August 9, 2013

The Lady of Shalott

        It's poetry time again!  Today I have excerpts from The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  (Originally written in 1833, this is from the second version, from 1842.)  Loosely based on the story of Elaine of Astolat from Arthurian legend, in which Elaine dies of unrequited love for Lancelot, Tennyson's poem is more about atmosphere than plot.  Its fame has led to lines and images getting borrowed all over the place, from Agatha Christie to Avalon High, and Loreena McKennitt to a country music video by The Band Perry, to Dutch gothic metal band Autumn.  Anne of Green Gables famously found the story wonderfully romantic, and it was another of those poems that my family enjoyed reciting with overblown melodrama - not the whole
thing, though.  Just a few key stanzas.  I include the Fun Bits for you today, but if you'd like to read the whole thing, you can find it here.  The best stanza of all is the fourth of these below.  It requires pacing, extravagant gestures, a lily-white hand to the brow, and perhaps even a swoon.  Are you ready?

The Lady of Shalott
...
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.
...
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.
...
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.
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."

        Did you swoon?  If not, you'd better try again with a little more drama.  Yes, it's a ridiculous story, but far better to wallow in Victorian romantic melodrama just for a little while than to work up drama in your own life!

[Pictures: The Lady of Shalott, drawing by Florence M. Rutland, 1896;
The Lady of Shalott, wood engraving by J. Thompson from art by William Holman Hunt, 1857 (Image from the Tate);
Elaine Worships Lancelot, by George Wooliscroft Rhead and George Rhead, 1898 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Elaine, by John Moyr Smith, 1875 (First and fourth images from here.)]

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