A Lovely Face

A Lovely Face

In this week’s choice, Alfred Lord Tennyson tells the story of the fairy lady of Shallot, doomed to fall under a curse should she look towards the royal castle of Camelot.

He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809—1892)

Poem 163. The Lady of Shalott (1842)

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.”


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 thro’ 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 surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ 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.
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.
The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
Sang 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.
In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream 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 seer 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.”

Part One sets the scene: the road and the river running through fields down to Camelot and the tower, isolated on its island in the river, and the songs that the reapers hear on the wind, which they attribute to the mysterious lady immured in the tower: “‘Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott.”.

Part Two tells us more of the lady and of the constraints upon her: she is doomed to sit and weave at her loom the images she sees reflected in a mirror that shows her the scenes of the outside world. If she should neglect her work and look directly towards Camelot, a terrible but nebulous curse will be laid upon her. At the end of this part, her dissatisfaction is made plain: “I am half sick of shadows, said The Lady of Shalott.”

Part Three describes the advent of Sir Lancelot, whose knightly demeanour catches the lady’s eye and she stares, fascinated, as this epitome of chivalry passes along the road on his charger. Unable to contain herself, she leaves the loom and rushes to the window to see Lancelot’s accoutrements and bearing for herself but it is at this moment that she suffers the consequences of her action: “The curse is come upon me, said The Lady of Shalott.”

Part Four shows the lady’s resignation to her fate and her preparations for her ending: she prepares a boat, writes her name upon it and, at twilight, lies down in it and casts off, sending her funeral barge down the river towards Camelot and singing her own dirge, ceasing only when she reaches the outskirts, where she draws her last breath. The boat with its shimmering freight continues until it reaches the wharfs where it is stopped and the name on its prow read. Various dignitaries come to see the strange vessel and wonder at the dead woman, and word goes back to the court, whose revelries are stilled as the courtiers blench and cross themselves. But Lancelot, contrary in this as in so many other things, feels pity rather than fear, admiring the beauty of this stranger who in turn admitted him and for whose death he was unwittingly responsible, and offers a prayer for her soul.

I like this poem because it is very descriptive: you get a real feel for the environs of the lady’s tower, the room in which she weaves, Sir Lancelot and his horse, and the gloom of the twilight that shrouds the lady’s last journey. The repeated refrain of “The Lady of Shalott” makes me think of the ennui the lady feels and I can’t help but feel that, now that our collective isolation is beginning to be lifted and the constraints on our lives are falling away (however temporarily), the loneliness and boredom that our unfortunate heroine endures is a reflection of our own experience in the last year.

In researching this poem, I found a very interesting article by Mary Jones which explains the basis of the poem: Elaine, the Fair Maid of Astolat. Mary Jones also presents and discusses the many artistic interpretations of the tale. John William Waterhouse painted her three times: one shows the lady loosing the chain before lying back in the boat; another shows her looking towards us out of the painting as if out of her window, with the loom behind her in a cramped and dark space, and the third, a most vibrant work, shows her sat at the loom with the mirror behind her reflecting the scenes in her window. John Atkinson Grimshaw’s painting shows the dying or dead maiden carried in a kind of Viking longboat towards Camelot. There are several others—she was a favourite theme of the Pre-Raphaelites—but perhaps the most eye-catching is William Maw Egley’s 1858 painting of her which is beautiful despite its artist using his license to ignore some of the poem’s descriptions.

P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster was often moved to exclaim “The curse is come upon me,” generally when one of his aunts forced him into a course of action he disliked. One of the joys of reading Wodehouse is spotting his references to poetic works.

Agatha Christie named one of her Miss Marple novels after another line in this poem: “The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side” tells the story of an actress whose bizarre facial expression at a critical moment leads Miss Marple to the truth of the mystery.