March 2 Lord Alfred Tennyson: The Lady of Shalott

This was a favorite poem of mine because it is so beautiful and magical, but also so tragic. As a kid, I would often try to dream up a happier ending for the doomed Lady (it had been a while since I read it and only skimmed it the other day, so I got a few facts about the poem wrong). This poem is a reminder of how before Walt Disney came along and saccharine-ized the old tales they were tragic, rarely ending happily (sometimes I even suspect that HE invented the phrase, “happily ever after”). The main character of the tale is often cursed or stumbles into a curse at the story’s beginning and spends the rest of the tale trying to wrestle out of it only to find that everything she or he has done has lead him straight to it. They are sad, but somehow the sadness makes them beautiful and immortal, above all the rest of us who sometimes, despite our awkward and crude mortality, stumble upon a happy ending.

I, of course, went through the “magical” Wikipedia to find Tennyson’s source material which I had always wondered about. It is loosely based on a peripheral character that appears in La Mort D’Arthur (and another one who appears in an Italian novel, but who I will skip for expediency). Her name is Elaine of Astolat and her tale is one of unrequited love for Lancelot who only has eyes for Guinevere (which in itself is the seeds of tragedy for the Arthurian Legend). He carries her favor in a tournament to humor her (what a rouge!). And after defeating many men is carried off the field mortally wounded. She has him taken to her castle and nurses him back to health for which he offers her money. Insulted, she asks him to leave and dies a few days later of heartbreak. Her body, per her instructions, is floated down the river Thames to Camelot with a letter. When Lancelot reads the letter, he pays for the funeral.

I often wondered what could have happened if he’d averted his eyes from Guinevere towards her; if the fairy lady could have won her rouge. Would Arthur’s legend ever been told? Would he have defeated Mordred and become an old, corrupt king? Would’ve, should’ve, could’ve. The world will never know. (Though I was told that Lancelot was a French addition to the tale, so perhaps Arthur’s tale was never meant to end happily.)

I found two versions of this poem: the first written in 1833 and the second in 1842. I like the ’42 version better, but I will put in a stanza from the ’33 version here as I think it clarifies the poem a bit. In the first stanza of the second part that reads, “There she weaves by night and day/A magic web….” the second one is more clear about the curse she is under and it reads:

No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmed web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be;
Therefore she weaveth steadily,
Therefore no other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

She is tragic because if she stops to leave her weaving she’ll be cursed, but then life for her is always a watching and never participating. Damned if you and damned you don’t. Why she is cursed we never find out; it seems simply to be her lot in life (though one of my theories is the curse is her falling in love with Lancelot – once you fall in love, you’re damned, because the heart wants what the heart wants and there’s not much you can do about it).

I like the fact that Tennyson tries the soften the impact, give the story a happy-ish ending, er, middle, in that he implies that Lancelot had some romantic regard for her (despite the fact that he muses over death blithely – he at least has something lovely to say about her) as he kneels before her image in his shield. That’s about as happy as you could make this story. Perhaps in another world they are lovers.

The Lady of Shalott

by Lord Alfred Tennyson

Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barely and of rye,
That clothe the world and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d 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
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the idland 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-veil’d
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
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 tower’d Camelott:
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 thro’ 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 shephard-lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower’d 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 barely-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A redcross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glitter’d 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 blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell-d shone the saddle-leather,
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As her rode down to Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra Lirra,” by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d 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 tower’d 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 seer 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 —
Thro’ 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 ludly, chanted lowly,
Till her blod was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d whooly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot;
For ere she reach’d 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,
A carse between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Kinght 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 cross’d 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.”


As a quick final note: I spoke of allusion in my last posting and cited this poem (alluding to the Arthurian Romances) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. It is interesting to note that Eliot liked to litter his poems with allusion (so much so that I often referred to them as the patchwork quilts of allusion) and it sounds as if he alluded to “the Lady of Shallot” with the line:

“In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo.”

That sounds to be a allusion to the line:

“And up and down the people go/gazing where the lilies blow.”

I’m not saying he did, but he’s alluded to other poems with less.


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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