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The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Today's poem is a lovely one by Tennyson, who was retelling a medieval story about the Lady Elaine of Astolat, who dies of unrequited love for Lancelot. The poem is a significant variation from the original source material, in which Elaine meets and falls in love with Lancelot, who deigns to wear her token (and her brother's armor) in a jousting tournament against Arthur's men; in the original story, Lancelot is wounded, and Elaine nurses him back to health. Lancelot offers her payment for her acts of love, thereby offending Elaine, who pines to death for Lancelot. After her death, her father puts her on a funeral barge and ships her down the river to Camelot to make known what transpired, and Lancelot pays for her funeral.

The final version of the Lady of Shalott is a ballad consisting of nineteen stanzas (the original had 20 stanzas), and is organized into four parts, all of which are here (with three parts tucked behind a cut). Tennyson first published the poem in 1833, then revised it an published the version below in 1842. Later in life, he again told the story of Lancelot and Elaine as one of the twelve poems contained in his Idylls of the King.

The Lady of Shalott creates a different mythology, in which the Lady is cursed from the start. She lives in a tower on an island in the river, and may not look directly out into Camelot. Instead, she spends all her time weaving, looking at the outside world only through a mirror, until one day, her mirror shows her the bright and handsome Lancelot, singing by the river, and she gets up and looks out at him. Her mirror cracks, and the curse comes into play. She goes down and lies in a boat in the river, singing a song until her death. When her boat is pulled from the river in Camelot, the people are afraid, but Lancelot - moved from pity and not love - says that she had a lovely face and wishes her peace in death.

The Lady of Shalott
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
    To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
    The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
    Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
    The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veiled,
Slide the heavy barges trailed
By slow horses; and unhailed
The shallop flitteth silken-sailed
    Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
    The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
    Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy
    Lady of Shalott."

Part II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
    To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
    The Lady of Shalott.

And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
    Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
    Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
    Goes by to towered Camelot;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
    The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
    And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
"I am half sick of shadows," said
    The Lady of Shalott.

Part III

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling through the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
    Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneeled
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
    Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glittered free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
    As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazoned baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
    Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewelled shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burned like one burning flame together,
    As he rode down to Camelot.
As often through the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
    Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
    As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
    Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
    She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
    The Lady of Shalott.

Part IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
    Over towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
    The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse,
Like some bold seër in a trance
Seeing all his own mischance--
With a glassy countenance
    Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
    The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right--
The leaves upon her falling light--
Through the noises of the night
    She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
    The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
    Turned to towered Camelot.
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
    The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
    Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
    The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
    All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
    The Lady of Shalott."

All of the images above are in the public domain, and are of the Lady of Shalott. The first and second are by William Holman-Hunt, the third by John William Waterhouse, and the fourth by Arthur Hughes. There are more still, including two by Waterhouse. One of the Waterhouse portraits is entitled "I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott", which is probably my favorite line in this entire poem, although I don't truly love the image because I don't like the lady's face. (I'm not a huge Waterhouse fan in general. I'm sure that's sacrilege to some readers, but there it is.)

As I noted more than three years ago in a post about assonance, this post is all about similar vowel sounds, not just in the end rhymes, but throughout the poem, to create an exceptionally pleasing auditory experience. This poem is extremely well-suited to recitation or reading aloud, full of rhyme and lovely round tones (and yes, the reference to "round tones" makes me think of the scenes from Singin' in the Rain in which Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen are sent to learn proper diction, with widely divergent results). Gotta love Jean Hagen:

But I digress.

Thematically, the poem can be taken as a fairy tale or Arthurian retelling, but it also has been read as a warning to artists not to separate themselves completely from real life. The Lady spends all her time weaving, neither going out into the world nor looking directly at it. She looks only at reflections of the world, weaving what she sees into her tapestries. That said, once the Lady actually looks at the world, her ability to create is destroyed and she is left to drift alone in the world, so it is more properly a warning to artists to hold themselves apart from the world a bit lest they (or their art) be destroyed.

The poem is also taken as a Victorian condemnation of active female sexuality. The Lady, although "half-sick of shadows", has diligently applied herself to her task. She doesn't know what the precise nature of the curse is, but she fears it. However, on spying the sexually virile Lancelot (could Tennyson have laid those images any thicker? I think not - he's practically got Lancelot sowing his wild oats there), the Lady gets up and paces around the room. Those three paces indicate her giving some thought to what she's doing - does she wish to risk the curse or not? And it turns out that she does, for she gazes directly out onto the river and to Lancelot. It is implied that she has been led astray by her own sexual impulse, which causes the mirror to crack (probably symbolic of something else of hers being broken, by the by, if you know what I mean, and I think you do). And now, having "given" herself to Lancelot, she must, of course, die. Because that's what "wanton" women deserved in Victorian times.

Even though I don't believe Tessa Gratton intended a retelling of The Lady of Shalott, as I was posting this poem, I couldn't help but think about one of her pieces over at The Merry Sisters of Fate entitled "Stars". I loved it so much, I printed it out when she first published it.

Here's a lovely (condensed) version of the poem, sung by Loreena McKennit:

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Tags: analysis of poems, assonance, ballads, gratton, mckennitt, poetry, poetry friday, tennyson

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