Audio transcript

This painting, by William Waterhouse, is Henry Tate’s original gift to the nation, around which the rest of the collection has been formed. It shows his taste for sentimental paintings often of literary subjects. The Lady of Shalott is the eponymous heroine of a poem by Tennyson.

Imprisoned in a tower on the island of Shalott, near King Arthur’s court at Camelot, she’s cursed to spend her time weaving at a loom. More than this, she must live with her back turned to the world and see only its reflection in a mirror as she works. But, the mere glimpse of the handsome and courageous knight Lancelot is more than she can possibly resist and she turns and faces him directly. The curse is enacted and her punishment is to drift in an open boat towards Camelot.

In his painting, William Waterhouse shows her embarkation on this final journey: two of the three candles that represent her life have been extinguished, her grip on the boat’s chain is loosening, and the words of ‘her last song’, as related in the poem, are on her lips.

What follows is the last part of Tennyson’s poem:

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

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right--
The leaves upon her falling light--
Thro' the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken'd wholly,
Turn'd to tower'd Camelot.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross'd 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.