Today I took a long awaited trip to the Wadsworth Athenium in Hartford, CT. I spent the entire day there looking at paintings and reading descriptions. Bliss!
One painting in particular captured my imagination, The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905), by William Holman Hunt (1827-1905), based on the poem (1832) of the same name by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The story originates in Arthurian legends.
The image resonated so strongly that I copied down the description from the wall nearby and on my way out, several hours later, bought a postcard of the image, though no replica does justice to the intensity and impact of the full-size painting.
The caption reads, in part, "illustrates a poem of the same title by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) based on the romance of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. For Tennyson, the story suggests that young love, nurtured in the imagination, must some day come into contact with reality. Hunt, however, interpreted the poem as a moral warning against straying from duty. [The painting] depicts the moment when the Lady of Shalott, doomed to weave tapestries from mirror reflections, glances out of the window to gaze directly at the gallant Sir Lancelot. The mirror cracks. Chaos and confusion overtake her sheltered existence and her work unravels."
Before I write more about my own reaction to the painting, I will read the original poem.
Just in glancing at the text, one phrase catches my eye:
"I am half sick of shadows," said The Lady of Shalott.
She wants love. She longs to be a part of the world she watches indirectly.
I wonder what magic has bound her there, dooming her to weave images from reflections of the world outside her window.
I’ve chosen to look reality directly in the face. The mirror of my romantic notions has cracked. I deal with the chaos. I'm ready step beyond the confines of an artistic life lived apart.
Very little may change visibly as a result, but I will know. The journey from this point forward will be one of my own choosing. This is the only way to break the curse.
Women often feel bound by duty, creating what we feel we must as reflections of other people's lives. This poem is cautionary.
Lancelot, the hero. The Lady of Shalott has not seen him and fallen in love. She has glanced outside her window and awakened the hero within herself, though she sees it contained within another. She falls to a curse she knows only as a vague anxiety (She knows not what the curse may be, And so she weaveth steadily). Because she has not taken care to weave her own fate beyond that moment, her work unravels around her and she dies before reaching her destination. But isn't she beautiful. God have mercy upon her.
In the painting at the Wadsworth Athenium, she is consumed in the moment with untangling herself from the threads of her tapestry. She appears confused, turned inward, unable to step over the frame of her weaving out into the world beyond, even as birds take flight around her and Lancelot rides away.
In the poem, she finds enough strength to locate a boat, paint her name on its prow, get in and release it to flow in the river. Beyond that, she is passive to her perceived fate. She does not row or steer. She lies in a trance, a seer not a doer on her own behalf. She dies, singing a mournful song, drifting at the mercy of the current, known in the end only as a lifeless body with "a lovely face" and no proper name.
I will not share her fate.
A curse holds no power except that which we give it.
©2006 Kay Pere - Effusive Muse Publishing