Saturday, April 20, 2013

Tennyson, his Lady, and a Painter's Revolution

My favorite poem of all time is The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I first read it in high school, my senior year; when I was immature and waded in the shallow end of insight. But I knew I liked Tennyson’s poem, and I’ve always had decent instincts. It wasn’t until I got into my college lit classes that I started to drink deeper of poetry in an effort to get at its soul, the marrow of what the poet felt he must expose to the world. (And I’m finding there is only so much exposure a writer or artist can offer. Only so much light he can reflect for the sake of revelation of deeper truth. So if an artist is not careful, he may expend all his energy and only ever expose that which is superficial, fleeting. And bones with no marrow crack and crumble easily.)

My blog’s title, The Silent Isle, is taken from Tennyson’s Lady for several reasons. First, Tennyson offered an honest glimpse into the conflict of the artist—whether to enter into the world he is working to capture in his art or to hold back so as not to alter (and possibly diminish) that world he would recreate. (Also, one of my very first blog post EVER discusses this conundrum.)

Sitting down today to write this post, I am reminded of the little factoid I learned while visiting Claude Monet’s house last summer. The year 1840 was a watershed year for painters because…oil paint was finally put into tubes! I had never considered this as a revolution before, but it makes sense! The artist is now freed from his studio to go out and capture first-hand his object of study. However, it also occurs to me that these painters now face the same as Tennyson’s weaving lady. Now that they are entering into the world they wish to capture, will they alter it with their presence? Will it be the same world once they have entered it? Only the artist can answer that question—only he can decide whether the cost of entering is worth its rewards.

This is a photo I took while overlooking Monet's pond in Giverny--his inspiration for his famous "Waterlilies".
The other reason I borrowed The Silent Isle from Tennyson is because of the idea of silence. It is a commodity. Even now, as I write, I hear traffic outside and a home improvement show jabbering in the next room. Few places exist where silence is given free rein. (yes, it is "rein", not "reign".) So much so that often we aren’t even aware of the noise. It has become a tacit influence on our everyday existence. Yet, the more I understand of what I’m called to do as a writer and artist the more I need that silence in order to wrestle with and understand the core or essence of what I’m trying to say—the marrow of my words. That is why this blog has become so important for me. It offers me a small slice of silence where I can grapple and then compose my grapplings into a modicum of coherence and, hopefully, truth.

So, without further ado, I offer you Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. Happy National Poetry Month! (I highly recommend that you read the whole way to the end....)

So I LOVE this painting by Donato Giancola, mostly because it has Lancelot actually "interacting" with
the dead lady rather than just standing over her, clucking his tongue, and saying, "Too bad. She was pretty."
However, I'm not sure I like the pained look of the center guy at the top pulling her out of the water.
Dude, there's 1 of her and there's 4 of you. She's not that heavy.

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
     To many-tower'd Camelot;                        5
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,                      10
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
     Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,           15
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                          20
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?                 25
Or is she known in all the land,
     The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly                      30
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                  35
     Lady of Shalott."

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colors gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay                            40
    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.                                  45

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:                       50
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,               55
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 thro' the mirror blue              60
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,                65
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;               70
"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 through the leaves,     75
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,                  80
     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                           85
     As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazoned baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
     Beside remote Shalott.                               90

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.                     95
As often through the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
     Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;        100
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                   105
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 thro' the room,             110
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
     She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;             115
"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,   120
Heavily the low sky raining
     Over tower'd Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote              125
    The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold seër in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance—
With a glassy countenance                              130
     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.                                  135

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:                   140
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                         145
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
    Turned to tower'd Camelot.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide                    150
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,                            155
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,              160
And round 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;                       165
And they cross'd 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,                   170
    The Lady of Shalott."

If you actually read the whole way to the end--FANTASTIC! I am so proud! You will also be the first to know that the next post will be from my very first guest blogger for the "Had I But Known" series! Look for it on Monday. Very excited!!

Also, you may have noticed that I now have my very own, shiny and new domain name: Yay!

Top Image from the 2009 short film: The Lady of Shalott.

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  3. (Forgive the removed comments--I had a couple (rather funny) spelling errors.)

    I loved the poem and the idea behind it. Unfortunately, we experienced precious little literature in four years of high school English classes. I'd never read "The Lady of Shalot" until now. Given that I was wretchedly shallow, I'm glad that I found it now instead of then. I love poetry and made a mental note to set aside time to read some of Tennyson's work a few days ago. Now I have to follow through, if only to see what other gems I've been missing.

    Also, (for what it's worth) I really enjoy your blog. I'm a stay-at-home mom, and I love "chewing" on the thoughts and ideas you put forth. I read your blog as a part of my morning routine, before the hustle and bustle of the rest of the day takes over. Thanks for choosing to go doorless.

    1. Thank you, Tabitha - I'm so delighted and honored to be apart of your morning routine! And, to share a little anecdote about my relationship with Tennyson--when I was visiting Scotland for the 1st time (about 10 years ago) I found in a used bookshop in Inverness a 6 VOLUME SET of TENNYSON! I thought I had died and gone to heaven (because believe it or not, Tennyson collections can be difficult and pricey to get your hands on.) Unfortunately this set was pricey too and I didn't have enough luggage space to fit all six, fat volumes in. So I took a picture and still have it hanging in my office--I call it MY Tennyson collection, even though it's not really mine. I did go back a couple years ago to that bookshop and the collection was still there. Who knows, maybe one day I will have enough dinero and space to haul it home with me across the ocean :)

      Thank you Tabitha, for commenting and for being such a gracious and supportive recipient of my doorlessness! And don't worry about the spelling errors. I edit my blog posts at least a half-a-dozen times after I post them. But don't tell anyone--it'll be our secret :)

    2. Your secret is safe, so long as your other readers can keep a lid on it as well. :-)

    3. I have full confidence in my readers and their trustworthy-ness :)

  4. I LOVE The Lady of Shalott. I studied it probably 4 times in college, but we had to really attack it with vigor in my Arthurian Legend class, which was fascinating. such a beautiful poem.

    1. Ooo, I would loved to have taken an Arthurian Legend class. That would be amazing--and this is indeed a poem that you never get to the bottom of. It's so rich! Thanks for reading, Kate!

  5. I finally grabbed enough time to sit and read The Lady of Shallot. I had only read bits of it before now, particularly: She has a lovely face; God in His mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott. But; Long fields of barley and of rye, That clothe the world and meet the sky...That is beautiful imagery to a farm woman. I wish I could write like that. Thank you so much for featuring Tennyson's beautiful words all strung together for the ages.
    I'm happy you met Tabitha, my d-I-law. Y'all have a lot in common. :)
    And I agree about the guy in the painting. Hilarious!

    1. It is beautiful imagery, Danni - I think we all wish we could write like that! (I guess that's why he was Poet Laureate and I am not...well, one of many reasons...) I'm so glad you enjoyed Tennyson, and even more glad you introduced me to Tabitha! I have so enjoyed getting to know you and your sweet family. Oh, and thanks for backing me up on the painting :)


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