alking through a barley field near our house in Kidlington on a hot afternoon I was reminded of these lines:
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers 'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.'
Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892, became Poet Laureate and the most celebrated poet of his day after the publication of
In Memoriam A.H.H.
With its intensely realized sense of place and its powerful concentrated verse this long
elegy for his young Cambridge friend Arthur Hallam, who had died suddenly in 1833,
caught the attention of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But long before this, the young Tennyson
had written a series of visionary poems, medieval in feeling and deriving in part from the stories
of the Knights of the Round Table. In one of the most memorable of these, The Lady of Shalott
, he evokes a summer
scene of peaceful heat, an unremarkable rural landscape and then a fairytale medieval tower in which the Lady
lives under a curse. The curse keeps her weaving a tapestry, and constantly watching the development of her
tapestry in a mirror (she is weaving from the reverse side of the tapestry). Part of the curse
is that if she looks directly out of the window with the naked eye she will suffer dreadful consequences.
Illustrated above, The Lady of Shalott, painting (Circa 1890) by William Holman Hunt,
inspired by Tennyson's poem, depicts The Lady of Shalott confined to a tower on an island near Camelot, cursed not to leave the tower nor to look out of its windows.
She weaves a tapestry, viewing the outside world only through reflections in a mirror behind her.
The painting depicts the pivotal scene in the third part of the poem: the Lady spies "bold Sir Launcelot" in her mirror.
The sight of the handsome knight and the sound of him singing draws her away from her loom to the window, yarn still clinging around her knees,
bringing down the curse upon her as "the mirror crack'd from side to side". She leaves the tower to take a boat across the river, but meets her death
before she reaches Camelot.
The mirror in which she sees her tapestry also reflects the scene from her window.
The poor lady weaves industriously, occasionally diverted by tantalizing glimpses of real
life reflected in her mirror: troops of bold young knights or motley lively crowds of visitors
to a market. Then comes the fatal day when bold Sir Lancelot himself appears in her mirror.
He is a striking and magnificent figure:
His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
'Tirra lirra,' by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.
It is all too much for the poor Lady. She abandons her loom and looks directly out
of her window at this enthralling sight, with catastrophic results:
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.
The unfortunate Lady leaves her tower, finds a boat which she adopts as her floating coffin, and drifts
in it down towards Camelot, singing as she dies. 'All the knights at Camelot' hear her death song
and come out in awe and wonder ('they crossed themselves for fear'). Unaware that she has in effect died
for love of him Lancelot himself blesses her, adding, in his detached way, 'She has a lovely face.'
We can assume that he then forgets her and goes back to his own full, active, satisfying life.
As a story or fable this poem makes little sense but as a vision or dream it is compelling.
I think at its centre is the notion that the making of art, be it tapestry, poetry or music,
is dependent on inscrutable and mysterious conditions. To drag it out into plain sight is to
destroy it. Indeed, the longer it remains hidden, secret, and a matter of expectation
rather than achievement, the longer it exerts power.
Tennyson was very young when he wrote this poem, and his circumstances were precarious.
His clergyman father, the oldest son of a successful Lincolnshire lawyer and land agent,
had been forced to become a clergyman. In the early nineteenth century this was a standard
way for the gentry to dispose of younger
sons, but Tennyson's father had effectively been disinherited
in favour of his younger brother. The poor man despaired, and in 1830 he died of drink.
Alfred Tennyson found himself having to look after his widowed mother and his many younger siblings.
I think the Lady in the Tower, doomed to be destroyed by any encounter with the real world, reflects
the young Tennyson's feelings about the destruction of his family's security and the fact that
he is trapped and imprisoned by the family's poverty.
In feeling, at least, this poem compares with 'The Kraken' in which a fabulous sea-monster emerges
from the deep, displays himself to the astonished world, and then dies:
Beneath the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth.
He sleeps until roused by 'the latter fire', which I take to be the end of the universe, and
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
Once he had emerged from his figurative tower and from the abysmal sea
Tennyson as Poet Laureate continued to write on medieval themes, and his huge narrative poem,
Idylls of the King, reworked the stories of King Arthur, the feuding among his knights
and his disastrous marriage to Queen Guinevere, creating a decorative romance which fed the
Victorians' appetite for the mythologized history of their own country — and their Emipire — for some 50 years.
But it began with a penniless parson's son creating an imaginative safe place for himself in Camelot.