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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

31 July 2020

The lockdown causes Malcolm Guite to see Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott in a new light

I HAVE been turning the pages of some of my Tennysoniana, prompted, I think, by my recent boating adventures on the familiar Cam and the less familiar Broads. The willow-veiled margins of the Cam had, of course, taken me back to those lines in “The Lady of Shalott”:

By the margin, willow veil’d,

Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d,
Skimming down to Camelot.

And I suppose the venerable walls and towers of the riverside colleges might count as a kind of Camelot. The wider expanses of the Broads brought to mind that mysterious and misty mere where Sir Bedivere “heard the water lapping on the crag, And the long ripple washing in the reeds”, and where, finally, on the third time of asking, he flung Excalibur, shining under “the splendour of the moon” and saw, rising from the water “an arm Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful”, catching the sword and drawing it “under in the mere”.

I did not encounter any lady of the lake on either of my expeditions, but, when I came home, I took out, as I say, my Tennysoniana and indulged myself. Among my books is The Tennyson Family Album, with a foreword by John Betjeman, and it’s wonderful to see Tennyson’s gradual development in person, poetry, and, indeed, appearance.

I especially like the later Tennyson, with his dark, unkempt locks, his ever-lengthening beard and increasingly craggy face, crowned with that black, broad-brimmed, wideawake hat: a man who was, as Carlyle said, “always carrying a bit of chaos around with him which he slowly manufactured into cosmos”. Glancing at my reflection in the window of my study as I reshelved the books, I was suddenly aware that my own “lockdown locks” and lengthening beard seem to be increasing my general tendency to become Tennyson.

Lockdown has certainly made me read him in a new light, and returning, once more, to “The Lady of Shallot”, it occurred to me that she really is an emblem of our times: there she is, “embowered” in her “Four grey walls, and four grey towers”, islanded and in isolation. And, what is more, her only way of seeing the outside world is through a screen:

And moving thro’ a mirror clear

That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear. 

How poignantly she feels her loneliness when, only on her “screen”, she sees the images of those who are in love and can be with one another:

Or when the moon was overhead,

Came two young lovers lately wed:
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

Alas, her fate also reflects the fate of some among us, when, for love of Lancelot, she “lifts her lockdown”, turns away from the web, and looks down to Camelot. And it is Lancelot himself, the unwitting cause of her demise, who must whisper over her a final prayer, the last lines of the poem: “God in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott.”

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