In the spring of 1819, in a small candle-lit room, a man sits behind an old wooden desk. He is haggard and pale. He dips his quill into the ink and writes on the paper in front of him,
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
John Keats’ brief life (born in 1795, died in 1821, exactly 200 years ago today) was filled with horror and wonder. But he left behind such immortal poems as “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (The Beautiful Lady without Mercy) – composed during a pandemic as widespread and lethal as Covid-19.
Tuberculosis was the cause of one in every four deaths in 19th century England. Keats’ mother died of tuberculosis in 1810, and it claimed his beloved brother, 19-year-old Tom, eight years later. A year after Tom’s death, in 1819, doctors told Keats that he too was infected. This was the year he composed “La Belle Dame sans Merci”. As academic Martin Earl has observed, “Keats’ awareness of impending death are written like code into the predicament of a dying medieval knight, the poem’s principal character.”
An examination of the text suggests connections between the knight in the poem and the dying Keats. In the first three stanzas of the poem, an unnamed individual, the narrator, finds a dying knight in a gloomy meadow. It could the end of autumn or the start of winter – “the harvest’s done”, Keats writes, and “the sedge has withered from the lake”. A description of the knight matches Keats’ own physical condition. The unnamed narrator says:
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
The symptoms of tuberculosis include fevers which result in the patient sweating heavily and visibly just like the afflicted knight. Pale skin with faint red cheeks were also common symptoms. Keats compares the paleness of the skin and the blood going out of the cheeks with a white lily, and a fading red rose. During the 19th century, flower imagery was often associated with tuberculosis, as symbolising both beauty and the poignancy of an early death.
The knight recounts his time with the beautiful lady, saying he was completely entranced by her. He says that he “made a garland for her head”, and that
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew
It reads as if the knight was with her during the spring or summer time. Cases of tuberculosis often increased during winter and autumn, as the cold weather set in – and mortality, too. Spring and summer, along with their usual connotations of life and happiness, were seen as a break from the raging pandemic.
The beautiful lady might be real (the inspiration was Fanny Brawne, the great love of Keats’ life), or perhaps a supernatural being just as the knight imagined her. But it can also be argued that “The Beautiful Lady with no Mercy” is tuberculosis personified.
TB was an illness that killed millions. When it raged through Europe and England, it claimed the lives of many poets, composers, artists, and authors, and led to the misconception that the illness came from overwork or being too emotional. The belief spread all over Europe, even up to the point where TB started being called the “romantic disease”, as some believed it only took the lives of those who were overly emotional, such as poets. The physical symptoms of the illness gave patients a look of ethereal beauty, something that inspired many artworks and poems. In “La Belle Dame sans Merci”, Keats symbolises TB as a beautiful femme fatale who heartlessly takes the lives of her lovers.
At the end of the poem, the knight is forsaken and ill. He’s lost his sense of purpose and is now living, as Martin Earl puts it, a “posthumous existence” – something that Keats, too, would share after his death. He died virtually unknown in 1821 at the age of just 25. Now, 200 years after his death, people continue to read his poetry and marvel at his genius.
He is no longer, at least, “alone and palely loitering”. The sedge hasn’t withered from the lake, and there are still birds that sing – even in a pandemic.