“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.”
Some people swoon over Shakespeare. Me? Give me Tennyson anytime.
And I’m not even that proficient in his poetry. But I love the poem “The Lady of Shallot.”
I first heard the poem in Anne of Green Gables, the actual television series done on PBS staring Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst, Richard Farnsworth, and Jonathan Crombie. Anne, played by Follows, is a “romantic” soul and, with her friends, decides to re-enact the death scene of the Lady of Shalott. With her friends’ help, she mounts into a row boat, lays a “shroud” over her (I recall it was a piano cover or something like that), and floats down a river while reciting Tennyson’s poetry.
It really was a lovely scene, up to the point when Anne realizes to her tragic conclusion that the boat has a hole in it and is sinking. The romantic moment ends; Tennyson is lost to the water.
The Lady of Shalott is a red-headed adolescent girl clinging to the piles under a bridge and scornfully observes as Gilbert Blythe (sigh here for a moment) comes to her rescue. Of course, she hates Gilbert at this moment. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen or (even better) read the novels. If you haven’t, I’ll wait for you to read the novels.
Just go ahead.
No, really. You read. I’ll wait here.
Fine. I can’t wait. I still won’t spoil for you the ending because, in the end, this blog post is about Waterhouse’s painting of The Lady of Shalott which was a perfect representation of Tennyson’s poem.
So, imagine Arthurian England. A river with a small island in the center. A tower on the island.
A lonely woman in the tower, staring into a mirror all day.
Not because she is narcissistic. Because she is cursed.
Why she is cursed doesn’t matter. The fact is, she is cursed and she knows she’s cursed. She’s not allowed to look at Camelot. If she does, she will die.
As I examine this from a writer’s perspective, I keep on thinking that this is just kind of ridiculous. But, every writer has a plot hole. I’ve been digging out of them recently in my own writing and have been throwing students into famous author’s plot holes because it’s kind of fun to watch students wallow around in intelligence and analysis only to discover that this is a hole big enough to swallow the writer and the work of literature and all the criticism written about the literature.
Minus the plot hole.
But, after a while, chasing plot holes does nothing more than make me miserable. So I just accept the plot holes and politely step around them, and focus on what is in front of me.
“She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.”
I love this poem, love this woman, love that Loreena McKennit made this into a lovely song that I can’t sing because McKennit is an incredible soprano while I am a belching, ribbutting alto. And I’m fine with my froggy voice. I just know my limitations.
The Lady of Shalott stares at a mirror because as long as she looks in the mirror, she can see the world and she can capture the world in her tapestry that she weaves day in and day out.
I feel such sadness for her.
A lonely woman, hiding in her tower, enjoying life within its powerful limitations.
“But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights…”
How many of us have been like the Lady of Shalott, hiding on the outskirts of the world, of a life we can’t quite imagine but see on a daily basis, and capture the world in a temporary but beautiful and colorful tapestry? Even if that tapestry is nothing more than a collection of words, or a smattering of paint.
How many of us hide in our towers that aren’t made of ivory but might be made of aluminum and glass and have four wheels and lets us run away from the world because we are constantly exhausted?
I see the world. I see it constantly. And, right now, I am in one of my favorite places…my bed. I am in my pajamas and I have just graded twenty journals and written commentary and edited and the idea of surging out the door to experience something is as far from my mind as possible.
I have a colleague who is incredibly social. He told me that the idea of just staying home is a foreign concept. That he loves being surrounded by his friends and people.
I have complete and utter respect for my colleague. He is a brilliant and fabulous man and I am happy that he has this completely opposite personality type from mine because the idea of going out nightly to see the world is frightening to me.
I do want to explore the world. I do want to travel.
But I would prefer it from the edges of my poorly folded paper airplane that seats one or two or maybe three people and not lots of others.
I love my friends.
I love my family.
I love my students and my colleagues and other people, oh my!
But it’s exhausting forcing the shy introvert into the social cookie cutter when I’m too good at saying the wrong thing and being just downright awkward. Or getting overly emotional about nothing in particular but because I’m damn good at it and then things get even more awkward.
I get tired of apologizing for being awkward. It’s better to hold my tongue and let the moment pass.
But I don’t want to be the Lady of Shalott.
Lancelot, in all of loveliness, rides past the island, past the reflective mirror…and
“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.”
She sees him. And she falls in love with him in an instant of absolute tragedy as she falls into the trap of destiny and a curse that was laid upon her before she had the ability to speak for herself.
So she leaves the tower. And finds a boat. And writes her name along the prow with a piece of chalk. And releases the boat from its mooring chain. And allows it to slowly float down the river and into Camelot.
And as she floats, she sings to herself, a quiet dirge. A simple song that might be the echo of her lonely and staid life.
When she reaches Camelot, she dies. And the world goes quietly somber. And her body slowly floats past the palace where the court mysteriously hushes and comes out to the embankments and sees her float past.
And here is where Tennyson just kills it….
“But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, ‘She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.'”
The final words of the poem are spoken by Lancelot. The man with whom she had a five-second, toxic relationship. The man who, unwittingly, sentenced her to death and was her executioner as well.
And he wishes for her mercy. Salvation. Compassion.
God, I love this poem. Beautifully written with a tragic love story.
But I don’t want to live this poem. I might be humming the song, mentally reciting the lines. But I will not lie down in a boat and cover myself with a shroud and “go gently into that good night.”
I am going to passionately live my life. I just might do it at my own pace….and send postcards to everyone I love but can’t come with me.