819 and the published version of May 20, 1819.

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Although only a few phrases have been changed and the order of words switched, there has been a significant change in the meanings. In the first stanza, what difference do you think lies in the use of “wight” and “knight-at-arms?” And how does changing the order of the fifth and sixth stanza in the manuscript and published editions make a difference?

I believe the biggest difference is in the ninth stanza when the female lulls the knight to sleep in the manuscript edition, and slumbers with him in the published edition. In the published edition, by slumbering on the moss together, the female seems to lose part of her cunning nature because she is also in the process of falling asleep with him. This action makes her seem more innocent and vulnerable, rather than a cunning woman who lulls the knight to sleep to face his demise and watches on the side. Rather, she seems more soft than calculating and fatal, and the dream has less of an impact because she did not purposely lull him to sleep to leave him to rot to death alone. What do you think are the impacts of the changes in the manuscript and published editions? Why do you think Keats made these changes?

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One Response to Illusions of Keats’ Femme Fatale

  1. teithabess says:

    I like your point about the Keats’ female figures emasculating their fellow male characters. It seems that lies at the heart of the poems’ female-induced anxiety, that the men could not override their desires with, say, reason. Instead, in “La Belle,” a “wild”-eyed woman overcomes the presumably-chivalrous knight.

    The manuscript version is a great find! Relating to my last point, the knight seems to be further degraded in the published version than how La Belle left him, going from “knight-at-arms” to “wretched wight.” This change certainly makes the knight more “wretched,” or even fallen. For in regards to the change in the ninth stanza, I would argue that admitting that “we slumber’d in the moss” indicates that he did not just sleep nearby her, as the original might suggest, but that he slept with her. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I highly doubt the “romantic” ideal of a chivalrous knight was anything other than a virgin before marriage. If the knight did sleep with La Belle, then it is unlikely he thought he could continue to be called a knight (possibly another explanation for the change in the first line of the poem). I suppose La Belle could have taken advantage of him in the original, though since he awakes to only the “cold hill’s side,” the reason for his wretchedness appears to be caused by her raising his hopes and then abandoning him. I would be curious if anyone has a different reading.

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