Tag Archives: romance

Gerard ter Borch – Love Letters and Glistening Satin Gowns

2 Jul

In this post we’ll take a look at some pretty women dressed in splendid white gowns by a Dutch Baroque painter Gerard ter Borch.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Reading a Letter, 1660-62

Out of the darkness that lures in the background, a genre scene full of intrigues and turmoil arises. A table, two chairs and three figures hold a story. A pretty young lady is reading a letter, most likely a love letter. Her raised eyebrows and slightly parted pink lips reveal her thoughts and feelings; she’s surprised, confused, a bit saddened by the words of the letter. An older female figure dressed in a fur-lined dress is sitting at the table, above an unfinished letter, she’s resting her head on one hand, and holding a quill in the other. Her gaze tells us about the seriousness of the situation. Even the young long haired servant boy glances at her worryingly! Meanwhile, a little dog is sleeping on the other chair.

Let us take a moment to appreciate her gorgeous satin gown. It is painted so beautifully and so skilfully that it looks, to me, as if it was a ball gown woven from moonlight and dandelion seeds for a forest fairy and by some magical mistake it ended up in the wardrobe of a seventeenth century lady. By painting the dress so shining and white, Ter Borch not only emphasised the rich status of the lady wearing it, and showed the elegance and sophistication of the latest fashions, but he also used it as a dazzling contrast of light and darkness. The background and the other figures are painted in dark sombre tones, and the spotlight is on her, the lady reading a letter whose words and emotions will remain forever mysterious to us. In that splendid whiteness the woman looks like a fragrant white lily blooming in the darkness of her beautiful cage.

Gerard ter Borch, Lady at her Toilette, 1660

In “Lady at the Toilette”, we have a somewhat similar scene. Again a woman dressed in a gorgeous white satin gown with details in gold and blue takes the central position. Our eyes are on her, but where is she looking? Both her clothes and the interior signify her high status, and are surely more sophisticated than Vermeer’s are. The interior with a fireplace, Oriental carpet, a mirror, and candlesticks shows luxury. The mirror shows the woman’s profile, but it doesn’t quite make sense. A figure behind the woman is perhaps a maid helping her with her gown, or a seamstress taking a measure or putting finishing touches to the dress. There is a richly dressed servant boy again. A little dog is present as well, not sleeping this time, but stretching with curiosity on the chair.

Ter Borch always lets the long skirt touch the floor and stay there in movement, creating shadows and depths, and you can almost hear its rustle, imagine its softness and shine. With his emphasis on elegance and splendour, Ter Borch partly announced the art of the eighteenth century.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter, 1655

And now a lady not reading a letter but writing one. Take a look at her pearl earring, and look how concentrated she looks, as if she doesn’t know we are gazing at her. And what is she writing, I am bursting with curiosity to find out!

These days, Jan Vermeer is perhaps the most well-known out of the genre-scene painters from the Dutch Golden Age of painting but Gerard ter Borch has painted his fair share of everyday people in everyday situations and he went even further than Vermeer and Jan Steen by adding the glamour and stylishness to everyday life; he transformed middle class ladies into belles of the ball. There is a simple reason why genre painting flourished in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century: there was a free art market and painters weren’t restricted by the demands of the church as they were in the neighbouring Flanders or Southern Netherlands, then controlled by Spain. The artists naturally shifted their focus from the pompous religious subjects full of pathos and flair, which dominated the Spanish and Flemish Baroque, to humble beauties of everyday life. Genre-scenes were a popular option, but still lives and landscapes were common too. This shift seems all to natural to me, for, if a king or a court lady deserves to have her portrait painted, if she is worthy of being captured on canvas for eternity, why wouldn’t a middle-class lady from Utrecht or Amsterdam be a worthy subject for a painting?

Gerrit ter Borch, Messenger, 1650

Painting “The Messanger” is very interesting because the mood of mystery that lingers throughout Ter Borch’s paintings reaches its peak here. A lady in a shining white satin is reading a letter brought by a messenger merely a moment ago. But she turned her back on us, so not only are the words of a love letter concealed from us, so is her face expression. Is she smiling sweetly and trying to prevent herself from giggling, or is she standing in that dark room with a furrowed brow, trying to prevent tears from obscuring her vision, in case the messenger had brought sad news and is waiting for a quick reply. We will never know.

In all these paintings, Ter Borch presents us with a gentler, more intimate, softer side of Baroque; a world of silence and stillness, eloquent glances and glistening fabrics, letters being written and letters being read, letters full of secrets; a world we can relate to and which intrigues us. Jan Vermeer’s genre scenes have a similar mood, and the emphasis is, in both artists, on intimacy and silent drama that takes place behind closed doors.

Gerard ter Borch, An Officer Making His Bow to a Courtesan, 1660s

I decided to add the painting you see above just because of the ethereally beautiful white fabric. It looks so light and airy as it touches the floor. Also, I recently wrote a short post about Victorian photography where girls are dressed in splendid gowns and reside in chambers of silences and dreams, and looking at Gerard ter Borch’s paintings now reminds me of those photographs.

Also, I already wrote about Jan Vermeer’s similar genre scenes here.

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Faustine and the Beautiful Summer (1972) – A Review

23 May

A few days ago I watched a brilliant film called “Faustine and the beautiful summer” (original title: Faustine et le bel été) directed by Nina Companeez whose mood of dreams, romance, indolence and love for nature really struck a chord with me and I found a lot of things highly relatable, particularly the character of Faustine: her reveries, her carefree nature. Also, I wish I could just take her gorgeous outfits from the screen and have them in my wardrobe.

The plot is simple: a pretty sixteen year old girl called Faustine (played by Muriel Catala) is about to spent her summer holidays with her grandparents in the countryside. While there, she spends time wandering the woods and the meadows, discovering the secrets of nature as well as spying on her neighbours who are also there on holiday. She is ocassionally flirting with a fellow teenage boy from that family called Joachim, but mostly takes delight in rejecting him because she develops an interest in his uncle. She eventually befriends the entire family and visits them often, and spends time with Joachim’s female cousins who find her fascinating.

Everything is seen trough her eyes and it is almost like reading her diary, her memories of that summer. And through her eyes everything is magical and whimsical. There isn’t much that goes on in the film and it isn’t long either, only around an hour and a half, but the slow and sensuous mood that reminds me of David Hamilton’s photography from roughly the same years makes it a delight for me. Still, there is more depth to the film than it appears on the surface. For sure it is not a sugary and naive teenage romantic drama. Many conflicts linger throughout the film and surface one by one; conflicts between sensuality and innocence, real life vs dreams, observing life vs participating in it. Those are some things that anyone could relate to, but a girl of Faustine’s age and inexperience would particularly understand it, and that is another reason I loved the film. Not only do I love the aesthetic but the themes as well. And, Chopin’s music is played throughout the film as well.

There is a sweet sensuality lingering throughout the scenes; Faustine walking through the fields of poppies and pressing the golden wheat to her soft cheek, kissing the bark of a tree, the trace of milk left on Faustine’s lips as she puts down her mug, Faustine indolently lying on the bed wrapped in nothing but white lace and eating cherries and strawberries, Faustine talking to a delicate newborn poppy flower… and an ultimate feeling of being immersed in nature when she goes skinny dipping in a nearby lake while the rain is falling romantically and announcing the arrival of autumn. I adored one scene where she is running through fields of wheat and poppies, dressed in a white gown and wearing her straw hat with a long pink ribbon, running playfully as if she were a little girl and shouting “Summer isn’t over”, then throwing herself into the grass and gazing at the play of sunlight coming through the treetops and whispering: “Sunshine fills the air. Flowers of all colours. I drink you in, you make me dizzy.”

I love the coming of age theme and I can relate to Faustine feeling that everything is possible, seeing beauty all around her, and feeling rain of sadness falling on her sun-kissed skin from time to time, which are not the dark rains of autumn but the warm and transient summer showers that stir the soul but leave no scars. Throughout the film Faustine is constantly walking the tightrope between her daydreams and the real life around her. The last scene ends the film beautifully; she is dressed in a long gown, so elegant and grown-up, in an embrace with Joachim’s uncle and says: “And finally Faustine will enter the world through the blue door. Today my first kiss and in seventy years, at best, I’ll be dead.” It sounds as if she is narrating her own life, and it is unclear whether she is talking to him, herself or the trees all around them. From the world of daydreams, through a kiss, Faustine at last enters the real world and tastes its sweetness.

And now a few verses from Derek Walcott’s poem “Bleecker Street, Summer” which I discovered by serendipity last summer:

Summer for prose and lemons, for nakedness and languor,
for the eternal idleness of the imagined return,
for rare flutes and bare feet, and the August bedroom
of tangled sheets and the Sunday salt, ah violin!

When I press summer dusks together, it is
a month of street accordions and sprinklers
laying the dust, small shadows running from me.

These beautiful verses from John Keats’s “Endymion” which I loved last summer came to mind while I was watching the film:

…Now a soft kiss –
Aye, by that kiss, I vow an endless bliss,
An immortality of passion’s thine:
Ere long I will exalt thee to the shine
Of heaven ambrosial; and we will shade
Ourselves whole summers by a river glade;
And I will tell thee stories of the sky,
And breathe thee whispers of its minstrelsy,
My happy love will overwing all bounds!
O let me melt into thee! let the sounds
Of our close voices marry at their birth;
Let us entwine hoveringly!

I hope you enjoyed this review and that you decide to watch the film. I am glad I watched it now, in May, because I can look forward to another summer and hope that it is as sweet as the last one’s was, instead of pining for it once it passes.

Anna Akhmatova – I rarely think of you now

22 May

One of the most beautiful and fascinating poems I’ve read in a while:

Walter Richard Sickert, Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford, 1892

I rarely think of you now,

Not captured by your fate,

But our insignificant meeting’s trace

Has not vanished from my soul.

 

I purposely avoid your red house,

That red house on its muddy river,

But I know I bitterly disturb

Your sunlit heart at rest.

Marc Chagall, Rain, 1911

Marc Chagall, The Flying Carriage, 1913

Though you never bent to my lips,

Imploring love,

Never immortalised my longing

In verse of gold –

 

I secretly conjure the future,

When evening shines clear and blue,

And foresee the inevitable meeting,

A second meeting, with you.

John Everett Millais, Caller Herrin’

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Kiss: I was a child beneath her touch

20 May

Karel Hynek Mácha, a Czech poet of Romanticism, wrote in his most famous work, a lyrical epic poem called “May” that the sweet and flowery month of May is a time of love. I couldn’t agree more, for the sweetness of the spring months awakens the heart. This is how his poem starts:

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May—the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.
Whispered of love the mosses frail,
The flowering tree as sweetly lied,
The rose’s fragrant sigh replied
To love-songs of the nightingale.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-08

In the sweet, sensuous and indolent mood of May, my thoughts easily wander to Gothic romances, poetry, reverie and Pre-Raphaelites, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poem “The Kiss” has been on my mind these days. Here it is, accompanied by beautiful examples of kisses in art:

What smouldering senses in death’s sick delay

Or seizure of malign vicissitude 

Can rob this body of honour, or denude

This soul of wedding-raiment worn to-day?

For lo! even now my lady’s lips did play

With these my lips such consonant interlude

As laurelled Orpheus longed for when he wooed

The half-drawn hungering face with that last lay. 

 

I was a child beneath her touch,–a man

When breast to breast we clung, even I and she,– 

A spirit when her spirit looked through me,– 

A god when all our life-breath met to fan 

Our life-blood, till love’s emulous ardours ran, 

Fire within fire, desire in deity.

Francesco Hayez, The Kiss (Il bacio), 1859

Egon Schiele, Liebende (Lovers), 1909

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, In Bed (The Kiss), 1892

Note: you can read the whole English version of Mácha’s “May”, if you are interested, here.

Turgenev’s Maidens: Natalya and Asya

2 Apr

In this post we’ll take a look at “Turgenev’s Maid”; a type of female character typical for Turgenev and often found in his novellas and novels.

Nicolae Grigorescu, A Flower Among Flowers, 1880

Although equally important for Russian Realism, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev is often overlooked when it comes to Russian writers, somewhat overshadowed by the more famous Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Out of those three writers, Turgenev was the one influenced by the progressive ideas and philosophy of Western Europe and even spent majority of his life in France where he died too. His mother was a tyrannical woman and his parents’ marriage an unhappy one, so Turgenev decided to stay a bachelor. There’s elegance in his writings and an emphasis on nature and its lyric beauty. There’s nothing dramatic about his writing, but somehow it lingers in the memory and you find yourself pondering over some things that meant very little the moment you were reading it. Also, his words leave some kind of quiet sadness and a sense of futility against life, love and nature. Can you stop the flower from withering, sun from setting, springs from lingering one after another and passing?

Turgenev’s first novel was “Rudin”, first published in 1856 in a literary magazine “Sovremennik” (“The Contemporary”). In this novel, he laid a foundation for his future characters and themes by introducing a female type of heroine which came to be called “Turgenev’s Maid” and a hero who is a young superfluous man. Turgenev is continuing and developing the types of characters that Pushkin had started in his novel “Eugene Onegin”. Characters follow the similar pattern in his novella “Asya”, published in 1858. Turgenev’s odes to failure in love.

Photo by Frieda Rike.

A typical Turgenev’s maiden is a girl whose introverted, reserved, modest and shy exterior hides a passionate and poetic soul that only few people see, but is hidden to the rest. She is romantic and dreamy, but not in a delusional Emma Bovary kind of way, but rather this romantic nature arises from idealism and life spent in the idyllic countryside isolation which can sometimes make her inexperienced in society. She is educated, both in history and geography as in daydreaming, and often speaks several languages. She possesses a gentle, girlish, unassuming beauty and is modest in behaviour and the way she dresses. Turgenev’s maiden often falls in love with man unworthy of her; weak and passive idealists who are excellent in conversation but incapable of doing something with their life. As I already said, Turgenev’s heroines draw heavily on Pushkin’s wonderful Tatyana Larina from “Eugene Onegin” and here is what D.S. Mirsky says about it in his discussion about Turgenev: “The strong, pure, passionate, and virtuous woman, opposed to the weak, potentially generous, but ineffective and ultimately shallow man, was introduced in literature by Pushkin, and recurs again and again in the work of the realists, but nowhere more insistently than in Turgenev’s.”

William Powell Firth

Natalya Alexyevna Lasunskaya

Natalys is a shy seventeen year old girl who lives in the countryside with her mother. On the outside she seems reserved, very secretive and cold, but that is just her way of hiding her feelings from the world and her dominant mother. She is introduced in the story in the fifth chapter with these words: “Darya Mihailovna’s daughter, Natalya Alexyevna, at a first glance might fail to please. She had not yet had time to develop; she was thin, and dark, and stooped slightly. But her features were fine and regular, though too large for a girl of seventeen. Specially beautiful was her pure, smooth forehead above fine eyebrows, which seemed broken in the middle. She spoke little, but listened to others, and fixed her eyes on them as though she were forming her own conclusions. She would often stand with listless hands, motionless and deep in thought; her face at such moments showed that her mind was at work within.

But further quotes reveal to us that Natalya’s feelings are strong and that her mother doesn’t understand her personality at all: “But Natalya was not absent-minded; on the contrary, she studied diligently; she read and worked eagerly. Her feelings were strong and deep, but reserved; even as a child she seldom cried, and now she seldom even sighed and only grew slightly pale when anything distressed her.

Heinrich Vogeler, Spring (Portrait of Martha Vogeler), 1897

Life in the beautiful countryside amongst family friends has made her inexperienced with the ways of the world and she is a perfect pray for Rudin, a poor intellectual unsure of what he wants from life or love, indulging himself in shallow melancholy and praising highly the courageous heroes of literature and history while he himself is beneath them, both in spirit and intellect. He takes a pleasure in seducing Natalya because his feelings aren’t as deep or as pure as hers are, and since he had many failed loves in the past, he doesn’t take the relationships seriously. For him, it’s just a past time, but in Natalya he has awoken a whole new set of feelings, ones that she only read about in literature. After Natalya admits her love for Rudin to her mother, and is met with mother’s disapproval, she meets Rudin secretly at the brake of dawn somewhere in the meadow to tell him the sad truth, expecting him to fight for their love.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

This is their poignant, sad and bitter dialogue from chapter IX:

“‘What do you think we must do now?’

‘What we must do?’ replied Rudin; ‘of course submit.’

‘Submit,’ repeated Natalya slowly, and her lips turned white.

‘Submit to destiny,’ continued Rudin. ‘What is to be done? I know very well how bitter it is, how painful, how unendurable. But consider yourself, Natalya Alexyevna; I am poor. It is true I could work; but even if I were a rich man, could you bear a violent separation from your family, your mother’s anger? . . . No, Natalya Alexyevna; it is useless even to think of it. It is clear it was not fated for us to live together, and the happiness of which I dreamed is not for me!’

All at once Natalya hid her face in her hands and began to weep. Rudin went up to her.”

What you have just read is a typical Turgenev-style ending; the heroine is too passionate and her feelings too strong for the passive hero. It’s not that Rudin doesn’t love Natalya, it’s more that he is incapable of being himself, living his own life, to commit to someone. Once rejected, Natalya doesn’t go on daydreaming of Rudin or returning to him. Instead, just like Pushkin’s Tatyana, she walks away with dignity and self-respect.

William Dyce, Portrait of Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria and Albert, 1848

Asya

In “Asya”, the narrator, a lonely forty year-old bachelor named N.N. tells us the sad love story of his youth. His memory sets the novella in a small and picturesque town on the Rhine, whose shore is littered with romantic Medieval castles and emerald green hills; a perfect setting for a fleeting, ephemeral romance. The narrator comes there on a holiday and meets two fellow Russians, a brother and a sister; Gaguine and Asya. Since they are the only Russians in town, they soon befriend. The narrator develops an intellectual bond with Gaguine but is soon enamoured by his strange and pretty younger sister Asya who is very shy around him at first.

This is what Turgenev tells us of their first encounter: “My presence appeared to embarrass her; but Gaguine said to her, “don’t be shy; he will not bite you.” These words made her smile, and a few moments after she spoke to me without the least embarrassment. She did not remain quiet a moment. Hardly was she seated than she arose, ran towards the house, and reappeared again, singing in a low voice; often she laughed, and her laugh had something strange about it—one would say that it was not provoked by anything that was said, but by some thoughts that were passing through her mind. Her large eyes looked one in the face openly, with boldness, but at times she half closed her eyelids, and her looks became suddenly deep and caressing.

And this is how Turgenev imagined her to look like. Again, she has a very girly appeal, just like Natalya and other Turgenev’s maidens: “The young girl whom he called his sister at first sight appeared to me charming. There was an expression quite peculiar, piquant and pretty at times, upon her round and slightly brown face; her nose was small and slender, her cheeks chubby as a child’s, her eyes black and clear. Though well proportioned, her figure had not yet entirely developed.

Photo by by SophieKoryn. “You consider my behaviour improper,” her face seemed to say; “all the same, I know you’re admiring me.” (Asya)

Asya can be rapturous and wild at one moment, without any regard for social conventions, only to become shy the next moment, wistful and lost in her thoughts. Here is an example to illustrate the point: on one occasion, Asya breaks a branch from a tree and plays with it as if it was a gun. When they encounter a group of shocked English tourists, she starts singing in a loud voice just to spite them. But later in the evening, she is the epitome of elegance and demureness: “When we arrived, she immediately went to her room, and did not reappear until dinner, decked out in her finest dress, her hair dressed with care, wearing a tight-fitting bodice, and gloves on her hands. At table she sat with dignity, scarcely tasted anything, and drank only water. It was evident she wished to play a new rôle in my presence: that of a young person, modest and well-bred. Gaguine did not restrain her; you could see that it was his custom to contradict her in nothing. From time to time he contented himself with looking at me, faintly shrugging his shoulders, and his kindly eye seemed to say: “She is but a child; be indulgent.

Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria in “Victoria” (2016)

Here is a little conversation from the ninth chapter which also reveals Asya’s lack of feeling for proper behavior:

And what is it that you like about women?” she asked, turning her head with a childlike curiosity.

“What a singular question!” I cried.

“I shouldn’t have asked you such a question, should I? Forgive me; I am accustomed to say whatever comes into my head. That is why I am afraid to speak.”

“Speak, I beg you! Fear nothing, I am so delighted at seeing you less wild.

Juliette Lamet by Melanie Rodriguez for Melle Ninon.

The narrator seems more interested in the mysterious aura around her, than actually in love with her, he says himself: “Oh! that little girl—she is, indeed, an enigma.”

Here are a few more quotes to get you interested:

I understood what attracted me towards this strange young girl: it was not only the half-savage charm bestowed upon her lovely and graceful young figure, it was also her soul that captivated me.

I do not know what womanly charm suddenly appeared upon her girlish face. Long afterwards the charm of her slender figure still lingered about my hand; for a long time I felt her quick breathing near me, and I dreamed of her dark eyes, motionless and half closed, with her face animated, though pale, about which waved the curls of her sweet hair.” (Chapter IX)

William Powell Frith, The Proposal, 1856

The end of their love, again the hero suddenly turns cold and steps back from the affections that he himself started in the first place:

“So all is at an end,” I replied once more; “at an end—; and we must part.”

“There was in my heart,” I continued, “a feeling just springing up, which, if you had left it to time, would have developed! You have yourself broken the bond that united us; you have failed to put confidence in me.” (chapter XVI)

To end the post I would like to quote a fellow blogger at “A Russian Affair” who focuses on Russian literature. Here are her brilliant observations on Turgenev’s themes and style from the post “Typically Turgenev“:”Not a lot happens in Turgenev’s works. The situation at the beginning is more or less the same as the one in the end. All that remains is memories and what-ifs. The reader has to content himself with plenty of beautiful atmospheric scenes and contemplations. (…) You read Turgenev with your heart.

And a beautifully put thought regarding love from her post “Love in Turgenev’s work“: “It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.

I hope you decide to read some of Turgenev’s work, if you still haven’t and that you enjoy it as much as I did.

Virginia Poe’s Valentine Poem for Edgar Allan Poe

14 Feb

Here is an acrostic poem that Edgar Allan Poe’s darling little wife Virginia wrote to him for Valentine’s Day in 1846. Less than a year later she was dead.

Virginia Poe’s handwritten Valentine poem to her husband Edgar Allan Poe, Feb 14th 1846; what a beautiful handwriting!

Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.

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.