September 14, 2021
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Notes & Commentary
- Written in 1819, this ballad tells the story of haggard knight and his beloved: a fairy maiden who bewitches him then abandons him to a desolate landscape. The title is taken from a medieval poem by Alain Chartier and means “the lovely lady without pity.” It’s a classic tale of tragic, unrequited love, of not getting that which one most desires and being left with that that knowledge. This deceptively simple ballad conveys an air of mystery and barrenness in its four-line stanzas and shortened last line (Inglis 1969, p. 116). Ballads are usually set in gloomy, atmospheric environments, but are concerned less with the milieu than the drama to affect the emotions of the listeners (Bloom 2001, p. 102). “Dame” is influenced by the gothic romance and mimics the traditional folk ballad’s dialogue form: the first three stanzas have the speaker asking the knight what ails him, and the remainder of the poem is his response (Greenblatt 2018, p. 497).
Here is a retelling of the myth of the femme fatale who destroys the life of the man who loves her (Greenblatt 2018, p. 497). Influenced by the medieval tradition of unrequited love that was a standard feature of the courtly love tradition, wherein the chivalrous knight was committed to the service of his lady. Often this relationship was one-way, keeping the lady unattainable and pure and condemning the knight to an unending devotion (Bloom 2001, p. 102). To me, this also relates to Odysseus and Circe, as the latter seduces and keeps Odysseus and his crew on her island for a year, unable to continue their journey home, but also “in thrall”—keeping the men isolated and passive—unable to pursue their masculine aggression and violence world at large. Like Circe, the woman here has a power—whether it’s supernatural or just a product of her beauty and men’s lust is uncertain—and seems to represent the archetype of the fatal woman (Inglis 1969, p. 117).
The elusive woman might also signify the Muse for Keats, or poets in general. Perhaps in youth, the poet is able, for a time, to capture inspiration and set her on my pacing steed, but only to later have the vision fade and leave him bereft of his abilities on the cold hill’s side where no birds sing—or no inspiration speaks to him anymore (Garrett 1987, p. 36). Similarly, this could be a poem about the fading vitality and strength that accompanies age, a tragedy that will affect all men.
- Each stanza ends with a short, punctuated line that “augments the poem's air of inevitability . . . by substituting assertion for explanation: this is so because it has always been so, and no other cause need be sought” (Garrett 1987, p. 35).
- The description and time of year, late-fall or early winter, suggests that the knight is past his youth, perhaps old. He is haggard—gray, gaunt, emaciated—and likely looking wraith-like—unlike the knights in the images to the right. The next stanza continues with images that also suggest age, decay, and death.
- The knight’s dream begins with a tangible meeting, a beauty that he can see and feel, but which will be come ever more intangible the more he chases it. She is the siren that seduces him with her magic song, luring him into a nightmare of death by the end. Garrett reads this as a spiritual, not physical reality—a vision, as Keats described, of “a shadow of reality to come” (Garrett 1987, p. 35). I don’t know: it seems rather more grim to me, but perhaps this is the ambiguity that Keats was going for—perhaps that love was somehow linked with death, or something beyond what we can grasp in this life (Garrett 1987, p. 36).
- The tense is wither’d replaces has wither’d from the first stanza, suggesting a timelessness and universality to the poem. This is but one example of the fluid use of tense in the ballad (Garrett 1987, p. 35).
- Battenhouse, Henry M. (1958). English Romantic Writers. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.
- Bloom, Harold (2001). John Keats. Bloom’s Major Poets. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House.
- Frye, Paul H. (1987). "Voices in the Leaves: the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'". In Bloom, Harold. The Odes of Keats. New York: Chelsea House. pp. 83–92.
- Garrett, John (1987). Selected Poems of John Keats. MacMillan Master Guides. London: MacMillan.
- Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
- Inglis, Fred (1969). Keats. Arco Literary Critiques. New York: Arco.
- Nersessian, Anahid (2021). Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
- Vendler, Helen (1983). The Odes of John Keats. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press.
- Wasserman, Earl (1964). "The Ode on a Grecian Urn". In Bate, Walter Jackson. Keats: A Collection of Critical Essays. Twentieth Century Views. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. pp. 113–141.