This week, we have The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I once wrote a paper on this poem and argued that the The Lady of Shalott can be likened to Plato‘s theory that art is imitation. In his essay dicussion, The Republic, Book X, he brings up the example of a bed. He says that there is a “perfect form” of a bed that God has made, the craftsman who has made the bed, and then a painter who has painted what the craftsman has made. Plato’s point is that there is only one perfect form and everything else is imitation. He says, “…every sort of confusion is revealed within us; and this is that weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of deceiving by light and shadow and other ingenious devices imposes, having an effect upon us like magic.”
The world inside The Lady of Shalott’s mirror is a distorted view. She even says, “I am half sick of shadows.” The three forms the Lady of Shalott is experiencing are the outside world behind her (God’s bed), the mirror (craftman’s bed), and her weaving (painter’s bed).
Just like in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the people in the cave are only seeing shadows on the wall of the outside world, much like The Lady of Shalott. The Lady sees the true form of nature when she turns to look outside at Lancelot and dies as a result.
The voice is melancholy and the story is not happy, but it makes you feel connected to what’s happening. I remember reading this in high school and hearing the musical rendition by Loreena McKennitt (see below). I also went to England and got to see the painting by John William Waterhouse that depicts the Lady of Shalott. It’s quite a long poem, but every word sweeps you up into the tale being told.
The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse
Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2dtK99a
The Lady of Shalott
Part IOn either side the river lieLong fields of barley and of rye,That clothe the wold and meet the sky;And thro’ the field the road runs byTo many-tower’d Camelot;The yellow-leaved waterlilyThe green-sheathed daffodillyTremble in the water chillyRound about Shalott.Willows whiten, aspens shiver.The sunbeam showers break and quiverIn the stream that runneth everBy the island in the riverFlowing down to Camelot.Four gray walls, and four gray towersOverlook a space of flowers,And the silent isle imbowersThe Lady of Shalott.Underneath the bearded barley,The reaper, reaping late and early,Hears her ever chanting cheerly,Like an angel, singing clearly,O’er the stream of Camelot.Piling the sheaves in furrows airy,Beneath the moon, the reaper wearyListening whispers, ‘ ‘Tis the fairy,Lady of Shalott.’The little isle is all inrail’dWith a rose-fence, and overtrail’dWith roses: by the marge unhail’dThe shallop flitteth silken sail’d,Skimming down to Camelot.A pearl garland winds her head:She leaneth on a velvet bed,Full royally apparelled,The Lady of Shalott.Part IINo time hath she to sport and play:A charmed web she weaves alway.A curse is on her, if she stayHer weaving, either night or day,To look down to Camelot.She knows not what the curse may be;Therefore she weaveth steadily,Therefore no other care hath she,The Lady of Shalott.She lives with little joy or fear.Over the water, running near,The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.Before her hangs a mirror clear,Reflecting tower’d Camelot.And as the mazy web she whirls,She sees the surly village churls,And the red cloaks of market girlsPass 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 blueThe knights come riding two and two:She hath no loyal knight and true,The Lady of Shalott.But in her web she still delightsTo weave the mirror’s magic sights,For often thro’ the silent nightsA funeral, with plumes and lightsAnd music, came from Camelot:Or when the moon was overheadCame two young lovers lately wed;‘I am half sick of shadows,’ saidThe Lady of Shalott.Part IIIA bow-shot from her bower-eaves,He rode between the barley-sheaves,The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,And flam’d upon the brazen greavesOf bold Sir Lancelot.A red-cross knight for ever kneel’dTo 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 seeHung in the golden Galaxy.The bridle bells rang merrilyAs he rode down from Camelot:And from his blazon’d baldric slungA mighty silver bugle hung,And as he rode his armour rung,Beside remote Shalott.All in the blue unclouded weatherThick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,The helmet and the helmet-featherBurn’d like one burning flame together,As he rode down from Camelot.As often thro’ the purple night,Below the starry clusters bright,Some bearded meteor, trailing light,Moves over green Shalott.His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;From underneath his helmet flow’dHis coal-black curls as on he rode,As he rode down from Camelot.From the bank and from the riverHe flash’d into the crystal mirror,‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:’Sang Sir Lancelot.She left the web, she left the loomShe made three paces thro’ the roomShe saw the water-flower 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,’ criedThe Lady of Shalott.Part IVIn the stormy east-wind straining,The pale yellow woods were waning,The broad stream in his banks complaining,Heavily the low sky rainingOver tower’d Camelot;Outside the isle a shallow boatBeneath a willow lay afloat,Below the carven stern she wrote,The Lady of Shalott.A cloudwhite crown of pearl she dight,All raimented in snowy whiteThat loosely flew (her zone in sightClasp’d with one blinding diamond bright)Her wide eyes fix’d on Camelot,Though the squally east-wind keenlyBlew, with folded arms serenelyBy the water stood the queenlyLady of Shalott.With a steady stony glance—Like some bold seer in a trance,Beholding all his own mischance,Mute, with a glassy countenance—She look’d down to Camelot.It was the closing of the day:She loos’d the chain, and down she lay;The broad stream bore her far away,The Lady of Shalott.As when to sailors while they roam,By creeks and outfalls far from home,Rising and dropping with the foam,From dying swans wild warblings come,Blown shoreward; so to CamelotStill as the boathead wound alongThe willowy hills and fields among,They heard her chanting her deathsong,The Lady of Shalott.A longdrawn carol, mournful, holy,She chanted loudly, chanted lowly,Till her eyes were darken’d wholly,And her smooth face sharpen’d slowly,Turn’d to tower’d Camelot:For ere she reach’d upon the tideThe 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 pale, pale corpse she floated by,Deadcold, between the houses high,Dead into tower’d Camelot.Knight and burgher, lord and dame,To the planked wharfage came:Below the stern they read her name,The Lady of Shalott.They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest,Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest.There lay a parchment on her breast,That puzzled more than all the rest,The wellfed wits at Camelot.‘The web was woven curiously,The charm is broken utterly,Draw near and fear not,—this is I,The Lady of Shalott.’
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