Born in 1809, Alfred Tennyson was Britain’s poet laureate from 1850 until his death in 1892. After declining a peerage four times, beginning in 1865, he finally deigned to be created Baron Tennyson, of Aldworth in the County of Sussex and Freshwater in the Isle of Wight, in 1884. Thereafter, he was known as Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, or simply Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In his day, he was reputed to be one of the world’s Most Famous, a distinction he was forced to share with the other two members of the Holy Trinity: Queen Victoria and British Prime Minister William Gladstone. Not bad for the fourth son of a Lincolnshire rector.
Tennyson wrote “The Lady of Shalott” in 1832 and republished it for a revised volume of Poems a decade later. Both versions are based on the 13th-century “La Damigella di Scalot,” or “Donna di Scalotta,” the 82nd tale in Il Novellino: Le Ciento Novelle Antike. Like the poems, the short story is based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, which also originated in the Middle Ages. Neither poem should be confused with “Elaine and Lancelot,” the sixth in a cycle of twelve narrative poems that compose Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (same subject, different sources).
Those of us who were born after the 20th century are more likely to have been introduced to Lady Elaine (aka, Elaine the Fair/White) by actress Megan Follows. Before Follows’s wicked comeback as Catherine de’ Medici in Reign, she was best known for portraying Anne Shirley in the 1985 Anne of Green Gables miniseries. In the opening scene, the ever-enraptured, eponymous heroine wanders through a sylvan glade (courtesy of the Canadian forestry service?), reading Tennyson’s poem aloud. Later, she almost drowns while trying to recreate the tragedy with her friends.
So, here it is: a poem worth dying for about a love that isn’t.
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;
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 gray walls, and four gray 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 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
Lady of Shalott.”
To be continued . . .
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