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. Here’s a link to the complete 1842 version of the poem. 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.
Poor Elaine. How can you even grasp even the simplest understanding of life when you can not live it?
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.