Monday, August 6, 2007

The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Lady of Shalott

Part I

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
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray 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."

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 thro' 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 thro' 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 thro' 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.

Part III

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 armour 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, trailing light,
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 flash'd into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

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.

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 tower'd Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round 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 darken'd 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 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 cross'd 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."
--Alfred Lord Tennyson

I memorized large portions of this, thanks to Loreena McKennitt's lovely recording, though I never got it completely down. I especially like the stanzas that describe Lancelot -- his coal black curls flowing from underneath his helmet, the way his armor flashed and sparkled -- it's so romantic. I can understand why it has inspired so many other works of art, and was one of Anne's (of Green Gables)favorites.

When I was reciting parts of it once, at a dinner party at college with Doug, Lesli, Genivive and possibly some other people, Genevive mentioned that someone had once said that she had a "lovely face" and that she thought that it was an example of damning with faint praise. She interpreted the poem as showing how Lancelot rode through the world roughshod and even though this woman died for him, all he could say was, "She has a lovely face."

I interpret it differently. Lancelot did nothing to encourage the Lady, he literally had never set eyes on her before. When she was found dead in the river, everyone else was horrified and frightened, but he had some compassion for her, and saw her as a person rather than an apparition.

The story is a little different as Malory tells it in Le Mort d'Arthur. If you want to read it for yourself, this story is found in Book 18 chapters 9, 14, 19 and 20. Here, she is referred to as Elaine Le Blank, or the Maid of Astolat.

Lancelot shows up at her father's castle looking for lodging before a big tournament. By this time he's got to go to tournament in disguise, since nobody will let him fight otherwise. Elaine falls in love with him, and asks him to wear her favor at the tournament. He says no at first, but then figures since he never wears anybody's favors, that this will help with his disguise, so he says OK. A couple chapters later, when he's about to leave the castle and Elaine said, "My lord, Sir Launcelot, now I see ye will depart; now fair knight and courteous knight, have mercy upon me, and suffer me not to die for thy love."
Lancelot asked, "What do you want from me?"
She said that she wants to marry him.
Lancelot said something along the lines of, "Not a chance. If I didn't marry the other Elaine (the mother of his son Galahad who had drugged and tricked him into lying with her), and I can't marry Gwenevere, then I'm certainly not going to marry anyone else."
He won't consent to be her lover either, since he says that would be dishonorable, and he's not going to repay the kindness of her father and brother that way.
"Alas," said she, "then must I die for your love."
"You'll do no such thing" said Lancelot. "Look, I like you, find some other knight who actually wants to marry you, and I'll give you a thousand pounds a year to live on, and I'll come be your champion anytime you need one."
Then the Lady fell down in a swoon. Lancelot left her in the care of her family, and told her father, "I'm sorry about your daughter, but I was never the causer of it. I dare do all that a knight should do that she is a clean maiden for me, both for deed and for will. And I am right heavy of her distress, for she is a full fair maiden,good and gentle, and well taught."
After he left, she starved herself to death, despite her family's pleadings to get over it. As she was dying, they promised to put her in a boat with a letter in her hand, to cover the whole thing with black samite, and row her body down to Camelot.
When the body got there, it caused quite a scandal, but Lancelot told his story, and her brother backed him up, and after Lanceloth ahd payed for the funeral, everybody forgave him and said, "Well, you can't force love."

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