Continued from Part II and III . . .

In the stormy east-wind straining,

The pale yellow woods were waning,

The broad streams 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 round about the prow she wrote

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

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 darken’d 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 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 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,

The Lady of Shalott.”

The Lady of Shalott

I’m going to spare you a close reading/explication of the poem.  Frankly, I find it hard to believe that the Great writers of English literature weighed each and every word as carefully as some people assume.  I think it more likely that they simply had a more intuitive sense of which words would best express their ideas, based on what impression they wished to make.

When Shakespeare’s players boasted that he “never blotted out line,” Ben Jonson famously retorted that his writing would’ve been that much better if he had.  And what about Twain’s observation, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand”?  Beneath the obvious meaning (which is what students spend most of their time “discovering” in class) is the suggestion that there’s nothing more powerful than ridicule.  The saying hinges on the word “assault,” which weaponizes laughter.  This is clever, but not beyond the reach of a lesser genius.  Not that I’m claiming that status for myself, but personally, I think the word “onslaught” would’ve worked just as well.  Granted, “assault” creates an almost alliterative cadence with “against,” but isn’t “onslaught’s” lack of lyricism precisely what makes it more “onslaughty”?  These are the final-draft questions that keep any good writer awake at night.  Thus, I see little sense in speculating why the Greats chose one conjunction over another or whether it was a (sub)conscious statement on feminism, sexism, racism, or any other “-ism.”

. . .

In Part II, Stanza 4, the tense changes from present to past.  Elaine’s curse wasn’t just confinement in the tower but the inability to look out the window with her own eyes.  Nevertheless, she’s delighted by what she sees in the mirror until the funeral and lovers make her look to the future, overshadowing her contentment and interest in the present.  The funeral and lovers also foreshadow her funeral procession to Camelot after falling unhappily in love.  For Elaine, to look was to live and to love was to die.  Thus, love was just as much a curse for her as the rest of it.

In college, this is where I could’ve scored points with a feminist interpretation/reading of the text—something to do with the tower as a symbol of patriarchal subjugation—as if the temptation to dominate others doesn’t exist in every human heart, male and female, young and old.  “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” was Eve’s curse (Gen. 3:16).  Elaine’s is to be deeply in love with a shallow man.

Elaine is cursed, but Lancelot is carefree.  Elaine chants a swan song, but Lancelot chirps “tirra lirra.”  Elaine risks death for more than a mere (mirror?) look at his reflection, but Lancelot looks down at her corpse and merely sees her looks.  It’s hard to say which is colder: Elaine’s body or Lancelot’s praise.  Did he keep his distance out of respect or out of disinterest?  Was he just rubbernecking her over the shoulders of the other courtiers?  Was he the kind of man who effortlessly said the right things without really meaning them?  Could he have used the commotion to score another hit with Guinevere?  Remember, this is the knight who broke every bond of fellowship by repeatedly fucking his neighbor’s wife (Ex. 20:17; Deut. 5:21; Matt. 5:27–28).  To me, that’s the real tragedy of the poem: not that Elaine’s love was unrequited but that her love was unrequited by someone who made her pathos appear pathetic and absurd.


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