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.


John said...

I still think she looks undead in that picture.

John said...
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Sheila said...


Do you know how to fix the word "by" which is next to the picture?

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anahbird said...

Hello. I stumbled across your blog while I was browsing and just wanted to say hi. I love this poem (and the picture you selected to show with it.. it's the same picture we were shown when we read it in one of my English classes in college).

I'd never looked at the poem from the view of an artist giving up their art for love... though being an aspiring writer, I know it is hard to dedicate a lot of time to both your art and to your loved one.

Mark said...

Just center the picture; that should move the word "by."

Sheila said...

Alack and fie for shame! I've been spammed! The cruel irony is that I had just finished commenting on Fiddleback that I'd never been spammed before. I'm blaming you, John: I think you brought your spam with you.

Thanks, Mark, I'll try that when I get a chance. I'm rushed now, though.

Hi Anahbird.