John Keats was born on October 31st, 1795 in Finsbury Pavement near London. He was the first son of a stable-keeper, with a sister and three brothers. John attended a respectable school where he became familiar with ancient and contemporary literature. In 1810, his mother died leaving all the children to their grandmother. She put them under the care of guardians and made more than enough money for the benefit of the orphans. Under the authority of these guardians, Keats was taken from school as an apprentice to a surgeon. In 1814, before his own completion of his apprenticeship, John left his master after a bitter row to become a student in a London hospital. Under the influence of his friend Cowden Clarke, he devoted himself increasingly to literature. In 1814, Keats finally gave up his medical ambitions to live a literary life.
He soon was acquainted with celebrated artists of his time, like Leigh Hunt, Percy B. Shelley and Benjamin Robert Haydon. In May 1816, Hunt helped him publish his first poem in a magazine. A year later Keats published about thirty poems and sonnets printed in the volume “Poems”. His poems, be very few are renowned to this day and are enjoyed by many literary figures alongside general avid readers.
In this essay, I shall compare two narrative poems by John Keats, ‘Isabella’ and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’ I shall compare and contrast the ways in which they are written and consider the language, structure and tone between the two poems.
‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ (poem 1) was written on April 21, 1819. The title as realised by some is actually French, which Keats took from an early fifteenth century French poem by Alan Chartier. The phrase belongs to the language of courtly love and it describes the beautiful woman without “mercy,” that is the sort of courteous compassion, which prompts a woman to accept a lover’s plea. The poem is deceptively simple and explores sexuality as well the role of nature. The poem is all about a ‘knight-at-arms’ who is doomed by a fortunate meeting in the meads with a beautiful lady. Enchanted by her sensual attraction, he sets her upon his steed and spends the day bewitched by her captivating company. He falls into a daze to be haunted by indistinct echoes of the lady’s other victims and wakes up from his mysterious slumber to find that in actual fact he is alone on a cold and bleak hillside where even the birds singing stays unheard.
In this poem, there is a strong use of imagery, which is typical to the period it was written in. The dialogue in the poem tells us how the knight is dying,
“I see a lily on thy brow” Line 9
This is common imagery for death. This idea of death is taken a step further when Keats writes,
“And on thy cheeks a fading rose…” Line 11
Here the “rose” is used as a metaphor for death. Also, when describing the enchantress, he writes,
“And her eyes were wild” Line 16
This gives the reader a devilish image of the enchantress in contrast to the beautiful lady earlier on in the poem. Behind all of the imagery in this poem can be found another development in the connection, as
“I shut her wild, wild eyes,
With kisses for” Lines 31 – 32
This demonstrates man’s interaction with nature. However, the negative use of imagery in this poem can be found where the knight is dreaming. Keats conjures up this image of “pale kings and princes too…” who have all been used and abused by nature in the on-going conflict between man and nature. Therefore, the use of imagery in this poem has been used in a negative way; first of all where the dialogue occurs, and then where the knight is seeing ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’s’ previous victims. However, there is some positive imagery where Keats describes the dame and how the knight embraces her.
Alongside the use of imagery, similes and metaphors play a distinct role in each poem.
“the sedge has wither’d from the lake, and no birds sing”,
Here are two lines which are metaphors for the time of year the poem is set in which is during winter time. Typical of the time it was written in, this poem is packed with metaphors. When describing the child of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which in itself is imagery for nature, Keats use of metaphors bring a mystical feel upon the lady, as her “eyes were wild”. In the next stanza, he describes how the knight makes garlands for her, which were to smell wonderful, “and fragrant zone”. The next use of metaphors is when he is dreaming, and finds out the
“La Belle Dame sans Merci, Hath thee in thrall”.
He realises he is now dying, as he “awoke on the cold hill’s side.” Therefore, this poem could be a metaphor for Keats’ own disease, which sadly killed him. This may be the reason for the negative use of nature in the poem compared to that in “Isabella” written earlier (when he was not so badly affected by tuberculosis) and nature plays a ‘good’ role in love.
In the final stanza, the symbolism is clear.
“…the sedge is withered from the lake/And no birds sing”
This illustrates the knight’s intense sadness. The whole experience can be summed up in that nature meets something that looks like its complement, but is rather its destruction.
“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” comprises of twelve stanzas that are composed of quatrain with each last line being shortened:
” And no birds sing.” Line 4
This idea of shortened last lines emphasise feelings of emptiness. There is not a commonly used rhyming scheme in poems generally like the one present in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”
“Isabella” was written and finished a little earlier, on the 27th of April 1818. ‘Isabella’ is a story from Boccaccio whereas “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is a ballad. In the poem, Isabella is portrayed as a heroine with a gentle, innocent and passionate twist to her character. Isabella is eager to experience love with Lorenzo. Readers are forced to share not simply in the initial delight of the lovers, but in the responsibility of the discovery of their secret by Isabella’s brothers, because the narrator reveals their secret meeting place to them. Both Lorenzo and Isabella suffer pitifully before achieving their short accomplishment, and the misfortune of Isabella’s grief, from the moment of Lorenzo’s murder, mounts until eventually she succumbs to her sorrows and dies. In this poem, Keats explores the nature of love and its tragic outcome. Keats also refers to the harmony of the melancholy
“O Melancholy, linger here awhile!
O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!” lines 433 – 434
Alongside that, Keats calls onto the Music and Echo to breathe “syllables of woe” which are appropriate to the muse of the heartbreak, Melpomene.
Throughout the poem, Keats avoids using boring descriptions of intrigue and seduction. And the place that Lorenzo and Isabella achieve their love is subtly described as
“a bower of hyacinth and musk.” line 85
Here the images used of nature are not just a symbolism of love but of propagation. In “Isabella” nature in one way is used as a metaphor for the beauty of the love between the two lovers’ (Lorenzo and Isabella):
“Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart
Only to meet once again more close, and share.” Lines 73 – 74
This is in contrast to “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” because in that poem images of nature are closely related to ideas of pain and destruction when in “Isabella” nature is very much part of the beautiful love theme throughout “Isabella.” However, in “La Belle Dame San Merci” there are occasions when positive imagery relates to that in “Isabella” and that is the part when the knight and enchantress first meet which there is a romantic connection.
Continuing with the plot, Lorenzo’s love for Isabella increases when he is a spirit because when he sees her pale complexion he finds her even more beautiful. She revives in strength when she tends his severed head at home, and the head with herbs washed into it by her tears, perfumes the basil and makes it grow. The use of vivid imagery leaves the reader quite amazed at the depth Keats has gone into to describe Isabella’s love and pain over Lorenzo.
Keats’s description of Lorenzo’s words as a ‘strange sound’ accompanied by a ‘ghostly under-song’, ensures the voice synecdoche displaces the description of his physical state
“And through it moan’d a ghostly under-song.”
It is interesting to see the way that Keats uses language to displace the description of what Lorenzo looks like as a spectre. This comeback of Lorenzo enlightens Isabella of her brothers’ dark and cruel deeds, his own appearance. The comments that Lorenzo leaves with Isabella prepare her for her obsession with a basil-pot, containing her lover’s recovered head and the plant weaned on tears:
“Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moistened it with tears unto the core.” Lines 423 – 424
For Isabella the secret of Lorenzo’s concealed head is important, because it substitutes, rather awkwardly, the secret love she once shared with him.
In “Isabella” and in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” we see that ideas of love, death and immortality were central ideas to Keats when he wrote this poem. And as an effect in “Isabella,” Keats uses deliberate repetition:
“O Music, Music………………………
O Echo, Echo ………………………..”
Keats also uses verbs, nouns and adjectives in threes for emphasis and sometimes uses verbs as nouns. Keats also uses rhetorical questions such as:
“Why in the name of Glory were they proud?”
Isabella is a narrative poem and when Keats wrote this he broke his personal ground in using ottava rima, the stanza which consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter, the first six lines rhyme alternatively and the last two form a couplet, a b a b a b c c. And only at one point a poor rhyme distorts the sense and lowers the tone:
“…………………Those Baalites of pelf,
Her brethren, noted the continual shower
From her dead eyes, and many of curious elf,
Among her kindred………………..”
Generally, the desire for love of the heroine or the gruesome detail of the narrative is in process, the horrific theme is expressed gently, and the forceful description and imagery works well in the strict stanza form. The eight line stanzas work as paragraphs, which encourage the development of the intensity at points of the narrative or description. Talking in terms of tone, the tone is directly affected by the pace of the poem. At points when love is the subject, the pace of the poem is slow and Keats then creates a luxurious atmosphere with a mellow tone. However, when the poem reaches points of the narration of the brothers’ actions the pace of the poem is a lot quicker and therefore the tone being very sinister. In “Isabella”, the tone chops and changes depending on who the narrator is mentioning the poem. This is different to “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” because the romantic tone is constant up to the point that the knight is awake. As soon as the knight is ‘lulled’ to sleep the tone is a lot colder and actually quite disturbing.
Overall, both poems are classed as ‘medieval’ love stories. They both explore ideas of love and death and have striking differences at that. You are able to see the development in Keats literary skills especially in terms of imagery throughout the poems. Both poems are well known masterpieces of Keats who has great knowledge and awareness of romanticism.