Pre-Raphaelite Themes: The Lady of Shalott

Waterhouse Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot John William Waterhouse

Many of the Pre-Raphaelites drew inspiration from Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott, and I find it interesting to see how each of them chose to portray her.  The Lady of Shalott, also called Elaine of Astolat, is a prisoner within “four gray walls and four gray towers” on the island of Shalott. (She is also known as “the lily maid of Astolat” in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.) Under a curse, she is forbidden to look at Camelot. She does not live life, only observing it through a mirror while she weaves her tapestries. How many of us fall into that same category? Not living our lives, merely observing until something shakes us out of our reverie. And for the Lady of Shalott, it took the image of Lancelot to take hold of her heart and compel her to look at life fully with her own eyes, no longer content with a mere reflection of life.

 

The Lady of Shalott, William Holman Hunt

'I am half-sick of shadows', John William Waterhouse

‘I am half-sick of shadows’, John William Waterhouse


waterhouse shalott

The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse

Poor Elaine. How can you even grasp even the simplest understanding of life when you can not live it?

Meteyard Lady of Shalott

I’m Half-Sick of Shadows (The Lady of Shalott) by by Sidney Harold Meteyard

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 hands 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 curly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Upon seeing Lancelot in the mirror, she boldy decides to look at life with her own eyes even though she knows of the curse upon her. The mirror cracks “from side to side”. She then (bolder still!) gets in a boat destined for Camelot even though she knows she must surely die. In one hand, a lily. In the other, a letter for Lancelot. In the boat, she sings one last song. Her swan song, if you will.

“Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot.”

Waterhouse also chose to portray the Lady of Shalott in her boat (or should we call it her death barge?) Yes, you may have noticed that Waterhouse recreated her on canvas several times. Note her wistful, pained expression.

Tennyson wrote two versions of the poem. You can see a side by side comparison here.

On a personal note, I first encountered the Lady of Shalott, not through art, but through Agatha Christie’s book Dead Man’s Mirror. I believe I was around twelve or thirteen years old when I read this passage:

“One cannot escape one’s Karma. It all fits in — the mirror– everything.”
“The mirror, madame?” Asked Poirot.
She nodded her head towards it vaguely.
“Yes. It’s splintered, you see. A symbol! You know Tennyson’s poem? I used to read it as a girl — though, of course, I didn’t realize then the esoteric side of it
. ‘The mirror cracked from side to side; “The curse has come upon me!” Cried the Lady of Shalott. That’s what happened to Gervase. The Curse came upon him suddenly. I think, you know, most very old families have a curse…The mirror cracked. He knew that he was doomed! The Curse had come!

And of course, then I went on my own adolescent hunt for Tennyson and the Lady of Shalott. This was years before I discovered my passion for the Pre-Raphaelites.  But I find that in life, we make our own connections. As if a fine, invisible thread leads us from this, to this, and to this. And suddenly one day, we can look back upon a journey and find that something unexpected has its roots deep into another time of our life. Seeds firmly planted in our youth seem to have nothing in common with our adult passions. Yet the connection is there. We follow a path. And even if is the road less traveled, there is a pattern to be seen, even if only in hindsight. An Agatha Christie mystery, a Tennyson poem, Pre-Raphaelite art. It is part of my thread. I’m sure you have your own.

sidall-shalott.jpg

Elizabeth Siddal’s illustration of the Lady of Shalott.

Also see my post  Lady of Shalott: Our Modern Version of the Curse.

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 redcross 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 seër 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,
A corse 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.”

 

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8 thoughts on “Pre-Raphaelite Themes: The Lady of Shalott

  1. Many years ago, there was an exhibition catalogue that was just about depictions of Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. I have it somewhere, I used it for a paper once, in which I compared Waterhouse’s I’m Half Sick of Shadows with the picture of the same title by Meteyard. Really fascinating. I can dig out the exhibition catalogue and give you the title and author, if you like. Though I’m sure it’s out of print, you might be able to find it used online somewhere.

  2. i’m in love with waterhouse and in general the pre raphhaelite talents and tales.
    so it was nice to read this site . nice to meet you . 🙂
    i have a wonderful waterhouse catalogue from his exhibition in 2009, RAA , London.

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