When I was about 12/13 years old, I read the book by Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty. It’s fairly famous now, but it was a new release in 2003, about a young Victorian girl with strange, magical powers. And printed before the book began was a passage from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” It became one of my favorite poems.
Here’s one of my favorite passages, which was also the one included in the Bray book:
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.
* * *
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half-sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.
The Lady of Shalott is based on an Arthurian figure named Elaine of Astolat, who wastes away for love of Lancelot. In the poem, she’s cursed to remain in her tower forever. If she leaves, she will die. In the second part of the poem she declares she would rather die than stay trapped in her tower forever, and she dies while floating on a river. On a boat, her body floats to shore where Lancelot sees her and just says she’s pretty. Men! 😉
The Lady of Shalott is so tragic and dazzlingly beautiful, and it was my favorite poem when I was 13, and it still is my favorite poem at 23. When I was 19 I got “I am half sick of shadows” tattooed on my ribs and I have a print of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott hanging in my bedroom. Something about the Lady’s strength, courage and helpless love touched me, and it still does.
I really resonated with her choice to leave her tower and let the curse come upon her. She chooses to live for a short time outside her tower, rather than live for a long time as a prisoner of her curse, never experiencing life or chasing what she truly desires. I think that’s a theme that still means a lot to me today.
Read the whole thing here.