“‘I am half-sick of shadows,’ said the Lady of Shalott”
Author: John William Waterhouse (English, 1849-1917)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Location: Art Gallery of Ontario
The Lady of Shalott is a Victorian ballad by the English poet Alfred Tennyson. Like his other early poems—Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere and Galahad—the poem recasts Arthurian subject matter loosely based on medieval sources.
The Lady of Shalott lives in an island castle in a river which flows to Camelot, but little is known about her by the local farmers. She suffers from a mysterious curse, and must continually weave images on her loom without ever looking directly out at the world. Instead, she looks into a mirror which reflects the busy road and the people of Camelot which pass by her island. The reflected images are described as “shadows of the world”, a metaphor that makes clear that they are a poor substitute for seeing directly (“I am half-sick of shadows”).
The poem was particularly popular amongst artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who shared Tennyson’s interest in Arthuriana. Several of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood made paintings based on episodes from the poem.
John William Waterhouse, who worked several decades after the breakup of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, painted three episodes from the poem. In 1888, Waterhouse painted the Lady setting out for Camelot in her boat. In 1894, he painted the Lady at the climactic moment when she turns to look at Lancelot in the window. And in 1915, he painted "I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott, as she sits wistfully before her loom.
a tall tree is being felled.
Search, birds, search
for the site of your nests
in this high memory
while it is still murmuring."
— Jules Supervielle