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.
I’ve been thinking about Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott often of late. It’s a poem that I’ve always liked (not the least because of all the gorgeous associated illustrations, and Loreena McKennitt’s lovely musical setting), because of where it would take me during those dreamy, fanciful years of my youth.
Despite this, I’ve always found the story frustrating. We are told the Lady is under a curse that forbids her from looking at the world directly. Instead, she looks through a mirror that is angled so that it reflects the landscape outside the window. The mirror mediates her reality, and she takes the images she sees in the mirror and weaves them into a tapestry of her own.
And yet, the poem also acknowledges that she doesn’t even know the nature of the curse, nor its consequences. I was discussing it with my brother recently, and we agreed that Tennyson leaves it ambiguous as to whether there actually is a curse that is ultimately triggered when she looks directly upon Lancelot and the world outside, or whether the consequences that flow from her act are simply self-fulfilling. In other words, because she believes there is a curse and that she triggered it, she behaves accordingly, and ends up succumbing to a dire fate that is ultimately the result of her own assumptions, paradigms and ways of parsing reality.
This gets at the nature of my frustration with her. I’ve always been bothered by the fact that she just passively accepted the reality of the curse and allowed herself to be subject to it. No questions about the nature of it, nor about any possible ways to get around it or free herself? No doubt it was easier to just accept and succumb–after all, being fatalistic and embracing the idea of a destiny or a particular lot in life meant that she didn’t need to make decisions and have agency. And of course, that she could blame the curse in the end, and not be faced with the failings of her own hard work and aspirations.
My frustrations with her passive acceptance of her situation aside, the poem itself is rich with imagery and metaphor.
I’ve always wondered whether Tennyson intended the Lady to represent a metaphor for the author or academic: locked in a tower, reading books (i.e. the shadows of the world appearing in the mirror) and writing, in turn (in her web she still delights to weave the mirror’s magic sights). With such a reading, the curse could be the fear of engaging with the world beyond books–a fear of caring, of being hurt by others, of loving (not just in the sense of romantic love) and losing. The world of the tower, and of shadows, is far safer, albeit lonelier.
A more contemporary spin (that would obviously have nothing to do with authorial intention) could have many of us engaging with shadows of the world on the Internet, and in turn adding to the web via blog posts etc. Our woven sights become others’ mirrors, reflecting shadows of the world to which they respond, and so on, placing us in a veritable postmodern hall of mirrors, a web world of shadows. Regressus ad infinitum.
But the passive metaphor works better with previous versions of the web, in which people posted pages, and the content was static: others came, read and posted static pages of their own in response. The real postmodern twist in our current iteration of the internet is that the shadow world–the internet world–is in the process of becoming real. It is interactive rather than passive and has therefore become a new, increasingly legitimate, stage for our getting and spending, our sounds and furies. The real world remains real, but the world of the web is becoming as real.
People are now engaging in interactions involving both broadcast and dialogue that are exclusive to the digital world of the internet, and that have not been possible in the analog world because of geography, logistics and the challenges of distribution and reach.
And so, rather than being reflections of “real world” thoughts and experiences, transformed into written, photographic or filmic shadows, the web is now becoming part of that real world, as a forum for interaction. The surroundings there may be shadows of a sort (photos, video clips), but the connections and the interactions, are real. This is no longer the passive viewing and silent weaving of the Lady in her tower, the author in his garret. The real world has come to the internet–and such a brave new world it is, that has such people in’t.