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Poem of the Month: Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”
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As students begin their new Fall classes in Victorian poetry, I thought I’d choose Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” as my poem of the month for September, with the question: does the poem work as the first “Victorian” poem, as courses traditionally place it? What would happen if we start our Victorian poetry syllabus in 1832 (when this poem was first published), rather than 1837 (Queen Victoria’s date of accession)? (There are some great readings of the poem that link it to contemporary events, including the Reform Bill; for example, see Matthew Rowlinson’s essay on lyric in the Blackwell Companion to Victorian Poetry [2002], which I co-edited). And are there any other poems more deserving of the status of first Victorian poem? (I’m thinking, for example, of alternatives like poems by Felicia Hemans, and I admit that it’s tempting to reach back to her 1828 Records of Women, especially given how accessible the collection is with the print edition by Paula R. Feldman, and the digital edition at UPenn’s A Celebration of Women Writers).

This raises other intriguing questions. What is the value of the term “Victorian” in “Victorian poetry”?…an especially interesting issue if the beginning of the major Victorian poetry anthologies are compared. Valentine Cunningham’s edition The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics (Blackwell, 2000), for example, begins with “anonymous street ballads”, and includes poets commonly thought of as Romantic. The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Poetry, edited by Thomas J. Collins and Vivienne J. Rundle (1999), starts with the anonymous poem “A New Song on the Birth of the Prince of Wales”, and like Cunningham includes poems from what’s usually thought of as the Romantic canon.

Thinking about the overlap between Romantic and Victorian — a topic brilliantly explored in Richard Cronin’s Romantic Victorians (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) — is essential to the discussion of these period boundaries, of course, but so is thinking about whether there is value in adopting the term “nineteenth-century poetry” instead. The recent issue of Victorian Studies has a linked series of essays on this topic, “Victorian Self-Projection and Critique” (Spring 2011), which signal how alive and pressing these questions are. One avenue of exploration would be mapping the rise of the concept of “Victorian poetry” through late nineteenth and early twentieth century anthologies, and in this regard the editorial work of the American poet and critic Edmund Clarence Stedman is crucial (see, for example, his 1875 edition Victorian Poets, and his 1895 A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895). As Mary Loeffelholz notes, Stedman boasted that he created the concept “Victorian” as the crucial “master epithet” (his term) of the age (see her “Edmund Clarence Stedman’s Black Atlantic”, Victorian Poetry, Vol. 43, No. 2 [2005], pp. 189-204 [p. 189].)

But, to get back to “The Lady of Shalott”. How Victorian is it?

Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott” (1832)

Part 1

1 On either side the river lie
2 Long fields of barley and of rye,
3 That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
4 And thro’ the field the road runs by
5        To many-tower’d Camelot;
6 The yellow-leaved waterlily
7 The green-sheathed daffodilly
8 Tremble in the water chilly
9        Round about Shalott.

10 Willows whiten, aspens shiver
11 The sunbeam showers break and quiver
12 In the stream that runneth ever
13 By the island in the river
14      Flowing down to Camelot.
15 Four gray walls, and four gray towers
16 Overlook a space of flowers,
17 And the silent isle imbowers
18     The Lady of Shalott.

19 Underneath the bearded barley,
20 The reaper, reaping late and early,
21 Hears her ever chanting cheerly,
22 Like an angel, singing clearly,
23     O’er the stream of Camelot.
24 Piling the sheaves in furrows airy,
25 Beneath the moon, the reaper weary
26 Listening whispers, ‘ ‘Tis the fairy,
27     Lady of Shalott.’

28 The little isle is all inrail’d
29 With a rose-fence, and overtrail’d
30 With roses: by the marge unhail’d
31 The shallop flitteth silken sail’d,
32     Skimming down to Camelot.
33 A pearl garland winds her head:
34 She leaneth on a velvet bed,
35 Full royally apparelled,
36     The Lady of Shalott.

Part II

37 No time hath she to sport and play:
38 A charmed web she weaves alway.
39 A curse is on her, if she stay
40 Her weaving, either night or day,
41     To look down to Camelot.
42 She knows not what the curse may be;
43 Therefore she weaveth steadily,
44 Therefore no other care hath she,
45     The Lady of Shalott.

46 She lives with little joy or fear.
47 Over the water, running near,
48 The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.
49 Before her hangs a mirror clear,
50     Reflecting tower’d Camelot.
51 And as the mazy web she whirls,
52 She sees the surly village churls,
53 And the red cloaks of market girls
54     Pass onward from Shalott.

55 Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
56 An abbot on an ambling pad,
57 Sometimes a curly shepherd lad,
58 Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
59     Goes by to tower’d Camelot:
60 And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue
61 The knights come riding two and two:
62 She hath no loyal knight and true,
63     The Lady of Shalott.

64 But in her web she still delights
65 To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
66 For often thro’ the silent nights
67 A funeral, with plumes and lights
68     And music, came from Camelot:
69 Or when the moon was overhead
70 Came two young lovers lately wed;
71 ‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
72     The Lady of Shalott.

Part III

73 A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
74 He rode between the barley-sheaves,
75 The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
76 And flam’d upon the brazen greaves
77     Of bold Sir Lancelot.
78 A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
79 To a lady in his shield,
80 That sparkled on the yellow field,
81     Beside remote Shalott.

82 The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
83 Like to some branch of stars we see
84 Hung in the golden Galaxy.
85 The bridle bells rang merrily
86     As he rode down from Camelot:
87 And from his blazon’d baldric slung
88 A mighty silver bugle hung,
89 And as he rode his arm our rung,
90     Beside remote Shalott.

91 All in the blue unclouded weather
92 Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
93 The helmet and the helmet-feather
94 Burn’d like one burning flame together,
95     As he rode down from Camelot.
96 As often thro’ the purple night,
97 Below the starry clusters bright,
98 Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
99     Moves over green Shalott.

100 His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
101 On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
102 From underneath his helmet flow’d
103 His coal-black curls as on he rode,
104     As he rode down from Camelot.
105 From the bank and from the river
106 He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
107 ‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:’
108     Sang Sir Lancelot.

109 She left the web, she left the loom
110 She made three paces thro’ the room
111 She saw the water-flower bloom,
12 She saw the helmet and the plume,
113     She look’d down to Camelot.
114 Out flew the web and floated wide;
115 The mirror crack’d from side to side;
116 ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
117     The Lady of Shalott.

Part IV

118 In the stormy east-wind straining,
119 The pale yellow woods were waning,
120 The broad stream in his banks complaining,
121 Heavily the low sky raining
122     Over tower’d Camelot;
123 Outside the isle a shallow boat
124 Beneath a willow lay afloat,
125 Below the carven stern she wrote,
126     The Lady of Shalott.

127 A cloudwhite crown of pearl she dight,
128 All raimented in snowy white
129 That loosely flew (her zone in sight
130 Clasp’d with one blinding diamond bright)
131     Her wide eyes fix’d on Camelot,
132 Though the squally east-wind keenly
133 Blew, with folded arms serenely
134 By the water stood the queenly
135     Lady of Shalott.

136 With a steady stony glance–
137 Like some bold seer in a trance,
138 Beholding all his own mischance,
139 Mute, with a glassy countenance–
140     She look’d down to Camelot.
141 It was the closing of the day:
142 She loos’d the chain, and down she lay;
143 The broad stream bore her far away,
144     The Lady of Shalott.

145 As when to sailors while they roam,
146 By creeks and outfalls far from home,
147 Rising and dropping with the foam,
148 From dying swans wild warblings come,
149     Blown shoreward; so to Camelot
150 Still as the boathead wound along
151 The willowy hills and fields among,
152 They heard her chanting her deathsong,
153     The Lady of Shalott.

154 A longdrawn carol, mournful, holy,
155 She chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
156 Till her eyes were darken’d wholly,
157 And her smooth face sharpen’d slowly,
158     Turn’d to tower’d Camelot:
159 For ere she reach’d upon the tide
160 The first house by the water-side,
161 Singing in her song she died,
162     The Lady of Shalott.

163 Under tower and balcony,
164 By garden wall and gallery,
165 A pale, pale corpse she floated by,
166 Deadcold, between the houses high,
167     Dead into tower’d Camelot.
168 Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
169 To the planked wharfage came:
170 Below the stern they read her name,
171     The Lady of Shalott.

172 They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest,
173 Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest.
174 There lay a parchment on her breast,
175 That puzzled more than all the rest,
176     The wellfed wits at Camelot.
177 ‘The web was woven curiously,
178 The charm is broken utterly,
179 Draw near and fear not,–this is I,
180     The Lady of Shalott.’

Text from RPO


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