There’s been a poem much on my mind recently: “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
If you’re not familiar with the poem, you should be! But get comfy, because it’s not a short one. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem, and here’s a link to a wonderful musical rendition by one of my favorite singers, Loreena McKennitt (she omits some stanzas, but the core of the poem is still there). For the impatient, I’ll start with a synopsis.
The Lady of Shalott is a woman trapped in a tower on an island near Camelot. She labors under a curse; she must sit in front of a mirror all day, watching the world in the mirror’s reflection and weaving the things she sees into a giant tapestry. She cannot stop and look out on the world or an unknown fate will befall her. She is lonely and frustrated, but because she doesn’t know what the curse may be, she continues her task.
One day, however, she sees Sir Lancelot in the mirror’s reflection. He is so beautiful, so tempting, that she finally forgets her curse and goes to the window to see him better. The moment she does so the curse is invoked; the mirror breaks, the tapestry unravels, and she knows now what the curse is: for leaving the loom, she must die.
She descends the tower and lies down in a boat, which then floats down the river to Camelot. As she goes she sings a song that draws the attention of the people. As she reaches the end of her journey, she dies. When her body reaches the castle of Camelot, King Arthur and the knights observe her body. The poem ends with:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
Tennyson’s poem is most commonly interpreted as depicting the plight of the artist (e.g. Bloom’s). The artist observes and records life but must remain a step removed from it. When the artist joins life the artist dies, at least metaphorically, because they stop recording and start living. The end of the poem also speaks to the artist’s dilemma that so often only by dying does the artist often get the recognition they crave in life.
But I think that the Lady of Shallot can also be a beautifully tragic metaphor for the transwoman in transition.
When I read the poem (or more often listen to the McKennitt recording), I feel a kinship with the Lady. Sometimes I feel like the Ali part of me is like the Lady, sitting in the tower of my mind, watching life but not participating in it, recording on her heart the life she wants to live. At one point, the Lady says, in regards to watching the images in her mirror, “I am half-sick of shadows.” That’s exactly how I have come to feel: half-sick of shadows.
What does our lady weave? Images of the life we want to lead, but fear to face. You have them inside, same as me: the things you would do, the clothes your would wear, the relationships you would cultivate, if only. These are things we see in the mirror of our mind, a reflection of the life we do not have.
And we, each of us with this Lady trapped inside, hear that whispering in our ear: she cannot leave the tower, for a curse will come upon us if she does. Maybe, like the Lady, we will experience a death. Not literally, though violence against trans women is certainly high; but the death of our relationships, the death of our jobs, the death of our normal lives. The curse of rejection, the curse of ridicule, the curse of failure to transition fully. The voice in our ear is our own fear of what will happen if we transition.
But we are half-sick of shadows.
Yes, when the Lady of Shalott gives in and looks down to Camelot, she dies. However, I see in the end of the poem not sadness but happiness. While the Lady is in the tower, no one knows she’s there. People pass by, none of them stop, none of them care, none of them even know she’s there. But when she finally leaves the tower, as she floats down to Camelot, as she sings her lonely song … everyone knows she’s there. And they all stop, and they all listen, and they all know. It’s bittersweet, for sure, but only by leaving the tower does the Lady become known.
The Lady of Shalott is cursed. So, too, have I felt cursed lately. Is my own lady hiding in my mental tower right now? She is. Does she look out at the world but never participate? She does. Am I half-sick of shadows? I am. Do I fear a curse will come upon me if I dare live that life? I do. In reading about, listening to, and talking to other trans women about their stories, I know what the consequences of letting the lady out may be. Friends abandon, family rejects, jobs go away, life becomes lonelier. A curse will come upon us if we look down to Camelot.
But in the end, the real curse of the Lady of Shalott was the tower itself. The curse was in her imprisonment, in forcing her to look out at the world but never be a part of it. Even though she died, she did so out in the open, not locked away. Her death is tragic, but her acknowledgement is fulfilling. Isn’t that what any of us want? To be acknowledged for who we are?
I’m not sure what to make of the role of Lancelot in the piece, except that maybe he stands for whatever element, moment, or desire finally tempts our Lady out of the tower. We’re all waiting for our Lancelot moment … and also dreading it. Curses and all that.
Perhaps I’m torturing the metaphor a bit. Apologies for that. But the kinship I feel with the Lady has been very strong lately. I’ve always been a fan of the poem (as a wannabe writer and sorta-artist, I can relate to its original meaning, too), and when I realized how apt her story was as a metaphor for my recent experience, I couldn’t resist exploring it further. Perhaps I’ve done an injury to literary criticism, but I don’t mind; literary critics always seemed like a bunch of stuck-up sticky-beaks anyway.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “The Lady of Shalott.” The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/shalott.htm
“‘The Lady of Shalott’.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Bloom’s Major Poets. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishing, 1998. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc.
A note about the artwork
All the images here are painting of the Lady of Shalott done by John William Waterhouse. I am a huge Waterhouse fan, and love the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in general. All the images came from JWWaterhouse.com.