Friday, August 05, 2011

The Lady of Shalott

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

There was an earlier version of this poem, from 1833; this one is the one I've seen in anthologies and school textbooks. It tells the story of Elaine, who in Arthurian legend was in love with Sir Lancelot; since this affection was not requited she died and went floating in a barge down the river to Camelot, where the court of Arthur discovered her. The tale is screwed up — it's fairly sick to parade one's corpse in front of a love interest, and the likelihood that the barge would arrow neatly to its destination is physically doubtful as Anne of Green Gables would discover — but I like the setting and atmosphere very much and particularly Tennyson's power of singling out words that give strong and concise pictures of their real or imaginary originals.

Tennyson interprets the tale gently to symbolize the vagueness of an inward-looking or confined life, where one looks at life through the lens of art, books, or some other medium; and is better fitted by nature or nurture to go on daydreaming than to struggle with life or to bear a contact with harsh realities when and if it comes. Whether he meant it to refer to poets like himself, or other artists, or whether he was applying it to broader social isolation, is unclear to me.


Picture: This in my view garish (but it was in my English Literature textbook, so the associations are there) painting by William Holman Hunt is "The Lady of Shalott," in the medium of oil on canvas, painted in 1905. It is housed in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Besides the medieval world described in the poem is a link to the old England, which was a preoccupation in the nationalistic days of empire. Tennyson intended to write (so my English teacher explained) a great epos surrounding the legends of Camelot. He wrote reams of verses about Sir Gawain, etc., all the way to the triumph of Moriarty Sir Mordred and with him the evil foe. "The Lady of Shalott" is not a part of the grand effort. I think it was an earlier hint; it is written in brief and simply rhyming lines, quite accessibly, and it is more lyrical and stylized rather than grave and narrative.
ON either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold 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 island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.
Like in many old romances, the femine figures are romanticized and made mysterious. There is a darkness and hiddenness which is born of the extreme privacy and guardedness in which they lived, whether within castles or single towers or the green fastnesses of a forest or elsewhere.
By the margin, willow veil'd,
Slide the heavy barges trail'd
By slow horses; and unhail'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 Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers " 'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott."
The Mysterious Lady, in the meantime, does not have a whole lot to do, and lives like Rapunzel without the entertaining guardianship of a totalitarian sorceress.
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 shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower'd Camelot;
And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.
I like this description of the passersby very much, and the kind of liveliness of pace which accompanies it, as if the Canterbury Tales were unfolding below her lintel. But as for the world above the lintel, my English teacher I think mentioned that the poem can be interpreted as a commentary on the lot of women, particularly when they are encouraged to be ornamental and mildly accomplished but nothing more, and very sheltered. It appears plausible to me, since there are some peculiarly liberated sides to Tennyson even if he was in the inner circle of Victoria's court, and I've forgotten which conclusions he reached but "The Princess: A Medley" was (I think) a long rumination on female education. I haven't read The Feminine Mystique, but I imagine that the disquiet it describes in the mid-20th-century American housewife is powerfully reminiscent of the Lady of Shalott's mindset.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often thro' 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.
After a while any distraction has faded away and she is left to feel the chilly draught of the unadorned truth.
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross 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,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn'd like one burning flame together,
As he 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.
To be that obnoxious, one must really work at it; he sounds like a strutting featherbrain.
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.
(Agatha Christie borrowed the antepenultimate line of this, of course, for the title of one of her mysteries. A lovely, dramatic line. And I think that the water-lily is a nice touch — not to analyze too much, but it mirrors the ripening of her own life.)
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 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.
She was a little nuts, but well dressed.
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 loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken'd wholly,
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,
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.
A surprisingly literate lot.
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."
The last lines are quite painful, I think. After the shattering of a peaceful life, terminal pining and the whole dying swan dénouement, the intellectual colossus who precipitated this decline has nothing better to observe than, as people might phrase it nowadays, "Well, she's kind of hot . . .".

On the other hand I don't like the prettification of becoming depressed and of dying, either, in which the Pre-Raphaelites' renderings of Elaine's death and of the similar demise of Ophelia indulge, because these misfortunes are neither aesthetically nor emotionally clear, nor beautiful. As Charlotte Brontë wrote in Shirley, one cannot die of love or grief alone; there must be an underlying physical ailment, and once one has discovered the gritty truths of what it means to be bedridden — sores, boredom, bedpans or catheters, etc. — one would not I think wish it to be otherwise unless one is seriously past it. In the case of Elaine, it would not rhyme nearly as well, but something along the lines of once one dies, one's organs begin to decompose; one's blood drains so that it settles lividly at the underside of one's body; that water bloats corpses and nematodes eat the flesh; that barges capsize; ravens and mammal scavengers might take an interest in the remains if they drift onto the land and in any case fishes and crayfish would partake; and that the result would not be at all pleasing or gently plaintive to behold; would be far more to the point. Besides I believe that if you are alive, you should try to do something with it; and giving up is more difficult and boring than exercising ingenuity and persevering until a worthwhile task presents itself. Even Elaine could have chosen to live quietly until a next and better manly prospect comes along, or visit friends or family, or go into a convent of her choice (since she seems well-born and financially comfortable) and sew for people, tend to people, learn music or languages, cultivate a garden, (or joyned a compaignye to Canterbury) or whatever she liked. Certainly Lancelot would not know or care, not be helped nor injured, either way.

I like the Arthurian legends and read Roger Lancelyn Green's retellings, in the violet clothbound edition from Everyman, often and with enjoyment when I was little; but everyone is short on strength of character and particularly on common sense. It's a bit "down in the mouth," too, but I think it would be wrong to suggest that on one background plane the human condition is not perpetually tinged with sadness. Balin and Balan probably infuriated or depressed me the most, as a thorough illustration to Einstein's (attributed) thought that two things are infinite: the universe and the stupidity of mankind, but he's not too sure about the universe. ("Zwei Dinge sind unendlich: Das Universum und die menschliche Dummheit. Aber beim Universum bin ich mir nicht ganz sicher." [Wikiquote])


ANYWAY, the reason I often think of the poem besides the memorability of its language is on the solipsist grounds that it describes the inner and outer lives I lead quite well. In reality it is difficult to be myself, and the thoughts and feelings that crop up in the course of pottering away on the internet or in books and in music are unsettled and the ideals are not shared and partly trampled on; whereas if I seclude myself I have control over what I do and I have the kind of congenial companionship which it would be difficult to earn and to find in the world at large. But I become impatient and "half sick of shadows." On the other hand I like using books and the internet as my mirror: "And moving thro' a mirror clear/That hangs before her all the year,/Shadows of the world appear." With the internet there is at least some form of engagement with other people — some of it frightening, for instance if one has ever been at the brunt of a "flame war" or been drawn too far into the subjectivity of a forum — and I have been trying to use it to figure out reality from the bird's eye perspective so that once I encounter problems in person I have a context in which to put them. Of course this is quite at a remove from the world as Tennyson knew it. But I think I am too stubborn and reserved not to cross from the inner life to the outer life on my own terms; there is no chance of my being overwhelmed as the Lady of Shalott was and so there the parallel ends.


Illustration: "December" from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, by the Limbourg brothers around 1412-16. Held by the Musée Condé. Via Wikimedia Commons.


From Representative Poetry Online, University of Toronto: "The Lady of Shalott."

Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" (where Elaine of Astolat's story is revisited in greater depth) at Project Gutenberg.

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