Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Favorite Fictional Characters --- The Lady of Shalott



I'm not sure I can really describe why this poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson gets to me the way it does. Why the main character of this beautifully written work makes me want to cry every time I read what happens to her. Nor am I going to give an academic dissertation on the themes found in this work. That is for another time. What I'm going to try and explain here is what I feel when I read this poem and why The Lady of Shalott is my third pick for My Favorite Fictional Character.

As most people who have read this poem, I encountered it for the first time in my Senior English class in high school. All I remember is reading along in class and having this well of emotion come out that I'm not sure had ever been brought out by any other poem. It was a feeling of utter sadness and regret for this woman who was condemned to live alone with no physical contact from the outside world.

She is loosely based off of Elaine of Astolat from the Arthurian legends. Though many of the details from the poem are not to be found in the original story. We meet her as a woman living in a tower that sits on an island in the middle of a river. She is physically isolated from any other human being. Her only view of the comings and goings around her is through a mirror. If she were to gaze directly out the window a curse would come over her so she has never chosen to do such a thing before. One day Sir Lancelot rides by and the Lady of Shalott is so enchanted by what she sees that she looks out the window and with the breaking of her mirror she condemns herself to death. The rest of the poem recounts her journey down the river to Camelot and her eventual death.

What really upset me the first time I read this was Sir Lancelot's response once the Lady reaches Camelot lying dead in her boat. As a young man I found it to be callous and cold. Upon later reflection I really couldn't blame him, for how is he to know the small role he played in this tragedy.

Her story had stuck with me since then and I tend to read the poem many times throughout a normal year. I have the above print by Waterhouse framed and hanging in my living room and I listen to Loreena McKennitt sing the poem about as often as I read it. The sadness and total isolation she felt still gets to me and I end up putting myself in her shoes. If I were ever in her situation would I eventually get to the point where I would say "I am half sick of shadows", damn the consequences and choose to live just one last moment in the world.

I' m not sure I can fully express the emotions this poem and it's "hero" convey in me so I will post the poem here and let you read it for yourself.

The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


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
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.

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."

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-hair'd page in crimson clad
Goes by to tower'd 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.

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 red-cross 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 armor 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, burning bright,
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 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 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.

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 around about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seer 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 darkened 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,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and Burgher, Lord and Dame,
And around 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."

11 comments:

celi.a said...

I remember loving Tennyson, though I'm fairly sure I read this sophomore year of college, rather than in high school. And that painting is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing!

ERIC SHACKLE said...

Hi Ryan. Greetings from Sydney, Australia.

Do you know that today (August 6) is Alfred Lord Tennyson's bicentenary, that's being celebrated around the world?

You may like to read a story about six Barons Tennyson that has been posted by the UK daily litrary webzine Open Writing: http://www.openwriting.com/archives/2009/08/birthday_beniso.php

Ryan G said...

Eric, thank you for the information and link. I'll be reading it in a few seconds.

Melissa said...

I don't read much in the way of poetry, but I can see the attraction to this.

As I read it I could see the irony in a couple of ways. She was attracted to his looks yet his personality may not have been what she would have died for. But, for her curse I do think it was worth the journey to die for. Then, she has been alone for so long and then to die alone anyway in the tragedy. To try to get to that one person and not make it. A shame.

To be kept this way - alone - & not able to look out at the world would be very difficult for me. I think I would have to leave after a while, but I wish I would be with someone when the moment came to pass on.

I really felt for Lady of Shalott. Great pick this week, and thanks for opening my mind to it.

I will have to come back later this evening to do my pick.

Melissa said...

I have been thinking on a character for this week. I keep finding myself going back to Raymond Feists novels for the characters. For some reason I just love the dynamics of his characters.

Now, 2 weeks ago I gave 2 characters. That was an accident (I got a little carried away in my thoughts.) This week I am only going to give one, that is... Pug.

Pug, well he shows up in so many books and not always the main character. When Pug started out he was an orphan taken in my kind people who worked in the castle. Pug seemed to start off not knowing what he wanted to do or what he was good at as a young man. He ended up in another world and learned so much in the way of magic. Pug never gave up in his life and searching. Pug also seemed to have a strong moral standing in what he believed, and even when it ment being and outcast on a land that became home for what he believed, he took his stand. Pug grew very powerful as a magician and is constantly still learning. Another thing is Pug is always willing to learn and learns from his mistakes. He is a very strong character in many of Raymond Feists' books.

Ryan G said...

Melissa, I'm ashamed to admit I don't think I've ever read one of Raymond Feists' books. Which one should I start with?

Melissa said...

Okay, I am a strange person. I carry a list of the order of his books in my purse at all times. This way I remember what order to read the books in for when I go to the book store and which one is next for me to read. (I almost feel ashamed to admit that. I should add this to the thread over on B&N you know your a SF geek when...)

I would start at the beginning of the whole series's though, when you meet Pug and he becomes the Magician of great power. The first book is Magician:Apprentice then Magician:Master. I think you can find these books as one but I bought it as two. The Magician:Apprentice you meet everyone and the story begins. If I remember correctly I don't think Pug becomes the all powerful Magician till the second book. I started here and worked my way through their children and so on. Raymond Feist is an amazing writer, if I may say. His worlds are very complete and his characters are very well written. I would suggest him to anyone to enjoy. So if you do read them, I do hope you enjoy them.

Ryan G said...

Thanks Melissa :-)

Melissa said...

Any time Ryan. I am just glad for once I am able to help someone else out with at book. (Usually its you all helping me.;) And I do appreciate it very much.:))

thebookaddict said...

We read this a few years back in one of my literature classes. It is a beautiful poem. I also love that painting. I had it as my MySpace background last year. Can you tell me what CD the song by Loreena McKennitt is on and what the title of the song is? I love her. Mystic's Dream is one of my favorite songs!

BTW, great post Ryan!

Ryan G said...

Michelle...The name of the song is the same as the Poem "The Lady of Shalott". She just wrote music for the poem and sings the words. The CD is The Visit. It's a great song.

On The Book of Secrets album she did the same thing with "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes.