The Irony of the Ballad Form in Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

MHD Noor Al-Abbood


Although critics commenting on Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” are divided on whether or not the poem is autobiographical, the genre of the poem as a “ballad” tends to be given short shrift in their critical interpretations, and its role in determining the meaning of the poem is largely left unexplored. Taking into account the fact that a traditional ballad is an impersonal detached mode of poem, and that a lyric is a rather subjective composition displaying the poet’s thoughts and sentiments, one would expect that Keats’s utilization of the formal features of the traditional ballad genre, including a detached, impersonal mode of writing, would rule out lyrical or autobiographical interpretations. However, reading the poem against the grain (of its ballad form), this article argues that Keats’s deployment of the ballad genre conventions does not actually preclude autobiographical interpretations, but, on the contrary, it endorses them. For Keats’s poem is lyrical and personal in nature and his use of the conventions of the traditional ballad form is to deflect the critical attention away from the poem’s autobiographical content. To make this point, this article investigates three illuminating contexts in which to place “La Belle Dame.” To begin with, “La Belle Dame” is a literary ballad that has much in common with Keats’s other poems and letters, whether at the level of poetic themes and personal concerns or at the level of language. However, the most important context to consider the ironic relationship of Keats’s lyrical content to his traditional ballad form is his revision of the poem for its first publication in the Indicator. If Keats’s intention was to reinforce the ballad conventions of the poem, downplay its lyrical implications, and strike a self-conscious pose critical of what he thought was the poem’s excessive sentimentality and easy surrender to wish-fulfilling romance, this very gesture is a confirmation that the poem, at least in its first version, is largely subjective and lyrical. As such, Keats’s seemingly objective ballad mode, later further revised and strengthened, can be regarded as a trick to disguise his true conflicted feelings about his own enthrallment by Fanny Brawn – a trick that ironically reveals as much as it attempts to conceal.



John Keats, Fanny Brawne, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” genre, ballad, lyric, irony

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