This paper examines John Keats‘ enigmatic 1819 “ballad” “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in light of the theories of medievalist historian Georges Duby. In Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, Duby sets out to examine familiar relationships within the feudal system and posse comitatus; he finds a tenuous social structure whereby large numbers of unmarried men, “youths,” cluster around a household with its lord and its unattainable lady. The result is a “triangular relationship between the ‘young man,’ the lady and the lord” (62) in which the young man’s passion for the lady, while on the surface adulterous and therefore offensive to the lord, in fact acts subconsciously to bond him more closely to his liege. The lady of the house is both “a lure. . . . offered (up to a certain point) by the man who had her in his power” and “the prize in a competition, in a permanent contest between the young men of the court” (33); the contest works, despite its obvious danger and instability, to tame, educate, and “civilize” the young men of the household – to initiate them and prepare them for their own possible future roles as liege lords.
Duby’s insights can shed a new light on Keats’ disturbing and fascinating poem. Duby’s analysis of the “triangle” directs our attention to a fuller consideration of the poem’s “pale kings and princes. . . Pale warriors” (37-38), who represent after all not only a threat of being similarly “star’v” (41), but also a promise – “kings and princes” and “warriors” are presumably what a knight aspires to be or is – his peers and superiors. Read in this light, the knight’s experience with the lady may represent an initiation, a trial or test not by combat but by seduction, which the knight must pass to fully belong to, or advance within, the warrior class.
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19 July 2022
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Prior to coming to UNG, Kasee Laster taught at Ashland University (Ohio), Shorter College, and UGA, as well as serving as Chair of Humanities at Shorter and as Director of Study Abroad at UGA. Her primary teaching and research interests are eighteenth-century, Romantic, and nineteenth-century British (anything after Shakespeare and before the motor car). She is a graduate of the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky (BS), and of the University of Georgia (PhD), and resides in Oconee County, Georgia.