La Belle Dame Sans Merci: Romance and
the Dream of “Language Strange”
As Ian McEwan’s fictional depiction of an “enduring love” that is dangerously obsessive and utterly phantasmic suggests, the more extreme versions of love-melancholy are readily recognizable in our modern erotic disorders, in spite of the quite different conception of obsessive illness that supports their diagnosis.1 The power of the mind—under the pressure of desire—to people the world with phantasms is as compelling a topic for McEwan as it was for Ariosto. I will not attempt, in the pages that remain, to give a full account of how the tradition of love-melancholy gradually metamorphoses into its current forms. Rather, I wish to end with a text that is clearly indebted to the melancholic tradition preceding it at the same time as it subtly turns its interpretation of the “furor” of love in a new and powerfully influential direction. Using Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci as my focus, I will argue that Keats’s poetry is representative of the Romantic poets’ recuperation of the melancholic structure of early modern romance as the vehicle for their passionate engagement with the internal world of the imagination.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci belongs to a family of poems that explore the beautiful and sometimes fatal consequences of a passionate love for an otherworldly, phantasmic woman. I am thinking here primarily of Endymion and Lamia, though as we will see, the sonnet “On a Dream after Reading of Paolo and Francesca” also treats very similar material. La Belle Dame reaches back in tone and form to its roots in medieval ballad, but its Spenserian language suggests the intervening influence of early modern romance. Keats’s knowledge of Burton’s Anatomy is well attested and may also inflect his portrait of melancholic love in this poem as it does