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. Continue reading