The Curse is Upon Me

The Lady of Shalott,
In 1894 John William Waterhouse painted the scene from just after the Lady of Shalott l

The Lady of Shalott

In 1894 John William Waterhouse painted the scene from just after the Lady of Shalott looks away from her work and her mirror and looks out the window. This occurs at the end of Part III of the poem, after she sees Sir Lancelot riding toward Camelot in her mirror.

The Dazzling Knight

He catches her attention in part because the sun ‘flamed upon [his] brazen greaves’, his horse’s ‘gemmy bridle glitter’d free’, and ‘his broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d’ (lines 76, 82, and 100). It is almost as though nature is conspiring against her. She is able to resist looking directly at the usual sights she sees reflected in her mirror, but she cannot resist the dazzling knight.

She is also enticed by the sounds he makes: ‘The bridle bells rang merrily’, ‘as he rode his armour rung’, and he sang ‘“Tirra lirra"’ (lines 84, 89, 107). As the editor of Oxford’s Alfred Tennyson: The Major Works points out, both Lancelot’s song is that sung by Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. This both helps to anglicise the French knight and points up the Lady’s loneliness and frustration; Autolycus sings:

The lark, that tirra-lirra chants,
With heigh, with heigh, the thrush and the jay!
Are summer songs for me and my aunts,
While we lie tumbling in the hay. (Act IV, Scene iii, lines 9-12)

The Curse

The Lady’s motivation for breaking the rules of the curse and looking out the window so she can see Lancelot instead of his reflection is clear. At the end of Part II she sees the happiness of a newly married couple and then at the beginning of Part III she sees and is attracted to Sir Lancelot:

She left the web, she left the loom;
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott. (lines 109-117)

These are the lines illustrated in Waterstone’s 1894 painting. This time she’s in the ‘snow white dress’ (line 136) Tennyson mentions in Part IV. The room in this painting is darker and more claustrophobic than his later painting inspired by Part II and discussed in my last blog. In the 1894 painting she is standing with her back to the cracked mirror and looking out the window when she realises the weight of ‘The curse is come upon’ her.

A Tapestry Unravelling.

Whereas in I am half sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott (1916) she is emotionally and mentally trapped, in The Lady of Shalott (1894) she is physically trapped. The tapestry she has been weaving is unravelling and wrapping itself around her and she seems to be too big for the room as she stoops under the heavy ceiling. In Tennyson’s poem the web flew out and ‘floated wide’, while Waterstone has made the already startling situation of a tapestry unweaving itself more disturbing by making it attack the weaver.

In the final section of the poem she accepts her fate. Next time I’ll discuss the end of the poem and Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott (1888), which depicts the moment she sets sail down the river toward Camelot.

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