Tag Archives: Lady of Shalott

An Unfortunate Lily Maid: Anne of Green Gables and Lady of Shalott

2 May

Anne was devoured by secret regret that she had not been born in Camelot. Those days, she said, were so much more romantic than the present.”

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888

“With a steady stony glance—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Beholding all his own mischance,
Mute, with a glassy countenance—
       She look’d down to Camelot.
It was the closing of the day:
She loos’d the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
       The Lady of Shalott.”
(Lord Tennyson)

What connects Elaine, The Lady of Shalott; a beautiful and doomed heroine of Arthurian legends and Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name published in 1832, and Anne Shirley Cuthbert; a freckled, red-haired eleven year old orphan girl from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s well-know and well-loved children’s novel Anne of Green Gables? Elaine lived in the dark and magical Medieval times, in a tower, weaving her embroidery and gazing at the world through a mirror, and Anne lives on a beautiful Prince Edward Island in the late nineteenth century. Elaine suffered a romantical death from a curse that fell upon her, and Anne would give everything for such a tragical, romantical fate. “An Unfortunate Lily Maid”, chapter twenty-eight of Anne of Green Gables, holds answers to our questions. The thing that connects Anne with Elaine is the same thing that connects me and Elaine, me and The Smiths, Modigliani, Manics etc: fascination and adoration.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, Sketch, Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour

“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, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
       The Lady of Shalott.”
John Everett Millais, The Lady of Shalott, 1854

Anne is a very dreamy, romantic, and imaginative girl who spends a lot of time fantasising and daydreaming about some other times and places, dreamier than her reality, even though, ironically, whilst reading the novel the reader will likely daydream about her time and place as more dreamy and romantical than our present. It is very easy to see what a heroine such as Elaine would appeal to Anne’s vivid imagination and romantic inclinations. If fate wasn’t as kind as to make Anne a princess from some fairy tale or a maiden from some Medieval romance, then acting is the second bets alternative and that is what Anne does in chapter twenty-eight. Along with her friends Diana, Ruby and Jane, Anne decides to lie in a boat, holding an iris flower instead of a lily, and float down the river “for ever and ever….” as Syd Barrett sings beautifully in the song “See Emily Play”. But of course, as it goes in Anne’s life, something goes wrong and a very dreamy situation becomes comical. Here is the passage from the book:

Of course you must be Elaine, Anne,” said Diana. “I could never have the courage to float down there.”

“Nor I,” said Ruby Gillis, with a shiver. “I don’t mind floating down when there’s two or three of us in the flat and we can sit up. It’s fun then. But to lie down and pretend I was dead—I just couldn’t. I’d die really of fright.”

“Of course it would be romantic,” conceded Jane Andrews, “but I know I couldn’t keep still. I’d be popping up every minute or so to see where I was and if I wasn’t drifting too far out. And you know, Anne, that would spoil the effect.”

Walter Crane, The Lady of Shalott, 1864

It is almost amusing how Anne thinks it is ridiculous for a redhead girl to play Elaine because Lord Tennyson had described Elaine’s locks are golden. The most beautiful portrayal of the Lady of Shalott is the one painted in 1888 by John William Waterhouse and she is painted with masses of beautiful coppery red hair, clearly a legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites who had a penchant for red hair. It goes to show how life imitates art, for as soon as something is glamorised in art, it becomes fashionable in life as well. This was just a little digression. Here is how the passage continued:

“But it’s so ridiculous to have a redheaded Elaine,” mourned Anne. “I’m not afraid to float down and I’d love to be Elaine. But it’s ridiculous just the same. Ruby ought to be Elaine because she is so fair and has such lovely long golden hair—Elaine had ‘all her bright hair streaming down,’ you know. And Elaine was the lily maid. Now, a red-haired person cannot be a lily maid.”

“Your complexion is just as fair as Ruby’s,” said Diana earnestly, “and your hair is ever so much darker than it used to be before you cut it.”

“Oh, do you really think so?” exclaimed Anne, flushing sensitively with delight. “I’ve sometimes thought it was myself—but I never dared to ask anyone for fear she would tell me it wasn’t. Do you think it could be called auburn now, Diana?”

“Yes, and I think it is real pretty,” said Diana, looking admiringly at the short, silky curls that clustered over Anne’s head and were held in place by a very jaunty black velvet ribbon and bow.

They were standing on the bank of the pond, below Orchard Slope, where a little headland fringed with birches ran out from the bank; at its tip was a small wooden platform built out into the water for the convenience of fishermen and duck hunters. (…)

It was Anne’s idea that they dramatize Elaine. They had studied Tennyson’s poem in school the preceding winter, the Superintendent of Education having prescribed it in the English course for the Prince Edward Island schools. They had analyzed and parsed it and torn it to pieces in general until it was a wonder there was any meaning at all left in it for them, but at least the fair lily maid and Lancelot and Guinevere and King Arthur had become very real people to them, and Anne was devoured by secret regret that she had not been born in Camelot. Those days, she said, were so much more romantic than the present. Anne’s plan was hailed with enthusiasm. The girls had discovered that if the flat were pushed off from the landing place it would drift down with the current under the bridge and finally strand itself on another headland lower down which ran out at a curve in the pond. They had often gone down like this and nothing could be more convenient for playing Elaine.

“Well, I’ll be Elaine,” said Anne, yielding reluctantly, for, although she would have been delighted to play the principal character, yet her artistic sense demanded fitness for it and this, she felt, her limitations made impossible.

“Ruby, you must be King Arthur and Jane will be Guinevere and Diana must be Lancelot. But first you must be the brothers and the father. We can’t have the old dumb servitor because there isn’t room for two in the flat when one is lying down. We must pall the barge all its length in blackest samite. That old black shawl of your mother’s will be just the thing, Diana.”

The black shawl having been procured, Anne spread it over the flat and then lay down on the bottom, with closed eyes and hands folded over her breast.

“Oh, she does look really dead,” whispered Ruby Gillis nervously, watching the still, white little face under the flickering shadows of the birches. “It makes me feel frightened, girls. Do you suppose it’s really right to act like this? Mrs. Lynde says that all play-acting is abominably wicked.”

“Ruby, you shouldn’t talk about Mrs. Lynde,” said Anne severely. “It spoils the effect because this is hundreds of years before Mrs. Lynde was born. Jane, you arrange this. It’s silly for Elaine to be talking when she’s dead.”

Jane rose to the occasion. Cloth of gold for coverlet there was none, but an old piano scarf of yellow Japanese crepe was an excellent substitute. A white lily was not obtainable just then, but the effect of a tall blue iris placed in one of Anne’s folded hands was all that could be desired. “Now, she’s all ready,” said Jane. “We must kiss her quiet brows and, Diana, you say, ‘Sister, farewell forever,’ and Ruby, you say, ‘Farewell, sweet sister,’ both of you as sorrowfully as you possibly can. Anne, for goodness sake smile a little. You know Elaine ‘lay as though she smiled.’ That’s better. Now push the flat off.”

(….) For a few minutes Anne, drifting slowly down, enjoyed the romance of her situation to the full. Then something happened not at all romantic. The flat began to leak.

Pretty Girls Make Graves – Beautiful Corpses in Art: Part I

25 Oct

“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world – and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Paul Delaroche, The Young Martyr (La jeune martyre), 1853

American poet and writer Edgar Allan Poe famously wrote that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”, and no one other writer devoted himself to writing about pale, ghostly maidens and beautiful dead women with such a feverish passion. When I think of Beauty, Love and Death in literature, I instantly think of Poe, but what about the visual arts? I envisaged this post as a part one of a little overview of dead or dying women captured not with ink on paper, but in colour on canvases. The first example I’ve chosen of a girl – beautiful, young and dead, the winning combination for the utmost beauty, is the painting “The Young Martyr” by a French painter Paul Delaroche. This is probably his most famous work and it is easy to see why; the painting’s romantical and mystical flair is just mesmerising. A young Christian martyr is floating on the surface of the river, her halo shines so strongly with such pure golden light that the gentle ripples of the water of Tiber are painted in its yellow glow. Her hands are bound with a rope and only a flimsy white gown is covering her body. Her hair looks like that of a mermaid, and as we gaze at her lovely pale face, we might believe for a moment that she is still alive. She looks angelically beautiful, without a doubt. Delaroche’s beloved, adored wife Louise died in 1845 at the age of thirty-one and the artist was deeply miserable about it, so there is a personal connection there as well.

John Everett Millais, The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl, 1847

The next example is very different in colours and style. “The Artist Attending the Mourning of a Young Girl” is a very early work by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. His famous “Ophelia” was painted only two years later and there is a stark contrast between those two artworks. This painting doesn’t have the intricate, lush details nor the gentle melancholy of Ophelia, and the colours are not vivid and clear but toned down. The shades of black and grey, along with the simple, almost bare composition, add to the realism of the painting. The now lost inscription on the back of the painting said: “The painting represents an incident in Millais’s own life when he was sent for by people unknown to him, but who knew him to be a young artist, to draw a portrait of a girl in her coffin before her burial. The scene moved him so much that when he got home he made this sketch showing himself being asked to draw the girl’s portrait.” This could explain the sketchy style of the painting; it was done from the memory, unlike Ophelia which was carefully and patiently crafted. The dead girl’s face looks like that of a doll; pale, sad doll wrapped in flimsy veils.

Found Drowned, George Frederic Watts, 1850

While Delaroche’s “The Young Martyr” was painstakingly romantical and mystical, this painting by George Frederich Watts, “Found Drowned” is all but romantic. Watts is sometimes associated with the Symbolist movement, but in this painting he focused on a social realism genre because this dead, young girl washed ashore on the murky waters of the Thames is clearly a working class girl who had committed suicide because life’s prospects were bleak and it seemed like the only option. Is she not a working class martyr then? The painting was inspired by the poem “The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, published in 1844 and here are a few appropriate verses:

One more Unfortunate
Weary of breath
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!
Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1852

Millais’ painting “Ophelia” is perhaps the visual archetype of a young and beautiful dead woman in art. No other painting quite surpasses the vibrant and melancholy beauty, intricacy and magic of Millais’ Ophelia. Even though the painting is static and flat, I can really see her sinking gently into the water, as in a dream, while the moss is sighing and the reed is murmuring. Ophelia is becoming one with nature, her hair will mingle with the river, tangle with the reed, and flowers all around her speak of bloom while she is experiencing her death. The model for Ophelia was Elizabeth Siddal, the moody anorexic redhead lover and muse of a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her red hair, the gesture of her hands, that shimmering white dress, and not to mention the expression of ecstasy on that face and those slightly parted lips, it all adds to the ethereal magic of the painting. Ophelia’s beauty is captured forever on this canvas; she will never grow old and have wrinkles, her cheeks are feverish and rosy from the eerie and hot kiss of the Death and she longs for nothing no more.

Walter Crane, Lady of Shalott, 1862

The last example for the Part One of this post is a painting “Lady of Shalott” by a fellow Pre-Raphaelite painter Walter Crane. Seen from the profile, lying in the boat, dressed in silvery robe, her long wavy brown hair spread around her, Lady of Shalott looks like the dreamiest corpse. Her face is so pale and her eyelids closed so tenderly, as if a gentle kiss from her beloved closed them, and not death. One can almost envy her serene peacefulness. Would you not to glide down the river, towards eternity, not seeing the tree tops and birds above you, but feeling them and hearing them as if through a mist, because your senses are fading and this world means nothing to you no more.

John William Waterhouse – Lady of Shalott: I am half-sick of shadows

3 Sep

English painter John William Waterhouse was born in Rome in 1849; the same year the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in London. So, he wasn’t a member of the original Brotherhood, but his style and subject matter show that he embraced their aesthetic and continued the themes ranging from Shakespeare to Arthurian romances and mythology. He created a world of beauty and dreams that served as a refuge from grey and harsh reality for Victorians who were such escapists. Waterhouse portrayed the legend of the Lady of Shalott three times, in 1888, 1894 and 1916. Although the version from 1888 is by far the most popular, today we’ll take a look at the other two.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, 1894

“Who is that?”, Elaine stood up quickly, abandoning her tapestry, and in two-three steps approached the window of her lonely tower, with long curious, thirsty glances soaking up the beauty of the sights never before seen directly. Her long velvety hair spilt in dozens of cascades on her back, like a shimmering murmuring waterfall, reaching her waist. Yearning, fear and gentle admiration coloured her pale, beautiful face. Never before have the beams of sun, nor the moon, drops of rain or spring zephyrs caressed it. Her white gown, its flimsy sleeves and dozens of silk petticoats, shines like the moon on the night sky against the darkness of her tower, but its gentle rustling is too far from the ears of a lovely knight who happened to be passing by. “Who is he?”, wonders Elaine, stepping forward with one leg, but leaning on the chair with her hand as soon as the words of the ancient curse run through her mind. Golden thread that wrapped itself like a snake around her dress seems to warn her too about the consequences of her actions… but Elaine can’t resist! She resisted gazing for so long, relying on shadows, pale reflections of the world in her mirror, but today the temptation to look was too irresistible, for she saw a knight riding from Camelot, passing her tower by, his armour glowing in the sun, his coal-black curls flowing underneath his helmet; it was none other than Sir Lancelot.

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.” (*)
***

One sight was enough for this beautiful, naive, vulnerable lily-maiden to fall in love. Her heart ached not solely for the handsome and distant knight who innocently passed by her tower, unaware of her sad destiny, but for the music, lights and liveliness of Camelot, for people and their chatter, but her curse was never to feel the world, but to gaze at it passively in the mirror, a stale reflection was to replace the vibrancy of reality. The moment she left her tapestry, drawn to the window like a moth to the light, she felt her soul overwhelmed with love and the same moment her world fell apart for the curse has come upon her, and she cried.

 As I’ve already said in the introduction, Waterhouse painted three different portrayals of the sad life of the Lady of Shalott, but thematically and chronologically they go into different directions; the first painting, from 1888, shows Elaine floating to her death while the last one, from 1916, shows her contemplating over her life of isolation. I am certain that, had he painted three more, they would all be as imaginative, dreamy and original. This is the first, and the most famous 1888 version of which I wrote about here. It is a true gem indeed and a symbol of Pre-Raphaelite artistic vision:

So, in the last painting of the series, we see Elaine before her downfall; she’s sitting above her tapestry, taking a rest, her hands behind her head, staring dreamily into the void, while through the window we see the magnificent grey towered castle of Camelot whose red roofs shine in glory. Elaine looks wistful, but not determined, she’s lost in thoughts but not yet ready to act, with her rosy cheeks and rosy dress she looks like a lonely rose in a long-forgotten garden, and I can see a spider weaving a veil of silver and dew around her gentle petals, hushing her heart, lulling her to sleep and forget reality. This is what Lord Tennyon, a beloved poet of the Victorian era, tells us of Elaine’s life of isolation and longing:

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, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
       The Lady of Shalott.
***
Loneliness is making her tired and restless, her eyelids grow heavy, her gaze weary, while the pale face reveals that she is curious, impetuous, nervous…. but she is naive and knows nothing of the world, and yet she longs for something she can’t describe and pines for memories that not belong to her, sighing and whispering to the stale air of solitude “I am half-sick of shadows!” Oh, poor little maiden, will her life be wrapped in a pensive veil of gloom forever?

John William Waterhouse, I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott, 1916

“I watched life and wanted to be a part of it but found it painfully difficult.” (Anais Nin)

Everyone speaks of an unlived life, and through reading Jack Kerouac’s novels of wild adventures, drinking, promiscuity, and also of self-indulgences and extremes of rock stars, I’ve created in my imagination this glamorous, yet false, vision of a life lived to the fullest, but as I grow older I am more of an opinion that adult life is very sad, and that world is a confusing and scary place, one I’d rather not venture. While gazing at Elaine in her lonely tower, I can’t help but think “Don’t gaze through the window, don’t long for Camelot, there’s nothing for you there!” So, for me, the legend of the Lady of the Shalott brings to mind the conflict between living life and daydreaming. I am so fond of daydreams because they are so sweet, and life is so often so unfulfilling and sour. How to live and be truly happy when life crushes all your ideals just like the sea waves crush the rocks on the shore? And is a life spent in daydreaming a wasted one? “To be or not to be?”, Hamlet asked himself. To live or to daydream, that is the question!

How do you feel about Elaine’s destiny, and the conflict of life vs daydreams. Share your thoughts with me.

The Lady of Shalott – John William Waterhouse

17 Dec

Magical and dreamy quality of this painting simply draws you into its world of melancholy, hidden symbols and the inevitable darkness that pervades the atmosphere.

1888. John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888, after a poem by Tennyson; like many Victorian paintings, romantic but not Romantic.1888. The Lady of Shalott

Elaine of Astolat, a figure in Arthurian legends, apparently died of unrequited love for Sir Lancelot. Her body was placed in a small boat, one hand holding a lily and the other clutching her final letter. She them floated from Thames to Camelot where they discovered the body, calling Elaine ‘a little lily maiden‘.

Legend about Elaine was very popular among Victorian artists and poets, as were many other Arthurian and Medieval legends, but this legend about a frail and delicate lady who faces her own destiny sparked a special interest of John William Waterhouse, a famous Pre-Raphaelite painter. This sad and unusual fate of the poor maiden fascinated Pre-Raphaelites, and Waterhouse painted many scenes inspired by Elaine. The legend also awakened the attention of other Pre-Raphaelite painters such as William Holman Hunt and Gabriel Dante Rossetti.

It was however, Lord Tennyson’s poem called ‘Lady of Shalott‘, first version being published in 1833. and the second in 1842, that gave a new vision of Elaine’s destiny which the artists accepted. In the poem, nineteen stanzas long in the second edition, Lord Tennyson explores Elaine’s life in isolation in the tower and the longing to live a real life among real people. Her suffering is caused by a curse that has been cast upon her; a mysterious curse that forces her to weave images on her loom without ever looking directly out at the world. She looks in the mirror instead, yearning to see the busy streets and the people of Camelot directly. ‘I’m half-sick of shadows.‘ said The Lady of Shalott; the shadows being a metaphor for the reflected images in the mirror which the Lady feels are a poor substitute for seeing people directly.

The inevitable thing happened, one day a handsome and charming knight passed by, Sir Lancelot, and The Lady of Shalott discarded her weaving and looked out of the window towards Camelot bringing about the curse. The Lady of Shalott then left the tower, found a boat, wrote her name on it and floated down the river to Camelot where the ladies of the court and the knights found her. Lancelot considered her appearance of particular beauty and grace.

”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.”

 1915. I am half-sick of shadows, said the Lady of Shalott - John William Waterhouse1915. ‘I am half-sick of shadows’, said the Lady of Shalott

Mysterious curse, beauty of this maiden, isolating life in the tower, reality seen through the mirror; all these elements inspired John William Waterhouse in painting ‘The Lady of Shalott’ in three different versions; first in 1888, then in 1894. and 1915. respectively. The first painting, painted in 1888. is the most appealing to me, and it’s also considered one of Waterhouses’ most popular works due to many reasons. The Lady of Shalott is presented here in a boat after escaping the tower in an autumn storm, inscribing ‘The Lady of Shalott‘ on the prow. As she sailed towards Camelot and her certain death, she sang a lament, lying resigned with her fate yet full of deep melancholy. Waterhouse captured this moment of Tennyson’s poem:

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With 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.

This painting is the epitome of the Pre-Raphaelite style due to its sympathetic notion towards the subject portrayed; he was so tender in portraying a vulnerable yearning woman, the Pre-Raphaelite aspect of nature, along with the vivid colour and detail characteristic for Pre-Raphaelite painting style. Despite the captivating, almost magical quality of the painting, the atmosphere is engulfed in darkness; the certainty of Lady’s death, her sad resignation, life and reality she wanted to experience but never did, the romantic love she hoped for but never sensed it. This painting is romantic but only at the first sight. While looking at the painting, the first thing you see is a beautiful long haired maiden, immersed in tranquility, sitting in a boat surrounded by her possessions, but Waterhouse portrayed the scene with much more complexity. One could get lost in this nature, bursting with beauty and details as it was a character itself.

The painting is filled with metaphoric references; the lantern at the boat suggests it will soon be dark, a crucifix positioned near the front of the bow, and three candles, two of which are already blown out signifying that her death is soon to come. Also, the detailed approach of Waterhouse’s painting style is evident in the tapestry draped over the side of the boat; it is the tapestry that The Lady of Shalott had been vowing in her isolation and solitary in the tower.

1894. The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot - John William Waterhouse1894. The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot

Lord Tennyson’s poem, main inspiration for Waterhouse’s paintings, prompted the modern critics into believing that is represents the dilemma the artists, writers and musicians face; ‘to create work about and celebrate the world, or to enjoy the world by simply living in it.