I recently started listening to my favorite Celtic artists from my childhood after going through my old CDs. One of my favorite artists is Loreena McKennitt, a Canadian-Irish singer who incorporates various musical styles from around the world into her music to create an interesting take on the Folk genre. She’s also a specialist in singing renditions of classic poetry, with one of the saddest being her take on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott.
The Lady of Shalott is a poem inspired by the tale of Elaine of Astalot, the woman who fell in love with the famous Arthurian knight Lancelot and died of heartbreak caused by her unrequited love. In regards to the main female character in each rendition, the biggest difference between Elaine and the Lady of Shalott is that the Lady only knows Lancelot from a one-time glance, whereas Elaine knew of him for some time.
The following video is a combination of Loreena McKennitt’s rendition of the poem with WAG Screen’s short video version, which was inspired by the art of John William Waterhouse.
These are the lyrics for Loreena McKennitt’s version, courtesy of AZ Lyrics.
On either side of the river lie Long fields of barley and of rye, That clothe the world and meet the sky; And thro' the field the road run by To many-towered 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 Thro' 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. Only reapers, reaping early, In among the bearded 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; And sometimes thro' 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 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. 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. 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 back 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 taro' the room, 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; "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 towered Camelot; Down she came and found a boat Beneath a willow left afloat, And round 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. Heard a carol, mournful, holy, Chanted loudly, chanted lowly, Till her blood was frozen slowly, And her eyes were darkened wholly, Turn'd to towered 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 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; 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."
The Lady’s Tragedy
Loreena’s voice gradually transitions from whimsical to gloomy as the song progresses, and when she delivers the line “singing in her song, she died, the Lady of Shalott”, her mournful near-whisper is particularly chilling.
The Lady of Shalott seems to be a lonely soul trapped in her isolated home for unknown reasons, forbidden to seek the outside world due to the curse placed upon her. In the setting of the poem, nobody ever sees her face prior to her post-mortem arrival at Camelot; she’s only known to the reapers of the surrounding fields as the source of the singing frequently heard both night and day. Were it not for the Lady’s decision to mark her boat with her name, nobody in Camelot would’ve realized that the dead girl was none other than the source of that singing.
Whether or not Lancelot takes her identity seriously is an interpretation left open to the audience. Some may view his short remark about the Lady as indifferent, dismissive and bland. Others may see him as sincerely wishing her peace in the afterlife, and bemoaning the untimely death of a young maiden. Either way, the Lady’s death is hits far harder when the audience realizes that it was only at her death that anybody came to know her properly.
What is the Lady’s Curse?
It’s difficult to determine based on the poem alone who put the curse on the Lady and for what reason; one interpretation is that the curse is meant to be seen as a metaphor for life, such as the dangers of falling romantically for certain individuals that you can’t ever be with. It could also be seen as a symbolic reference to how the pain of loneliness can, in some cases, lead to death.
The poem mentions times when the Lady sees two happy lovers together under the moonlit sky in her magic mirror. When these moments happen, the Lady aches for her own chance at love, and wishes for the chance to experience more than a “shadow” of the world around her. Lancelot’s appearance in her mirror encourages her to see him as a potential chance for love herself, leading her to forget the warning of her curse and seek a better look at him from her window, eventually leading to her death. Sadly, even her attempt to meet Lancelot in person is denied to her, as the curse claims her life just as her boat passes into Camelot.
Based on this, it can be argued that the real curse is the deadly pain of attempting love, only for it to end in vain.
The Story of Elaine
The pain of a girl failing to achieve her desired love with Lancelot is referenced by Tennyson in the Elaine part of his epic poem, Idylls of the King, which references the overarching life and story of the famous King Arthur. In the Elaine section, after Elaine feels rejected by Lancelot, she comprises what she calls “The Song of Life and Death”, which, in the poem, goes accordingly (courtesy of The Camelot Project):
“Sweet is true love though given in vain, in vain;
And sweet is death who puts an end to pain:
I know not which is sweeter, no, not I.
“Love, art thou sweet? then bitter death must be:
Love, thou art bitter; sweet is death to me.
O Love, if death be sweeter, let me die.
“Sweet love, that seems not made to fade away,
Sweet death, that seems to make us loveless clay,
I know not which is sweeter, no, not I.
“I fain would follow love, if that could be;
I needs must follow death, who calls for me;
Call and I follow, I follow! let me die.”
Tennyson seems to have had an affinity for the despair of unfulfilled love. Both Elaine and the Lady ended up dying because their heartbreak was too much to bear, and both tales serve as tragic warnings of what happens when that grief grows too strong.