Dispatches | October 20, 2010

At the age of 12, I was enamored with Anne of Green Gables—not the books, but the film series that PBS released in three parts in the mid-80’s. The first movie opens with Anne reading aloud from a book of poetry as she walks through the woods. The poem she reads, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” is the first I ever memorized, when, after falling in love with the movie—more particularly, the character Anne—I decided that an ability to recite the poem would allow me to “become” the fictional character I idolized. (I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, so I won’t go into detail about the damaging effects a subsequent recitation of the poem to my sixth-grade class had on my already tenuous coolness factor. Sigh.)

The poem’s regular meter and rhyme scheme made it easy to memorize. During my teenage years it became so much a part of me that I’d find myself reciting it to the rhythms of my footfalls during a jog or internally repeating it to calm myself down during tense moments—like driver’s ed, or my first snowboarding lesson. In the last ten years or so, as a “serious poet,” I’d begun to think of the poem as silly: a mawkish, Victorian construction and a remnant of my idealistic childhood self that I was happy to dismiss. It’s true that the poem is highly sentimental and that some of my bad habits as a beginning poet might be traced back to the overly-aestheticized language and heightened emotion I once admired. However, it wasn’t until revisiting the poem today that I was finally grateful to my childhood self for committing it to memory.

I learned the poem at such an impressionable time that I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. However, returning to it in print, I noticed a number of things I hadn’t seen before. For one thing, in some places I’d had the poem dead wrong. At 12 I’d substituted words I knew for the ones I didn’t understand: “world” for “wold,” for instance, and “contentance” (guess I made that one up!), for “countenance.” For another thing, reading the poem on the page made me more attentive to the meter than I’d ever been before. While most of the lines are in iambic tetrameter (“On either side the river lie/ long fields of a barley and of rye”), quite a few, I now see, take a trochaic meter. One of the delightful things about the poem is its incantatory quality in places and its ability, in other places, to be subtly unsettling without an obvious change in tone—both of which qualities I think owe a great deal to the poem’s meter.

In the story, the Lady is imprisoned in “remote Shalott,” her only window to the outside world a mirror through which she sees the shadows of human activity in the city of Camelot. She doesn’t have much time to think about what’s she’s missing though because she must constantly weave a magic tapestry, and she knows she is threatened with a curse “if she stay/ to look down on Camelot.” Tennyson’s opening description of the outside world—fields and sky and the highway that travelers follow to Camelot—is all done in regular iambic meter, conveying the sense that all is as it should be with the world. But when he shifts to a description of the island of Shalott with its blowing lilies, the poem also shifts meter, the troches insinuating that something about the island is not quite right.

In fact, Tennyson seeds the poem with trochaic shifts throughout, sustaining the eerie, supernatural mood. Sometimes the effect of this metric shift is to slow the poem down for a moment, so that, for instance the “heavy barges trail’d/ by slow horses” do, indeed, seem slow. Other times the poem reads like the casting of a spell, as it does at the onset of the lady’s curse: “In the stormy east-wind straining/ the pale yellow woods were waining.” (Reading this again I thought of the witches in Macbeth—Double, double, toil and trouble. There’s definitely something about trochaic meter that makes the reader feel unsettled). Moreover, rather brilliantly, after a long stretch of iambic lines (describing Sir Lancelot, his flowing hair, his manly features that the Lady sees and admires), Tennyson inserts the crux of the poem as a trochaic line–“She looked down to Camelot”—and then returns to iambs again.

And finally, I got it. I had been misreading the poem all along. My misreading had hinged on a single word, which, as a 12-year-old, I hadn’t understood: the curse depended upon the lady “stay[ing] to look down on Camelot.” I had always interpreted this as remaining. That is, as I read it, the Lady knew she was cursed if she stayed there in her tower, looking down on Camelot, but she somehow preferred this to the uncertainty of the outside world and so she refused to leave. The curse finally caught up to her. Staying, I now see, is intended in its other sense. The lady was cursed if she stayed, as in stopped, her work to look at the outside world—to really look at Camelot rather than relying on the visions in her mirror. There’s a parallel to Blake’s Innocence and Experience or the Tree of Knowledge there. As long as the lady remains in her state of innocence, content in her work, sheltered from the outside world, she is safe. But when she sees Sir Lancelot, when she becomes aware of sexual desire and the temptations of a world outside her protected home, she encounters the promised curse. The consequence of her trespass is death.

Re-visiting this familiar poem surprised me on a number of levels. Tennyson’s attention to prosody, which I had planted so deeply in my memory has I think, surfaced in fruitful ways in my own work all these years later. I’ve wondered why sometimes I get a rhythm in my head before I even know what a poem I’m working on wants to say. Perhaps, just perhaps, Tennyson has something to do with it. And while “The Lady of Shalott” can certainly be faulted for its sentimentality and romantic sweetness, there’s something to be said about the pleasure it gave me as a child, back when I still had the ability to read a poem without the critic’s voice in the back of my head, when I could enjoy the way the rhythms transported me, the way its sounds felt good in my mouth. I suppose that’s my own transition from innocence to experience—a diminished ability to relish a good poem without wanting to take it apart, without finding fault. On the other hand, maybe such notions are just a return to that old idealism. I’m glad to find there are complexities of the poem that I can appreciate now in a way I couldn’t before—glad to see that after carrying a poem with me for years, I can still uncover new layers. And I guess that’s one of the wonderful things about a good poem: that it can open itself to the reader inexhaustibly. That it never stops unfolding in new and unexpected ways.