The Lady of Shalott

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow veil'd,
Slide the heavy barges trail'd
By slow horses; and unhail'd
The shallop flitteth silken-sail'd
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early,
In among the beared barley
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly;
Down to tower'd Camelot;
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, " 'Tis the fairy
The Lady of Shalott."

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 through 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.

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 through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two.
She hath no loyal Knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through 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.

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel'd
To 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 see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon'd baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armor rung
Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn'd like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro' the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, burning bright,
Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
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.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily 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," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining.
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower'd Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And around about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance --
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right --
The leaves upon her falling light --
Thro' the noises of the night,
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turn'd to tower'd Camelot.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The 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 gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and Burgher, Lord and Dame,
And around the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? And what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the Knights at Camelot;
But Lancelot mused a little space
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."

-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I consider it an allegory, though unintentional, of life in computing: do we not work a magic loom with a screen that shows us the world? And what happens when we see the "real" world? Somehow Plato's Allegory of the Cave in the Republic seems mixed in with all of this...or Ada Lovelace...


Update, as of 2005: The whole idea of this rests on the idea of digital computing being a development of Jaquard's Loom, as utilized by Charles Babbage and Ada Byron King, Lady Lovelace, who devised the Difference Engine, and the fact that in classic wall hanging weaving, there is a mirror (of polished metal or mirrored glass) set into the loom to monitor the work, which also monitors whatever's behind the worker.

Ada Lovelace was in every sense, both her father's daughter, and yet, something else: standing between the masculine, free-and-easy Georgian era and the feminized, yet repressed, Victorian era, she managed at least one great correspondence, and a few great ideas before succumbing to cancer and a few vices...

The Lady of Shallot in Tennyson’s poem has been equated with Elayne, daughter of The Fisher King, who falls in love with Lancelot, and seduces him, with the help of Morgan le Fay, by taking on the visage of Queen Guinevere. Elayne bears Galahad, and dies, her heart broken by Lancelot’s indifference. Her body is placed in a boat, and floated to Camelot in a boat to reproach him.

I don’t buy this explanation. The Lady is more removed from the Arthur story than this – she is an observer, and not even a direct observer. Outside her window, away from the isle, we can see people and activity, bustle and buzz. The Lady can watch all this, dimly reflected in a mirror, but she is set apart. There is a curse that prevents her from looking at Camelot directly, its terms unspecified, but implicitly dreadful.

At first the Lady is content. She has her work to do, her web to weave. She is enchanted by the shadows that dance for her. But, over time, she grows aware that she is missing out, becoming dissatisfied as she hears the sounds of lovers at night. She becomes lonely. Finally, Sir Lancelot, every maiden’s dream, comes into view. This is temptation that cannot be resisted, and the Lady risks disaster.

For a wonderful moment, she is part of the real world. Everything is laid out before her in brilliant colour, and beauty; and then the curse comes and snatches it away. Destroyed by her boldness, she dies, and her epitaph is spoken by her unknowing slayer.

Leah M. Sanger in her essay Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" and the Woman's Place in Victorian Society suggests that the story illustrates the tension between the the traditional and emerging roles of women – the move from cloistered, domestic life, protected and removed from the real world, into an active role where she can be touched, tainted and ultimately destroyed.

Sanger draws no conclusions on Tennyson’s position – certainly he seems sympathetic to the Lady’s loneliness, but even so, he punishes her for her boldness in rejecting her predestined role.

Ultimately, the Lady can’t win – a situation that makes her appealing to teenage girls like Anne of Green Gables the world over. She is the archetypal tragic heroine, beautiful, sheltered, and doomed to live without love, or die reaching for it. What could be more romantic?

The subject of numerous paintings, illustrations, a famous poem, and a fairly well-known song. Of the paintings, I will only focus on those most famous, as to examine every depiction of the Lady of Shalott would be difficult, as I have yet to see a full catalogue.

John William Waterhouse:

  • 1888: "The Lady of Shalott"
    The most famous depiction of the Lady, here seated in her boat, setting loose the chain and preparing the sail towards Camelot. The landscape, though green, is dark, as if a storm is about to begin; some light is seen over the mountains, where clouds gather. Here, our Lady is dressed in white, with long red hair and a distraught look upon her face. She sits on one of her tapestries, which is partially floating in the water. Three candles are on the bow; all but one has blown out, the the final one is in the process of being blow out. A crucifix lies beneath the candles, but her gaze is on the water.

When I was in college (the late 1990s), it seemed as if a poster of this particular painting was given to every incoming freshman girl as she moved into the dorm. It's not hard to imagine why--here is unrequited love at its most tragic, and frankly, melodramatic. Not unlike a teenage girl, myself included.

This particular painting is on display at the Tate in London. In person, the details become much more impressive, no doubt due to its massive size.

  • 1894: "The Lady of Shalott"
    Another well-known version, again by Waterhouse, features the Lady still in her tower, but now aware, stooping over as if hearing something. Again she is dressed in white, but the model is obviously different, and her hair is dark and pulled back. The same tapestry is seen in the background, which is a claustrophobic cell, wherein we see the Lady's mirror. She has turned away, and is looking out the window to Lancelot, who is riding by, unaware of her. Balls of yarn have fallen to the floor.

  • 1916: '"I Am Half Sick of Shadows", Said The Lady of Shalott'
    Here, the Lady is seen weaving one of her tapestries, eyeing the loom intently. We see her mirror, her cramped cell, same as before. She is wearing red, however, a more vital color, and we can see people passing by her window, reflected in the mirror.

What is most interesting about Waterhouse's Lady is that despite the different models, each figure comes across as a sturdy, even serious young woman, fully aware of her curse.

William Holman Hunt
1886-1905: The Lady of Shalott
In an ornate chamber, decorated with images of angels, fruits, trees, and other such things the Lady cannot go near, she stands inside a ring, seemingly entangled by one of her tapestries. She is barefoot, dynamic, in the middle of turning, perhaps away from the mirror facing us the viewers, and out towards the window towards Lancelot. Like Waterhouse's 1916 version, this Lady is active, aware, and making the most of her fate.

Arthur Hughes
1873: The Lady of Shalott
The Lady, dead in her bower, is found seen by women who stand upon the bank with sad looks on their faces. The Lady is a ghostly white, while the women are in robust colors. Not my favorite, but worth noting.

John Sidney Meteyard
1913: The Lady of Shalott
Here, the Lady is lounging in a chair, seemingly asleep, as a figure is seen in her round mirror. Like other depictions, the scene is both claustrophobic and lush with color; she sits before her loom, and is surrounded by flowers.

William Maw Egley
1858: "The Lady of Shalott"
Like Waterhouse's 1894 piece, this depicts the Lady having turned from her work and her mirror to gaze on Lancelot's actual form, thus triggering her death. While lush, it doesn't work as well in depicting the Lady's captivity, nor her curse; there is a very large glass window which takes up much of the background, and which is not the window she is gazing from. Ultimately, while very pretty, it doesn't accurately reflect the poem.

Many of the images for these paintings can be found at this website: http://www.geocities.com/Wellesley/7303/shallot.htm

The Lady of Shalott is a sweeping, epic tale of struggle in difficult times, triumph over adversity, and lots and lots of onions.

The novel is set against the backdrop of the French onion famine during the period spanning 1832-1838. With the cruel French winter of 1833 drawing in, it depicts the lives of the traditional onion farmers in the obscure onion growing region of Franche-Comté, as the community fights to survive the harsh times that have fallen upon them.

The bulk of the story involves the titular character, Colette, who becomes the head of her small onion farming clan after her father dies in an accident involving an ox-drawn onion thresher, and subsequently must make hard decisions about the family onion farm. Her quest to keep the family farm and make a place for herself as the first woman to run an onion farm is complicated by the extremely sexist times – at one point in the narrative her onion crop is threatened by a group of drunken men who believe that having a woman running an onion farm is causing the onion blight, and she must fight them off with the onion-wrangling hook which has been in the family for generations. Eventually Colette is accepted by the other farmers, and becomes the leader of a movement to stop bourgeoisie capitalists moving into the area and buying up land for a huge, soulless onion plantation.

Other side events are included to depict the hard life of the onion farmers in these troubled years, who nonetheless toiled endlessly to provide the rest of France with a steady supply of onions, despite the ever-dwindling harvests. Such terrible accidents as people being buried in onion-slides due to poorly stacked bales of onions; the horrible, lingering death that awaits anyone who eats of the Mocking Poison Death Onion; and the perils of being alone in a distant field when the fiercely territorial Onion Bears come down from the mountains to forage for their preferred food during the long, cold winter.

Though they struggle through hard times, eventually the community of farmers triumphs over the industrialists. Led by Colette - now called the Lady of Shalott by the farmers, who have accepted her as one of their own - they march on the dark, satanic onion factory, and burn it to the ground. The book closes with the happy scene of a traditional French onion festival, as the onion harvest is floated down the river to the centuries-old onion mill, the symbol of an enduring facet of French society that will never die out.

Written in 1887 by the orphaned daughter of an onion farmer, her name sadly lost, this is truly the definitive French novel. The Lady of Shalott has been required reading for children in French schools for over one hundred years, and has been adapted for the stage many times. The widely known version from 1905 has numerous additions, the most notable being the famous onion soliloquy, where Colette speaks of her love for the life of onion farming. This has been replicated in many later adaptations, and thanks to a slew of literalism from later directors, has resulted in the popular image of a woman passionately gazing at an onion held aloft, which now even graces the covers of the book.

Due to the classic nature of this saga, it was turned into a musical in 1972. Unfortunately, "For the Love of Onions!" lacked the pathos of the original story, or even the play, as it reduced this serious tale about the changes facing the onion farmers in nineteenth century French society into a happy musical with people dancing about in onion costumes. The song "Have You Kissed an Onion Today?" is notable only for the fact it is considered the worst song ever written.

The controversy over the musical is set to be repeated anew with the announcement of an adaptation of the novel into a film. Lovers of the book claim that this film will be as watered down as the musical, and probably feature singing as well. News of the inclusion of a romantic sub-plot absent from the book has not been well received, and the prospect of a prolonged scene involving Onion Bears attacking a village grates on the nerves of many who have read and enjoyed the book. Even worse, there are rumours that the noble onion will be replaced by a more family-friendly vegetable – The Hollywood backers are said to be pushing for pumpkins, to help sell the movie in America.

Despite the mistakes that have been made in attempts to bring this classic tale of onions, adversity, and onions to new audiences; the novel remains popular. Though the nuances of French onion farming are sometimes lost on readers from countries where sophisticated yet traditional practices such as onion joinery are not known, even outside France it is considered a classic work. No doubt it will remain so in the years to come.

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