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The Lady of Shalott


The Lady of Shalott sees life for the first time.

The painting is by JW Waterhouse, 1888. Image: The Tate.

I cannot fathom all that Tennyson intended in his mysterious poem, The Lady of Shalott, which was first published in 1833, when he was 23.

In the poem the Lady has been isolated in a tower. She weaves the scenes she sees reflected in her mirror.

Perhaps many of us have sometimes retreated to a tower, afraid to face life.

The Lady has been warned she will be cursed if she looks at Camelot, but she is "half-sick of shadows". Glimpsing Lancelot riding past, she impetuously leaves her imprisoning safety, finds a boat and follows him to Camelot.

On the river, "singing her last song", she dies.

Tennyson's poem is her song.

Canadian Lorenna McKennitt sings Tennyson's poem, which she has considerably and beautifully cut -

The verses that Lorenna McKennitt sings -

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.

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 redcross knight for ever kneel'd
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote 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 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 round about the prow she wrote
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."

Perhaps our lives become a song to those who love us and hold us in their hearts?