I’ve always loved literature. By which I mean, I’ve always loved stories. I was never terribly academic about it, even during my university days, and I’ve certainly never been one of those desperate creatures the like-minded among us used to call (with a sniff), “Serious Students of Lit-ter-a-toor.” They could usually be spotted on Friday nights in the Rathskeller sitting alone with a watery beer, stringy-haired and looking miserable, diligently perusing the latest eructions of one of their idols, perhaps Kerouac, Sexton, Ginsberg, Plath, or Thompson, and waiting for the world to end.
Not me. I was having far too much fun. It was 1977 and my mates and I were in our early twenties. A small group of us ladies known, I kid you not, as the “Regular Morning Cuties,” would meet a few of the faculty every day in the cafeteria for Cokes. As we sipped our drinks, we’d discourse on the finer, and sometimes the lewder, points of The Canterbury Tales, we’d opine on whether or not any of us had been able to find a single joke or effulgence of actual humor anywhere in The Faerie Queene, or we’d howl over the ribald commentary of Shakespeare’s Nurse or the hilarious plots (usually involving drinking, sex, or mistaken identity) of our favorite eighteenth-century comedic playwright. I’m pretty sure I learned more in those informal morning sessions than I did in any class I ever attended, and that what I learned has stuck with me far longer. (I even ended up marrying one of those professors, but that, my poppets, is another story for another time.)
My family has been bookish since time immemorial, and my life was full of stories, poetry, and song, both sacred and profane, from a very early age. Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel. Peter, Jemima, Jeremy. Odysseus, Aeneas, Romulus and Remus. King Arthur, Roland, Charlemagne. Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, Beowulf. Noah, David and Goliath, John the Baptist. Christian, Edward, The Highwayman (no, not Waylon, Willie, Johnny or Kris). Natty Bumppo, Hiawatha, and even (shudder) that turncoat, Paul Revere. The companions of a sometimes lonely childhood. And, many, beloved lifelong friends.
Through my childhood and over time, I came to find lessons and truth in these tales of life, fellowship, courage, faith, loyalty, love, and betrayal. To understand that I could do my own part, even in small ways, to emulate the good in them and that I, and others, would, as part of our fallen natures, act out our fair share of the bad. I came to recognize the bad from the good, and I came to understand that redemption, salvation, and a second chance came with the territory if I could embrace, understand, and follow the necessary steps to accommodate them, for this world and for the next.
Those were the lessons I took from my escape into the faith-based, historical and fantastical worlds of my childhood. Good lessons. Healthy lessons. An understanding that what I was reading, reciting, or singing wasn’t always “real,” but that some of it might be true. That, perhaps after I thought about it, digested it, picked out the bits of wisdom in it, and then turned around and looked at my life, I could apply those lessons, and be a better and more whole, person as a result. As long as I can remember, that’s been my experience of the thousands of years that Western Civilization’s stories and legends have to offer–that they exist, and that they’ve lasted, because embracing them and assimilating their lessons enriches us, improves our lives, and makes us kinder, more courageous, and better people.
So I make no apology for, am not in the least embarrassed by, and have no fear of, acknowledging, the fact that some of the best and most long-lasting character lessons of my (64-years and counting) life, have come, and still come, from works of faith, fantasy, and fiction. Did my family model good and moral behavior when I was growing up? I think it did. Did I take lessons from, and learn something from those behaviors I observed in my family? I think I did. Was my family the only thing that formed my character as I was growing up? Absolutely not. My friends, real, fictional, and even imaginary, helped too. But always in the context of my real life.
When it comes to the poetry of my native land, Alfred, Lord Tennyson doesn’t always ring my bell. But I get such a buzz when I listen to his own voice, reading his own poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. (I could do without the poor, and rather silly, animation of this link. Peter Jackson, please call your office). Here is a man born in 1809, over two-hundred years ago, when a few of the Founding Fathers were still living, and we’re listening to his actual voice, recorded around the same time my grandfather (who lived until I was twenty) was born. Such a young, country, this United States. But I digress.
My favorite Tennyson poems are those based on classical or mythological themes. I love Ulysses, that meditation by an aged and battered warrior-king, “made weak by time and fate but strong in will,” who simply will not succumb (I’ve been fortunate to know quite a few people like that in my life, some of them actually real):
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
. . .
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
I love Mariana (“in the moated grange,”) filled with classical allusions and inspired by a casual reference in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure), not least because it’s the source one of Eliza Doolittle’s most hard-to-articulate tongue-twisters:
With blackest moss the flower-pots
Were thickly crusted, one and all
Difficult to say without a mouth full of marbles, and even if you don’t swallow one in the process.
But the Tennyson poem that has owned me for fifty years is (pace In Memoriam —“‘Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all”–and all the others that probably should) is The Lady of Shalott.
It’s an adaptation of the almost thousand-year-old story of Elaine of Astolat. In the earliest tellings (in which King Arthur’s court is a darker place than we’re used to, rife with adultery, jealousy, and violence, unmitigated by much of a concern for chivalry), Guinevere two-times Arthur with Lancelot, Lancelot dallies with Elaine, and Guinevere finds out and can’t decide which of them she wants to kill (first). Elaine is obsessed by her knight and gets her hopes up, and then when he–wounded but victorious in jousting–spurns her for the King’s wife, she (who has diligently nursed him back to health) floats herself on a barge down to Camelot, dying publicly and picturesquely on the way.
Of course, she arrives with a note, which she’s hidden in her purse, announcing that she’s died for love of the finest knight in Christendom (bit of a creaky plot device, this). And, of course, King Arthur just happens to look in her purse, find the note, and reads it out. Lancelot feels a bit of a pang (but no guilt, apparently), and the assembled men circle Elaine’s bier, Arthur says a few words, they all agree that she was very beautiful, and that ends that.
I’m never quite sure whether this is the saddest story I’ve ever read, or if Elaine’s act was just one of breathtaking passive aggression. If it’s the latter, I have to hand it to her; she was willing to go the distance to make her point. Sad, nonetheless. And regardless, or irregardless, as the case may be, she ends up dead.
But back to Tennyson. The Lady of Shalott.
First, I love the language and meter of this poem. One of its central characters, the “river,” is introduced in the first line, and I find myself sailing along for the ride, tumbling from line to line to see what happens next, even from the very beginning:
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;
The yellow-leaved waterlily
The green-sheathed daffodilly
Tremble in the water chilly
Round about Shalott.
Willows whiten, aspens shiver.
The sunbeam showers break and quiver
In the stream that runneth 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.
Tennyson incorporates little of the earlier “Elaine” stories into his narrative, at least until the end, and he introduces a unique element: the mirror. His Lady stands with her back to the window which looks “down to Camelot.” She gazes into a mirror which reflects all the outside activity, and she takes what she sees there and weaves it into a tapestry. (It seems she’s cursed to live this way. She doesn’t know why, and neither do we.) But she continues on, believing that she’s happy, weaving her own world from the “mirror’s magic sights” of funerals, knights, rustic scenes into her lovely hanging. And then, one day, “two young lovers, lately wed” pass by. And this last scene prompts her first realization that she might be missing something (“She hath no loyal knight and true”), and leads to her first protest:
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.
She’s had enough. Pictures of reality are not working for her anymore. Watching is no longer better than doing. But, still, she persists.
Unfortunately, the next character to emerge on the other side of the river bank, and onto the mirror’s screen is “bold Sir Lancelot.” Singing, of all things, (and more tunefully, I suppose, than it’s possible to show here), “Tirra lirra, tirra lirra.” Let me stipulate that this particular ditty wouldn’t have plucked at my heartstrings, but then I haven’t been immured in a grey castle tower for decades staring at a screen on the wall displaying pictures of life passing me by. Anyway, it’s the last straw for our beautiful heroine:
She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower 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.
She has looked reality in the eye. And she breaks. All her imaginings, all her beautiful pictures, all the lovely weavings she’s constructed of the things she’s imagined she’s seen, and which she’s imagined she’s known, and the things she imagines she’s done are shown as the figments they are and count for nothing. And she breaks.
Cue the barge, the final journey, and the death:
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.
And when she reaches the towers of Camelot, the gathering of knights, and the gazing down at her bier. And the final encomium, from “bold Sir Lancelot” (remember, in Tennyson’s version of the story, he’s never seen her before):
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
In the long run, as we all do, and in both stories, poor Elaine ends up dead. But beautiful forever. She shall not grow old.
Much has been written about Tennyson’s “point” in this poem. Most of it, I suspect, like most literary criticism, is absolute bunk. Especially anything that’s been written in the past fifty years or so, focusing on the subjugation of women, women’s “curse,” the pathetic and oppressed lives of women, the patriarchy, or anything designed to fit or bolster someone’s narrow, ideological, and political agenda.
I’ve always thought Tennyson’s point is just so much simpler, historically consistent and universal: I think his point is that we should live in the real world. That imagining and constructing worlds for ourselves (perhaps even imagining that we are so special and singled out for attention that we have been ‘cursed’ in some way, by God, by evil spirits, or even by fellow humans) is destructive and unhealthy. And that, since the real world is right outside our window waiting to be sampled it’s the height of stupidity, ingratitude, and even perhaps madness, not to do so. And that, if we become too enmeshed in our own toils and imaginings, when the time comes and we do want to break free, we may not be able to do so without breaking ourselves. I thought this was the poem’s meaning when I first read it, when I studied it in school, and I still think so.
After all, it’s not as if the metaphor of a life lived with, or through, a mirror, or something like it, hasn’t been used before in our tradition. Plato. The Brothers Grimm. Corinthians.
So in my ongoing, more than half-a-century old, determination to take my most recent literary musings at least a bit seriously, (one day, perhaps I’ll expound on my thesis, “Everything I know in life I learned from Beatrix Potter”© ), how do I apply what I believe to be the lesson of The Lady of Shalott to my life going forward in the twenty-first century?
That’s easy. All I have to do is look around me.
One thing I’m going to cut back on is holding my iPhone up in front of my face at events and family gatherings, and staring into the screen as I record the moments away like mad, all the while pretending that what I’m looking at in pixels is what’s really going on. I’m going to stop surfing the ‘net clicking on the clickbait, tut-tutting over what irritates me, participating in The Daily Outrage™, and retweeting and reposting those things that disgust or enthrall me so that others can climb on board and ratchet up the volume, retweeting and reposting things back at me too in a continuously self-gratifying and self-reinforcing feedback loop. (Oh. Wait. I’m not much on Facebook or Twitter. Never mind that last part. The thought still counts, though.)
I’m going to stop thinking that my superficial online relationships, or what people I don’t know, and who know nothing about me, think of me, are as important as what the people I live every day with and love think of me. Because the stories of people, especially of young, vulnerable, people, who get the foregoing mixed up, and who act on their distorted sense of what’s real, are heartbreaking. I think one of the saddest things I hear kids say today is “I have [pick a number] 375 friends!” (On Facebook, of course.) No, honey, no you don’t. Very few of those people are actually your friends. That old fool Polonius had it right when he said (one of the few bits of wisdom I’ve ever found in Hamlet), “Neither a follower nor a friender be.” (That is how it goes, isn’t it?) It’s a fantasy. Look out the window. And ask the adults in your life to help you. If there aren’t any adults, of any age or any sort, in your life, try and find a few elsewhere. And look out the window with them.
What’s real is what’s going on outside the window. I’m going to look out the window. And I’m going to do my best to make sure that everyone I live with, everyone I know, and everyone I love, of whatever age, looks out the window too.
I hope I don’t break.