21 July 2008

Mellifluous Mondays: The Lady of Shalott

I'm instituting a new tradition: "Mellifluous Mondays."

mellifluous: adj. Having a smooth rich flow. (From Middle English mellyfluous, from Late Latin mellifluus, from Latin mel honey + fluere to flow; akin to Gothic milith honey. That is for the word geeks. Three cheers for etymology.)

So: "a smooth rich flow." It's an excellent description for poetry, and as I'm a poetry fan, I decided to use Monday posts for exhibiting poems which tickle the ear, stir the heart, and are just well worth reading. There are enough good poems to fill a thousand blogs, so I doubt I'll run out any time soon.

In any case, here is Exhibit A, "The Lady of Shalott" by the great Victorian poet Lord Alfred Tennyson. For anyone who likes Anne of Green Gables, you'll remember than Anne recites this in the opening sequence of the first movie, and that she and several of her friends attempt to reenact the Lady's death with rather soggy results. :) The poem deals with a woman who has lived all her life in a safe tower, barred from both the pain and joy of the world outside. When she finally realizes what she has missed, she decides that the reflections and shadows with which she has contented herself thus far are cheap fakes in comparison to real life. That's a good thing to conclude, right? Now she should leave the tower and her little fantasy land, and start living in the real world.

However, Tennyson doesn't believe in happy endings. Therefore, the Lady does not leave. Instead, she believes that it's too late for her to enter the world outside her tower; in particular, she sees Lancelot riding by and falls in love with him, but has no hope of even meeting the guy, let alone marrying him. So like a typical Victorian heroine, she dies of a broken heart. Que triste. Why couldn't she have just found an honest farmer to marry, raised a bunch of noisy kids, and lived happily in the village outside Camelot? Well, I guess farm life wouldn't have suited such a sappy dame.

The poem is very long, so I'm only posting a few of the best stanzas. To read the rest, go here.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through 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. . .

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. . .

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through 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. . .

His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down 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 through 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. . .

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right--
The leaves upon her falling light--
Through 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. . .

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."

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