The Lady of Shalott: The Immersion of Poetry and Painting

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888, oil on canvas, Tate, London

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.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
            Turned to towered Camelot.
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
            The Lady of Shalott.
I’ve been meaning to write a piece about Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ for some time now while somehow working in John William Waterhouse’s beautiful painting. Well, it appears I’ve found my reason or catalyst.  Earlier this week, Waterhouse’s painting made the rounds online in a big way…

It seems that Art Everywhere has found  a very creative way of celebrating British art. ‘The Lady of Shalott’ was voted the most loved painting in the United Kingdom to be featured on billboards across the UK for at least the next two weeks or so!  Careful driving on the motorway, such beauty could cause major traffic accidents! 

Where to begin…’The Lady of Shalott’ began in the mind of Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1832 way before John William Waterhouse ever painted it!   Let’s take a trip back in time and find out a little about La Donna di Scalotta! Stay with me, folks its just getting good…

“The “Lady” (of Shalott) reads charmingly in print:  the more I read it, the more I like it. You were, indeed, happily inspired when the idea of that poem first rose in your imagination.” A letter from Arthur Hallam, After staying at Kitlands, Dorking, October 10th, 1832

 Alfred Tennyson by John Mayall, albumen photograph.
One of the only photographs of himself that Tennyson liked.

Alfred Tennyson, speaking about his poem, 'The Lady of Shalott' in this way, “the newborn love…for someone in the wide world from which she has been so long secluded, takes her out of the region of shadows into that of realities.” Alfred Tennyson, Art Journal, 1889, pg. 142
Tennyson’s poem Lady of Shalott was first published in 1832 and republished again in 1842 with Tennyson altering only the final lines having the poem end with Lancelot’s words, not with the Lady’s epitaph. This change can be forever felt in the heady moodiness of a doomed erotic awakening left unrequited. Now, Lancelot is viewed with somewhat of a compassionate nature for his betrayal. I wonder if that is what Tennyson was aiming for? Just some of the many questions that shall forever remain unanswered.  You must remember that in 1832 and before while he was writing this poem, he was still very much a young, single man in his youth, age twenty-three years old.  He was finished with Cambridge, still had good mates like Arthur Hallam and James Spedding. He was ‘supposedly’ more than friendly with a young Rosa Baring while still maintaining a deep ‘friendship’ with a young Emily Sellwood!  Emily Sellwood (Later Lady Tennyson) kept her only surviving copy of Lady of Shalott with her handwritten surname of Sellwood upon the pages; dated 1833 (Tennyson Research Centre, Lincolnshire, England)

 John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) by an unknown photographer taken in his studio at 10 Hall Road, St. John's Wood, London.
The second photograph on the right was by Ralph W. Robinson, 1891, housed at National Portrait Gallery, London. Curiously enough, the painting on the easel is another version of The Lady of Shalott!

J.W. Waterhouse painted nine subjects based upon various Tennysonian themes and poems including three different versions of The Lady of Shalott.  Waterhouse’s ‘Lady of Shalott’ exhibited during three separate years: summer exhibition in 1888, 1894 and again in 1916. Each exhibition would concentrate on a different aspect of the painting and excerpts of the poem were included in the catalogue. Now, there’s one I wish I had as a souvenir!  In 1888, The Royal Academy deemed Waterhouse an accommodation for his painting, ‘The Lady of Shalott.’ 

Waterhouse surely knew of the painters that made up the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was aware of Rossetti’s version of his Lady of Shalott as well as Holman-Hunt’s illustration of the Lady of Shalott appearing in the Edward Moxon 1857 edition of Tennyson’s Poems. Not wanting to be outdone, he decided to paint the ultimate ‘Lady’ and boy did he ever!  

So, when Waterhouse began painting The Lady of Shalott in 1887, he depicted her inability to act upon the innate sensuality which drew her to the window as she hears Lancelot’s voice and sees him, thus changing her fate forever. The lady in the painting has a rosary to infer that she is bound for Heaven along with the glittering candles around her that are about to expire as she is.  Although, Tennyson does not describe the lady’s appearance in his poem only writing, ‘she is robed in snowy white,’ Waterhouse chose to show her red eyes from crying with puffy lips from ‘singing her last song.’ Her full breasts and belly could represent her fertility.  

In the end, Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott juxtaposed with J.W. Waterhouse’s painting, The Lady of Shalott both harken back to a time of chivalric knights, maidens locked in a tower, a time of Arthuriana and King Arthur’s Camelot. For on the island of Shalott, a Lady was deemed  a fairy by a peasant who hears her singing, she has been cursed for reasons neither she nor the reader understands only to weave a ‘magic web’ of scenes outside her window by looking at them not directly, but upon their reflections in a mirror.  
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
            Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy
            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: 
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the curly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
            Pass onward from Shalott.

Sadly, for us, Tennyson’s reaction upon seeing the painting is not known, none of his thoughts are recorded in letters or journals or friend’s reminiscences or perhaps they were and were burned keeping some secrets lost to the passage of time.

Loreena McKennitt singing The Lady of Shalott from Nights from the Alhambra in 2007


Hermes said…
Hopefully there will be an image down here outside London, lovely background to the image.
Kimberly Eve said…
Yes, and if so, I hope someone captures it! Thanks for stopping by. Lovely to see you here, Hermes.
Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberly

What a beautiful song. Fantastic words and inspirational paintings.

VnO said…
Thanks Kimberly, it is a nice, true story. Looking forward to read more about J.W. Waterhouse.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin, so glad you liked it.
Welcome, VnO, glad you found my blog. Thanks for commenting.

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