"'La Belle Dame sans Merci': a multimedia experiment in reading and seeing"
Noah Comet, The Ohio State University
1. This exercise consists of two parts: a take-home assignment (about 25 minutes), and an in-class movie screening, followed by
classroom discussion (50 minutes or more). Students are to compare their own seemingly objective responses to John Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” with filmmaker Hidetoshi Oneda’s short adaptation of the
poem (for more information, see http://www.celophaine.com/lbdsm/lbdsm_top.html). The aim of the exercise is to
challenge students’ notions of objectivity, and to make them self-aware readers, thus classroom discussion should emphasize
the ambiguities of poetic language, and the role of the reader/viewer as co-creator of meaning. Additionally, you might ask
the students to analyze their own reading practices in comparison with the process of adapting a text for a film.
2. As I have presented it here, the exercise suits introductory major or non-major English courses. Since its primary purpose is
to help students to appreciate the ostensibly passive act of reading as an active, creative process, it is most useful early
in the term as a methodological primer. In addition, the exercise can be easily adapted to advanced courses specializing in
Romanticism. To that end, below, I have suggested how an instructor might connect the themes at hand to other literary and
generic contexts, with a particular emphasis on Romantic drama. 
- Text of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (either version)
- Handout (see below)
- DVD of Hidetoshi Oneda’s short film, La Belle Dame sans Merci
- Media-equipped classroom
3. For the first part of the exercise (here conceived as a take-home assignment, though it can be done in-class if time allows)
students should read Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and respond to questions on a handout.
For the exercise to be most effective they should read the poem, put away their books, and then respond to the questions, thus
referring back not to the text itself, but to their memories of it. Admittedly, this is a ruse: students relying on their
memories are likely to conflate their own subjective contributions to the poem with textual details, and this conflation is
the impetus for the second part of the exercise. This portion takes about 25 minutes.
4. The second part of the exercise is based on an in-class screening of the short film (runtime approx. 15 min). Students should
be attentive to Oneda’s creative liberties with Keats’s poem. After the screening the students
should take a few minutes to review their own responses to the handout, comparing their answers with Oneda’s interpretation.
Consider beginning the discussion by asking them how Oneda would have responded to the handout
5. Ask the students if they thought that Oneda’s handling of Keats’s poem was “faithful” or “loose.”
Have them identify both obvious and subtle variations between the poem and the film. Oneda’s directorial choices are in many
instances quite startling, and the students will inevitably mention his liberties with the kinds of details they worked
through in their handouts, particularly the age and appearance of the knight, and the identity of the first speaker. At this
point, shift the discussion back to the text of the poem, perhaps even reading it aloud, and emphasize Keats’s evasive use of descriptive detail. Have the students share their responses from the handout questions, and
ask them to find strong textual support for them. In most cases, they will find sufficient ambiguity in Keats’s poem to support Oneda’s choices with as much (or as little) stability as their own. This revelation should
energize a discussion of reading as a creative act, even reading in its most apparently objective guise. If time permits, you
might briefly discuss the semantic distinctions between an “adaptation” and an “interpretation.” Which term applies to Oneda’s
film, and which term applies to the act of reading?
6. Note: as laid out here, this exercise primarily addresses Keats’s poem vis-à-vis the
practice and phenomenology of reading and dramatic interpretation, not as a Romantic text in all of its historical and textual
glory. Below, I offer a few brief thoughts on what implications the exercise might have for our understanding of, and perhaps
an extended classroom discussion about, Keats’s poem itself. 
- Draw and/or give a brief physical description of the Knight.
- Who is the speaker of the first three stanzas: what can we discern about him or her?
- How do you characterize the Lady? What motivates her behavior toward the knight?
The Exercise in Practice: A Writeup
7. Director Hidetoshi Oneda’s La Belle Dame sans Merci evinces his keen familiarity not only with Keats’s poem, but with many other canonical works and conventions of Romantic literature. Keats’s ballad guides the storyline of the film: a lovelorn knight, abandoned on a hillside,
recollects his encounter with an unforgiving, wild-eyed lady. But Oneda places the knight’s tale within a narrative frame akin
to that of Frankenstein, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and like Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Oneda employs this framing technique to gain moral perspective on his story. Whereas the speaker of the first three stanzas in
Keats’s poem is an ambiguous voice, all provocation with no discernible means of registering
and responding to the story he or she provokes, in the film the speaker is embodied as the unwitting pupil—Shelley’s Walton, or Coleridge’s wedding
guest—here re-imagined as a shipwrecked English navigator. The navigator, deposited on a desert island, finds the ancient and
haggard knight, and is transfixed (and transformed) by his story. Oneda dramatizes the knight’s memories, presenting the belle
dame as the archetypal Romantic femme fatale. Like Geraldine or Lamia, her seductive exterior belies a cold,
reptilian nature. Still, her wickedness is avoided at a cost: in Oneda’s film, the lady represents the ideal for which each of
us must make a great sacrifice upon faith, lest we end our lives like the knight, stranded, with only regret to sustain us. In
fact, after the knight tells his tale of destiny unfulfilled, he dies and disintegrates before the navigator’s eyes, leaving
the younger man sadder, wiser, and with a renewed commitment to his own dream: to be an artist. The kunstleroman
concludes with a close-up shot of the navigator being rescued, a sparkle of creative determination in his eyes.
8. This is, of course, the work of a director playing fast-and-loose with his literary source. However, Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a sparsely detailed poem that relies upon a communal knowledge of medieval
romantic tropes and ballad traditions, thus each reader must provide his or her own cultural capital as flesh for a skeletal
story. If Oneda’s version is a bit fleshier than some, still there is little in Keats’s poem that
undermines his interpretation.
Responses to the handout:
9. [Note: I did not have access to the students' responses until after the in-class screening and discussion; my point in
presenting the responses here, before recounting the classroom discussion, is to offer a summary of the exercise from the
students’ perspective.] In responding to the first handout question, the students generally agreed that the knight was
“dejected,” and “distraught.” They tended to portray his paleness and feverishness as that of a young man “prematurely
aged”—according to one student “he resembles a dying flower, once young and vibrant, but now decaying [as if] nature has
turned its back on him.” In their drawings the students tended to depict a small armor-clad figure dwarfed by his
surroundings. In one way or another, nearly all of the students described a “physically strong man that has obviously been
emotionally broken.” None of the students described the knight as aged or moribund (as does Oneda); instead they concentrated
on the mental and emotional toll of his experience. One student likened the knight’s trauma to that of the survivors of 9/11:
“like the extreme shock people experience after a terrorist attack.”
10. The 9/11 example is a good indicator of the extent to which each student made the poem personal. But even conventional
medievalist renderings of the knight were drawn from within: after all, Keats’s description of
the knight is little more than a fragmentary blason on a tormented face. Bodily, the knight loiters alone, but
his face is our only index of his physical and mental attributes: it is pale, haggard, woeful, clammy, feverish, blushing. He
is a “knight at arms” (or a “wretched wight”), but to envision a handsome man in the prime of his life wearing a (perhaps
disheveled) suit of armor is to provide a chivalric archetype in the place of a few vague details. Although my students were
more familiar with Tolkien than with Spenser, from their descriptions and drawings it was clear that they had melded Keats’s language with their own preconceptions of medieval knights.
Figure 1: Oneda envisions the knight as ancient and gaunt, with unkempt white hair, dark, deep-set eyes, and a
haunting voice. After telling his story to the navigator, the old knight dies and rapidly decomposes into
11. The second question elicited mixed but intriguing responses. Of the eighteen students participating, only five suggested that the
first speaker of Keats’s poem is unidentifiable—an “omniscient voice,” “perhaps Keats himself.” Of that group, three went on to conjecture that this unidentifiable voice conveys a
sense of sympathy in the act of questioning. In total, “sympathetic” “concerned” and “compassionate” turn up in eleven of the
students' responses, whether describing an anonymous voice, a “stranger,” a “physician,” “another knight at arms,” or—the most
popular response—the belle dame herself. Six students shared this idea, mostly without further justification, though one
student ventured, “she [the belle dame] is a supernatural existence that is contacting him again after not taking him ‘beyond’
[…] She allows him to ‘wake up’ and she is narrating to him to help him psychologically grasp what happened.” This tendency
among the students to reach after ethical fact and reason deserves greater attention, but suffice to say it is another
imposition of the reader on the text.
Figure 2: Oneda not only grants the poem’s first speaker an identity (the shipwrecked navigator), but he also
presents the poem’s conversation out of sequence: his knight begins the conversation, startling
the navigator who is leaning down to drink from an inland lake, unaware that the ancient knight is sitting on
a hillside just behind him. “Have you seen her?” the knight asks, referring to his long-lost belle dame. The
navigator’s interest in hearing the knight’s tale (‘have I seen whom?’) stems not from sympathy, but from his
instinct toward self-preservation, that is, his hope that someone else is on the island who might aid his
return to safety (something the invalid knight cannot do).
12. The third question divided the class. Roughly half of the students felt that the lady represented neither good nor evil; they
resisted reading her as an allegorical figure or as a type, instead envisioning her as a human character with interiority and
a personal history. “She might know the power she possesses, but it is not necessarily a bad thing,” one student suggested.
Five students shared the idea that the lady had a distressing history of her own (a history that motivated her behavior in the
poem), and one student even went so far as to compare the lady with Dickens’s Miss Havisham, “heartbroken, betrayed, and so
grief-stricken by a man in her past that she spends all her time seeking revenge on every man she encounters.” This group
tended to ignore the title of the poem, although one student did remark that “sans merci” was the knight’s judgment, and not a
universal reproach. On the whole, they saw the lady as a “free spirit,” not as a femme fatale.
13. The other half of the class endorsed the titular view of the lady “without mercy,” and dedicated no time to ascribing a motive
for her “seduction” of the knight. In fact, this group tended to grant the lady no interiority at all, seeing her
allegorically either as pure evil (“she eats these men’s hearts and spits them out”) or as emblematic of a concept such as the
debased “passion of men,” or war (“Warriors, knights, and kings are her victims, after all”). While students on both sides of
the question noted that the lady never speaks for herself—“she is only characterized through the knight’s words”—this fact did
not seem to pose any problems for them in addressing the handout question (it became problematic when discussing the film; see
Figure : Oneda’s thoughtful treatment of the belle dame is paradoxical: she is malevolent (her face momentarily
flickers into a skull-like visage) and representative of the seemingly impossible obstacles that we must
overcome in order to fulfill our greatest desires. She is merciless, but only in the form of regret, and only
to those who lack the courage to commit themselves to her.
Screening and discussion:
14. When we screened the film in class, the students were quick to note Oneda’s contributions to Keats’s story, especially his addition of a fourth character (the navigator survives the shipwreck with an ailing,
alcoholic ship’s physician who dies within the first few minutes; this character is likely a conjecture as to what the
apothecary Keats might have amounted to, had he not become a poet and a consumptive). The
enthusiasm with which they noted and critiqued these differences between the poem and the film, even while the screening was
underway, boded well for the more nuanced discussion to follow. After the screening, I gave the class five minutes to reflect
on their own responses to the handout questions, and to consider Oneda’s implied responses to the same questions, given his
handling of the poem.
15. We opened the discussion by reviewing the first issue from the handout, the description of the knight. The students were
unanimous in voicing their surprise (both approving and disapproving) at Oneda’s decision to cast the knight as an old man—and
within seconds, a student noted the similarity to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, which we had read earlier. By depicting the knight as elderly, one student contended, Oneda gave
the character an air of wisdom and experience, a superior position from which to impart a moral lesson to the young navigator:
“do as I say, not as I have done.” Another student suggested that the casting choice made the knight seem feeble or senile,
and that his story was somehow less convincing and reliable because of the amount of time elapsed since the events related.
(Not surprisingly, both of these arguments had also informed our discussion of Coleridge.)
16. I asked the class if they thought this directorial choice was unfaithful to Keats’s poem or merely
an interpretation made possible by the poem’s ambiguities. A number of students quickly answered that Oneda had strayed from
Keats’s text; no one disagreed, though I noticed many thoughtful stares. We opened our books
and I read through the stanzas in which Keats offers descriptive details of the knight:
“palely,” “haggard,” “woe-begone,” “a lily on thy brow,” “with anguish moist and fever dew”; “on thy cheeks a
fading rose / withereth,”
We agreed that none of these details explicitly tells us the knight’s age, or anything
substantial about him beyond the expressiveness and sickliness of his face. I suggested that, for all Keats tells us, the knight could be three feet tall with one eye and no teeth, wearing a ball gown and army boots.
Within the vast realm of possibility
(ignoring, for the moment, the smaller realm of probability
Oneda’s version of the knight actually seemed approximate to their own envisioning; but where did the students’ and Oneda’s
ideas about the knight come from? Not from the text of “La Belle Dame” itself, I assured them.
17. This appeared to be a disturbing proposition for many of them, and the room fell silent for a minute. I decided to move through
the other two handout questions in short order, to leave more time at the end of class for a discussion of the implications of
the exercise. The next handout question, involving the first speaker of the poem, drew mixed responses (I did not yet know the
variety of explanations the question had elicited). It was generally agreed that Oneda’s invention of the navigator (or
rather, his distillation of the poem’s narrator into the navigator), and his employment of a frame narrative, distorted the
content and form of Keats’s poem. This agreement took a few minutes to materialize among a group
of students now wary of my evidently deceptive questions. But even looking at the text, it seemed difficult to find anything
defensible in Oneda’s handling of the poem’s first speaker.
18. I asked the students to tell me how they had responded to the question—if not a stranded ship’s navigator, who
was the first speaker? Reluctantly, a few students shared their ideas: one said she thought the speaker was
the belle dame, and I saw a few nods of affirmation to this. Another student replied that the first speaker was anonymous and
indistinguishable, and she said that Oneda could just as easily have done away with such a character altogether, since he/she
makes no difference to the plot of the poem (after instigating it). At this, a number of students voiced disagreement, and
shared more ideas about who the first speaker was. But with each additional suggestion came the renewed assertion from all
corners of the room, that we simply cannot identify the speaker. To identify the speaker, one student said, was a temptation
for the reader—and for someone making a film from the poem, it is a temptation that must be indulged. In other words, Oneda
was compelled by the exigencies of filmmaking to “over-interpret” the poem in order to make it a comprehensible story. The
student argued that as readers we do the same thing, but we can leave the identities of characters less resolved in our minds,
remaining comfortable with ambiguity. Such ambiguity is difficult to convey in a film. (It seems that, after seeing the movie,
at least a few of the students became more negatively capable.)
19. While I was thrilled to see an emerging correlation between active reading and filmmaking, I decided to lead the discussion to
the third and final handout question, the characterization of the lady. Again, as I would learn when I collected their
responses, this question split the class down the middle, some characterizing the lady as a “free spirit,” others as an “evil
temptress.” Though I had chosen the first two “objective” questions in order to emphasize the amount of
subjective judgment needed to answer them, with this more obviously interpretive question, I had a different
goal. Since the knight characterizes the lady and her actions, she is, in a sense, a text-within-a-text, and one that comes to
us pre-interpreted, refracted through the knight’s own convictions and (perhaps) misjudgments. Nevertheless, in my experience
teaching this poem, students rarely consider the possibility of the knight as an unreliable narrator. Even when they notice
that the lady never speaks for herself, they do not usually propose that the knight is a dubious—even downright
bad—interpreter or relater of his own experience. These issues of fallible narration (often familiar to the students as a
convention of the dramatic monologue, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Browning’s “My Last Duchess”
at least) greatly enrich a reading of “La Belle Dame,” and I was interested to see how Oneda’s film might or might not
influence the students’ awareness of such narrative complications.
20. Usually, when I teach this poem, I note lines 19 and 27-28 as instances at which the knight’s judgment must be scrutinized.
“She look’d at me as she did love,” can mean either that she looked at the knight while she loved
him, or that she looked at the knight as if she loved him, in which case the knight has made a questionable
observation, and one that the lady’s actions later in the poem seem to undermine. Similarly, the phrase “sure in language
strange she said— / I love thee true,” hinges on our understanding of the word sure: it might imply that the lady
said “I love thee true” surely, with confidence. Alternatively, the word might stand in for equivocal phrasing
like I am sure that or to be sure, in which case the knight is casting doubt on his ability to
translate the lady’s “language strange,” even as he claims self-assurance.
21. Oneda does a fine job with these ambiguities. As the ancient knight tells his tale to the navigator in voiceover, the
flashback-story comes to life on the screen. For the most part, during this voiceover, the young knight and the lady
communicate through meaningful glances, without spoken language. But at the exact moment when the ancient knight recounts the
cryptic declaration of love (“I could not understand her words, but I am sure she said, ‘I love thee true’”), the lady in the
flashback actually speaks a few words of unintelligible non-language, suggesting the fallibility of the knight’s translation.
I wanted to see how the students reacted to this dramatization of one of the poem’s subtler elements. Would it change the way
they interpreted the poem?
22. As we reviewed the handout question, the students who shared their responses were those who believed the lady was motivated by
neither good nor evil, the “free spirit” group (as I would later label them). None of the femme fatale group
volunteered their thoughts. Indeed, when I asked if anyone in the class felt that the lady was motivated by revenge or hatred,
a student raised his hand and said that he had thought so after reading the poem, but not after seeing the film. A number of
his classmates nodded consensually. I asked them why. Two students replied that Oneda’s film made them think that the lady
represented a positive concept (“ambition” and “creativity”), and that the fault lies not in the lady, but in the knight’s
inability to commit to her. “Does the knight really understand her?” I asked.
23. A number of hands went up immediately. The students had appreciated Oneda’s use of voiceover narration to convey ambiguity,
and—to my delight—they noted the same ambiguity in lines 27-28 of the poem without my prompting. One of them suggested that
the knight in the film was an unreliable narrator. I asked if the same might be said of the knight in Keats’s poem, and the overwhelming response was “yes.” “It was way more obvious in the movie, though,” one student
added. I told her to hang onto that thought.
24. With the three handout questions laid out before us, we now had two big issues to consider: from the first question, the issue
of where our visual ideas of the knight came from; from the second and third questions, the issue of the
differences between reading a text and adapting it for a film. Fifteen minutes remained in the class period.
25. I introduced the first issue in a broad context. If our conception of the knight in the poem is not drawn from the poem itself,
then it is coming from some other source or sources—what does this suggest about reading? Is it an individual or communal (and
cumulative) process? Is it an active or passive engagement with a text? I established these questions as the basis for our
discussion, then I asked a more finite question: “when you addressed the first prompt on the handout (before seeing the film)
did you think it was an objective or subjective question?” The response, predictably, was that they had thought of the
question as “more on the objective side,” though they now realized the problems with this conclusion. “Keats doesn’t tell us what the knight looks like, or the lady. It’s like we have to picture them in our heads as
we read.” After some more discussion, another student added, “even the most basic details in this poem—we have to create
them.” I suggested, then, that reading—especially reading a poem like this one—is an active process in which the reader fills
in a lot of gaps, often without realizing that he or she has done so.
26. A student admitted that when he reads novels he “casts” certain Hollywood actors in the characters’ roles. In some way, I said,
we all do this. Didn’t we cast the knight, if not with a specific actor, at least with our idea of what knights are
supposed to look like? On both a conscious and subconscious level, we are constantly integrating the
information we get from the text we are reading (whether a sparsely detailed poem like this, or a richly detailed realist
novel) with information we already have. Being aware of, and analyzing this synthetic process, I argued, makes us sharper,
more sophisticated readers and critics.
27. We talked about this a little more, in reference to other texts we had read (and again, Coleridge loomed large in the discussion). By way of analogy, someone mentioned the great difference between
reading a play and seeing it performed. I explained that this was not a distinction lost on the Romantics (a few of the
students had, in fact, read Lamb’s essay on the topic in a Shakespeare course). In the remaining time, I turned to the comparison of reading and filmic adaptation.
28. I began, “Someone mentioned that the possibility of seeing the knight as an unreliable narrator was ‘more obvious in the
movie.’ Why?” A few students replied that “seeing it [the poem] visualized made it more obvious.” Again I asked why, and was
met with silence. I offered more: “In the film, you tended to notice the moment when the knight interprets—probably
misinterprets—the lady’s words, ‘I love you.’ But this moment is there in the text too. Specifically, what
made this moment stand out in the film, more so than in the poem?” I suggested that the answer might be somehow related to the
just-mentioned differences between reading and watching Shakespeare. A student answered
that Oneda had decided to make this issue important in his film, and that was why he used the voiceover technique. “Good,” I
said, “as with his use of the navigator as the first speaker in the poem, Oneda makes a series of interpretive choices in his
film. We’ve mentioned that we like to ‘cast’ actors in the mental performances of our readings—so let me ask you this: is what
Oneda does in adapting Keats’s poem for a movie different from or similar to what we do in
reading the poem on our own? Indeed, is there a big difference between reading—what we might call interpretation—and adapting?
Or is all reading adaptation?”
29. With time running out, I left them with this question. This had been a lively discussion, and the questions it raised
(especially this last one) were recurrent throughout the quarter. After this exercise I found it much easier to move beyond
plot-level discussions of texts to meta-commentaries on the practice of reading and the dynamics of interpretation. The
knight’s superimposition of his own desires upon the lady’s “language strange” became a cautionary example for us as critical
readers. I worried that I would need to explain further: the point was not that no right or wrong way to read a
text existed and that reading was an entirely subjective experience. But the students understood: they were generally prepared
to critique their assumptions, and to consider elisions and lacunae in literary texts as rhetorical strategies. They were more
aware of the dimensions of their personal involvement in the act of reading—that is, aware that reading is by definition a
co-creative endeavor. I believe that I also succeeded in helping the students to appreciate filmic adaptation as a means of
literary criticism, in which a director makes an argument about a text through a series of interpretive choices.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures 1809-1819 On Literature. Ed. R.A. Foakes. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987. Print.
Cox, Jeffrey and Michael Gamer, eds. The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2003. Print.
Hazlitt, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. Ed. P.P. Howe. 21 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1956-71. Print.
Keats, John. Complete Poems. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Boston: Harvard UP, 1978. Print.
"Poetics and the Politics of Reception: Keats's 'La Belle Dame sans Merci'."
(Summer 1987): 333-62. Print.
McGann, Jerome. The Beauty of Inflections. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. Print.
Oneda, Dir. Hidetoshi, ed. La Belle Dame Sans Merci. DVD.
[n.p.]: Prod. Celophaine Films, 2005. Print.
Lamb, Charles, and Mary. The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb. Ed. E.V. Lucas. 7 vols. London: Methuen & Co., 1903-05. Print.
upper-division course, Charles Lamb’s essay “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare” would make for a fine companion-text to this exercise. Lamb states that, in seeing a Shakespeare tragedy
performed, “we have given up that vantage-ground of abstraction which reading possesses over seeing” (I. 106). Given
the task at hand, to compare reading and seeing, the generic distinction between our interest in dramatic poetry and
Lamb’s interest in drama matters very little. This is not to argue that “La Belle
Dame” confronts the reader with the range of complexities that Lamb notices in Hamlet, but rather to point out similarities in practice as readers and
seers, whether of poetry or drama.
An advanced version of this exercise might consider the nature of filmic adaptation in Lamb’s terms: “When the novelty is past, we find to our cost that, instead of realising an idea, we have
only materialised and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood. We have let go a dream, in quest
of an unattainable substance” (I. 98). The students should not be led to a simplistic hierarchy of reading over
performance—Lamb himself is careful to note that he is “not arguing that Hamlet
should not be acted, but how much Hamlet is made another thing by being acted” (I. 101, my emphasis).
Instead, they should develop a critique both for and against the idea of performance as transformative and
simplifying, as detrimental to creative liberty and multidimensionality.
Upper-division students might also explore such concerns about reading and seeing among the writings of other
Romantic critics. Joanna Baillie considered the unsuitability of her own plays for
stage performance in her note “To the Reader,” appended to A Series of Plays (1812, also
included as an appendix in The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama, pp. 370-78). Baillie’s argument complements Lamb’s in several
respects, especially in her emphasis on the limitations of stage-mechanics and the difficulty of communicating emotion
to an audience in one of London’s vast playhouses. Samuel
Taylor Coleridge’s lectures on Shakespeare also provide numerous
points of comparison, most importantly his agreement with Lamb that Shakespeare suffered in performance, thus the ineptitude of modern production
companies “drove Shakespear[e] from the stage, to find his proper place, in the heart and in the closet” (Lectures I, 563). William Hazlitt went further than Lamb or Coleridge, declaring that “the reader of
the plays of Shakespeare is almost always disappointed in seeing them acted;
and, for our own parts, we should never go to see them acted if we could help it” (A View of the
English Stage, V, 222). (When introducing the subject of Romantic attitudes toward performance vis-à-vis
Shakespeare, it might be useful to point students to Frederick Burwick’s essay on the subject in the Blackwell Companion
to Romanticism, edited by Duncan Wu.)
If we choose to point out these similarities underlying the dramatic criticism of Lamb,
Baillie, Coleridge, and Hazlitt, it makes good sense to spend some time talking about the history of English
theater, including developments in licensing, bowdlerization (again, Lamb would figure
prominently), celebrity culture, and leisure activities among the new middle class. The Keats exercise could therefore take on a historical dimension it lacks in its present lower-division form.
Furthermore, Keats’s own commentary on reading and seeing, his 1817 letter on Edmund Kean
and “negative capability,” connects well with the themes at hand, and might be employed in tandem with or instead of
the aforementioned prose writings. BACK
Much has been made of the fact that “La Belle Dame sans Merci” exists in two states, the 1820 Indicator text, beginning “Ah what can ail thee, wretched wight,” and the better known 1848 Charles Brown
text, beginning “Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms.” Scholars will always debate over which version—if either—ought
to be seen as definitive. While the nuances of publication history and textual variants might not enliven classroom
discussion, the concerns about authority they raise can do so. The present exercise, with its emphasis on the
collaborative nature of reading, calls into question the function of textual-authority and authorial-textuality, and
enables, even at the undergraduate level, a discussion of the relative merits of Formalist and Historicist approaches.
Are we reading Keats’s poem or a poem by Keats, belatedly
inflected (perhaps first by a slightly older Keats, then) by Leigh Hunt or Charles Brown
or Richard Milnes, then by ourselves or perhaps by Hidetoshi Oneda? This is fairly well-trodden theoretical ground,
but it is especially apt with respect to the textual history of “La Belle Dame” and the potential of this exercise to
problematize authorial and readerly intention and mediation.
As Jerome McGann, Theresa Kelley, and others have
shown, “La Belle Dame” proposes a number of ambiguities—and its textual history only compounds these ambiguities—but
this is not so much a problem as it is a provocation. Is it “merci” or “mercy,” “wild wild eyes” or “wild sad eyes”?
It is, of course, all of the above, and therein lies not only the appeal of Keats’s
poem(s) but also the immediacy of McGann’s early appeal for historical method.
Moreover, the poem’s internal ambiguities, as outlined in the exercise (and present in either version of the poem),
reinforce Kelley’s persuasive argument that “‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ explores the
value of poetic figures whose meaning is not intuited but learned” (333). This is not to claim a unique status for “La
Belle Dame,” but to suggest that, more insistently than many other works, it is a poem that invites and rewards
analysis of its own processing (both of its production and its reception).
All of this is to say that the exercise can and ideally does illustrate that “La Belle Dame” embraces narrative and
linguistic indeterminacy, so that an ostensibly “loose” adaptation such as Oneda’s can be, all the same, just as
“faithful” as any other interpretation. Having used the exercise to highlight this aspect of the poem, one seems
well-situated to teach his or her students about how “La Belle Dame” connects with “negative capability,” Romantic
irony, the ballad revival, Romantic subjectivity, and many other topics, themes and theories that usually inform our
discussions of the period.