Poetry in Bloom: “The Lady of Shalott”

Today we start our New Year’s resolution a mite early with a series-in-development, one that gives us a space here at Before the Second Sleep to advance more deeply into the realm of poetry, territory we’ve not had much previous occasion to explore. Given our love of poetry and the enormous opportunities one has as poet as well as reader, we have decided it is high time to move forward.

The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, one of three interpretations of the character by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons

It is fitting to open with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” partly owing to our considerable affection for all things Arthurian, going back to childhood. This new direction has also been inspired in part by a review upcoming, for a “retelling and metamorphosis” of the ballad.

The works of Tennyson, Poet Laureate for over 40 years, reflect a reality about poetry, in that while in his lifetime his words were exceedingly popular (even when savaged by critics), following his death they receded a bit into the shadows. Dr. Stephanie Forward notes that “with such adulation [as the poet received in his lifetime] a subsequent decline in his reputation was probably inevitable.”

Following two world wars and re-examination of Tennyson’s place within Victorian society, his work began once more to be recognized as amongst the greatest in English literature. As literary tastes change and peoples re-discover the values within what came before, perhaps his poetry again shall wilt and bloom in a representation of the ongoing and also inevitable death and re-birth of the artistic design of our world.

“The Lady of Shalott” is loosely based on the life of Elaine, who appears in Le Morte d’Arthur as a noblewoman enamored of Sir Lancelot, later dying from a broken heart following this unrequited love. Tennyson writes of a Lady confined to a castle and subject to a curse that bars her seeing outside save for what is reflected in her looking glass. “Shadows of the world appear” describes how she witnesses life outside via those images, weaving her portrayal of them onto a loom, though becoming weary of the poor substitute the glass provides. “I am half sick of shadows,” she cries, determining that she shall leave her tower, even if it means facing the consequences within the curse.

Below are stanzas excerpted from “The Lady of Shalott,” first published in 1833 in Tennyson’s collection entitled Poems. For the ballad in its entirety, click here, and be sure to have a quick glance at Schmoop’s “Why Should I Care?” section—a brief and easy-to-read segment that may pleasantly surprise you.

Excerpt: “The Lady of Shalott”

[from] Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered 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
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The 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 through 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-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Camelot;
And sometimes through 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 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.

[from] Part III

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.

[from] 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 towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

 

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons

*********

For our review of Richard Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows, click here.

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