Wednesday, August 31, 2005

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 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.

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."

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 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.

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.

Part III.

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 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,
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.

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 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--
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,
A corse 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 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."

* * *

I usually only post short poems -- after all, people read blogs in short bites, not in long sessions -- but in this case I just couldn't resist. "The Lady of Shalott" is a good poem in so many ways: beautiful sound effects, lovely imagery, human emotion, symbolic meaning . . . there is so much to say about this poem.

Beginning with the symbolic meaning, I agree with the interpretation that this poem is about art and life. Art is a mirror. An artist tends to be focused on this mirror, instead of being part of the life it reflects. Some may consider this to be necessary in order to create good art (personally, I don't. Look at Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

The Lady of Shalott is happy, even though she knows nothing but the mirror images of things. "And little other care hath she." She doesn't know what it is like to be part of the world; she's in a tower, separate from it. Yet over the course of the poem, she starts to feel something is lacking: "She hath no loyal knight and true," "'I am half sick of shadows.'"

Then Lancelot comes. She is still, for the most part, content with mirror images until she sees him. And she knows what will happen if she turns to look. But she cannot help but leave her loom in order to see him. Not even to speak with him, but only to see him.

Once she has done this, she has made her choice. She can't go back to her weaving now. I believe this is not usually a choice we have to make in real life: to be utterly separate from the world in order to produce art, or to give up the art forever for the sake of love. Her song, perhaps, could be interpreted as her last piece of "art," and yet she dies making it.

The human emotion in this poem gives us a sense of the choice the Lady of Shalott has made. Lancelot is too much for her to be able to ignore: the description assures us of that. The lady's death also is very emotionally moving.

The closing line shows the hope that still exists for the Lady of Shalott. Lancelot prays, "God in his mercy grant her grace." She has chosen for real things instead of images, for love instead of self-sufficiency, and therefore God is likely to reward her for the choice she made.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

From "In Memoriam"

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more —
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

* * *

This is part of Tennyson's long poem sequence on the death of his best friend, Arthur Hallam. It's always been one of my favorites. As Tennyson always seems to manage to do, the sound is an echo to the sense.

The abba rhyme scheme contributes, I think, to a meditative mood. But my favorite line is, "On the bald street breaks the blank day." The street is bald because there is no friendly face on it. The day is blank because the friend is not there to fill it. And the "b" sound reminds one of breaking. It adds a bitter tone to the speaker's voice.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Isaiah 54

Give praise, O thou barren, that bearest not: sing forth praise, and make a joyful noise, thou that didst not travail with child: for many are the children of the desolate, more than of her that hath a husband, saith the Lord.

Enlarge the place of thy tent, and stretch out the skins of thy tabernacles, spare not: lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes.

For thou shalt pass on to the right hand, and to the left: and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and shall inhabit the desolate cities.

Fear not, for thou shalt not be confounded, nor blush: for thou shalt not be put to shame, because thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt remember no more the reproach of thy widowhood.

For he that made thee shall rule over thee, the Lord of hosts is his name: and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, shall be called the God of all the earth.

For the Lord hath called thee as woman forsaken and mourning in spirit, end se a wife cast off from her youth, said thy God.

For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee.

In a moment of indignation have I hid my face a little while from thee, but with everlasting kindness have I had mercy on thee, said the Lord thy Redeemer.

This thing is to me as in the days of Noe, to whom I swore, that I would no more bring in the waters of Noe upon the earth: so have I sworn not to be angry with thee, and not to rebuke thee.

For the mountains shall be moved, and the hills shall tremble; but my mercy shall not depart from thee, and the covenant of my peace shall not be moved: said the Lord that hath mercy on thee.

O poor little one, tossed with tempest, without all comfort, behold I will lay thy stones in order, and will lay thy foundations with sapphires,

And I will make thy bulwarks of jasper: and thy gates of graven stones, and all thy borders of desirable stones.

All thy children shall be taught of the Lord: and great shall be the peace of thy children.

And thou shalt be founded in justice: depart far from oppression, for thou shalt not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near thee.

Behold, an inhabitant shall come, who was not with me, he that was a stranger to thee before, shall be joined to thee.

Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and bringeth forth an instrument for his work, and I have created the killer to destroy.

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper: and every tongue that resisteth thee in judgment, thou shalt condemn. This is the inheritance of the servants of the Lord, and their justice with me, saith the Lord.

* * *

This prophecy is addressed to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was barren and deserted during the exile, but God would call her children back and make her fruitful again. God reminds His people that no one can destroy except that He has willed it, and no one shall have the power to destroy the new Jerusalem.

"Behold, an inhabitant shall come, who was not with me, he that was a stranger to thee before, shall be joined to thee." -- I take this passage to mean the Gentiles, who were joined together with the Jews to be one flock of the new Jerusalem, the Church.

This is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, one which has meant different things to me at different times. "He that made thee shall rule over thee" was in my translation, "For he who has become your husband is your maker," and long ago I took it to mean that I had a vocation to the consecrated life. Later, I read it to a friend, who pointed out all the parts about having children, and said it sounded to her like a call to married life.

Now it only means that, even though I may suffer now, God has a plan to bless me abundantly. If I feel alone, abandoned, rejected, I can be certain that God will come close to me and make me rejoice again. I will even forget the way I felt in the past, forget what it was to be sad. The joys that God has in mind for me will drive out all memory of suffering. "For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee."

Saturday, August 13, 2005


by Robert Browning

Fear death? -- to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall,
Though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so -- one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worse turns the best to the brave,
The black minute's at end,
And the elements' rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest! --

* * *

This poem deals with death in a very manly, "tough" way. Death is not something to fear, although it is difficult. Instead, it's a challenge. At the end, when the challenge is over, it becomes tender -- the speaker will see his love again.

The rhythm and meter complement the meaning. It has a fierce sound, almost like someone gasping out the words while running or fighting. It sounds eager. The speaker is eager for death to come so that he can see the fight out to its end.

Friday, August 05, 2005

O Captain! My Captain!

by Walt Whitman

O captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the stead keel, the vessel grim and daring.
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red!
Where on the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O captain! my captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up! for you the flag is flung, for you the bugle trills:
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths, for you the shores a-crowding:
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning.
O captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck
You've fallen cold and dead.

My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will.
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done:
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won!
Exult, O shores! and ring, O bells!
But I, with silent tread,
Walk the spot my captain lies
Fallen cold and dead.

* * *

This is the poem I should have posted in honor of Pope John Paul II, except that I didn't think of it back in April. Still, this poem is in honor of him.

This is one of the few poems of Walt Whitman that I can bear at all. I dislike his usual lack of structure and rhyme. This poem shows, however, that he could rhyme if he wanted to. I wish he had tried it more often, because he managed it without making it sound stilted, like so many poets do.

He also uses some nice rhythmic effects: my favorite being, "O heart! heart! heart!" The three stressed syllables in a row sound like heartthrobs. The use of refrains is also effective.

The tragedy of the of the captain is made bittersweet by his ship's victory. The captain succeeded in his mission, even though he gave his life. Yet it is bitter to think that he misses the triumph due him.

The poem originally applied to Abraham Lincoln, who died so soon after ending the Civil War. But I think it applies to our late pontiff. He guided the "bark of Peter" through turbulent seas, and managed to bring it into the new millenium. I am reminded of St. Bosco's dream about popes piloting a ship through the two pillars of Mary and the Eucharist. (A summary of the dream can be found here.)