‘The Lady of Shalott’
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 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.
—Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892)
Have you ever acted on a dream and found that it turned to ashes? If so, Tennyson’s ballad The Lady of Shalott will speak directly to you. It describes a beautiful, mysterious woman condemned to see only shadows of the world; the moment she turns to look at the reality she is doomed to die.
This stanza describes her sudden, calamitous decision to break free. It is rightly one of the most famous in literature, with all the charm and unforgettable strangeness of classic nursery rhymes or the witches’ gleeful chants from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (In Tennyson’s choice of meter we surely hear a distant echo of “Double double toil and trouble/ Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”) Say the stanza a few times aloud and it will stick in your mind forever.
What has brought us to this moment? The Lady dwells on a “silent isle,” behind “four gray walls” and within a “space of flowers.” Her origin remains entirely unexplained. The local people hear her singing and whisper her name in fear and awe.
On the island, she sees the “shadows of the world appear” in a magic mirror and endlessly “weaves” these shadows into a “magic web.” Somehow she knows a curse will strike her down if she ever dares to leave this sacred prison, but only half pines for the life beyond. That is, until she sees the brazen, “bold Sir Lancelot” with his “broad clear brow” come riding by. With one flash of his “coal-black curls” in the crystal mirror, the Lady acts. Overcome by curiosity, she leaves her magic-web and gazes down upon the living man. The blooming “water-lily” expresses her hidden yearning as the mirror cracks.
Storm rises in the east as the Lady makes her way to the river. Finding a boat she casts herself free of the surging shore and floats in a mystic trance to Camelot. Yet singing to herself, she freezes to death before the boat can reach her heart’s desire. The poem ends with the boat coming to rest by Arthur’s palace, where the “sound of royal cheer” falls silent at the uncanny spectacle of her corpse. Lancelot calls on God to lend her grace. The final stanza leaves us unnerved, chilled, and affrighted.
Few poems have ever had the tremendous influence on the visual arts as The Lady of Shalott. It preoccupied the pre-Raphaelite painters to the point of obsession. John Waterhouse, for instance, shows her preparing to flee. She is clad in white, bolt upright in the boat, her red hair spilling to her waist. As we look at her seer-like form, our gaze settles on her pained inward expression and then slides down her right arm to rest on her hand, gripping the chain that has become the crux of life and death. We realize this is the very second she will drop the chain, cast out and be lost. William Holman Hunt captures the moment the mirror cracks and her hair swirls upward as if in a tornado. Female characters like Eowyn from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy evoke the Lady’s majesty, sadness, and power.
For decades, the poem has been the target of boring, moralizing censure from academics, who claim that The Lady of Shalott merely illustrates a Victorian hatred of women. Yet the poem cannot be dismissed so easily. Its central theme is the conflict between freedom and fate; a theme we find in literature as early as Greek and Roman tragedy, and which erupts in Shakespearean drama. “The Lady of Shalott” is a worthy successor to Oedipus and to Hamlet, a figure of endless fascination who expresses a universal, unresolvable, human dilemma.
Certainly, her web and her mirror carry eerie echoes of our modern techo-bubble. The World Wide Web ensnares our attention each and every day, making the real world seem boring and small, yet making us yearn for some unknown authenticity; and each and every day we stare at the screen—omnipresent, apparently neutral, yet flat and false. Dare we cut ourselves off? Dare we step free?
Alfred Tennyson (1809–1892) was a British poet most famous for works such as The Kraken and Ulysses.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.
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