Above my desk at home hangs a framed poster of a painting by John William Waterhouse, a poster I have kept for almost thirty years. The painting is titled The Lady of Shalott, named after the famous poem of the same name by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I bought this poster in a poster shop on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, New York during my last year of my undergraduate education at Buffalo State College, after having taken an English literature class where I read the poem. While flipping through the posters, there it was, so of course, I had to buy it.
As you can hopefully see from this blurry closeup of a portion of my poster, the painting is haunting. If you are not familiar with the poem, it is a rhymed narrative poem, and the story goes like this: A young woman, The Lady herself, is doomed to a cursed life in a gray tower: She must weave day and night, and she must never look directly out her window or go outside. Instead, she weaves, on her loom, the sights she sees that take place out her window by viewing a mirror, which reflects what is behind her. She is content enough until she is content no more. There is so much going on without her!
The turning point is the appearance of Sir Lancelot, with his “coal-black curls,” beautiful horse and lovely song he sings. The Lady had had it. The stanza that follows her sighting is still just as powerful to me as when I first read it (I am transcribing it now from The Norton Anthology of English Literature that I’ve kept all these years as well):
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room
She saw the water lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
The poem continues, holding me rapt, as The Lady exits the tower as she is dying and writes her name across the bow of a little boat in the river nearby, knowing this is how she will be found. She will finally be part of the world, even if only in memory. She has decided her destiny, even if it means death.
Though one could say this is a poem about a woman who goes after a man even at her demise, this is not what draws me to The Lady. What draws me is that she made a choice. She took action. One could say that she didn’t have a choice because she was held captive by a curse that took away her freedom. But ultimately, she chose death; she chose choice even if it was an unfair choice. She chose. A Lady can be held down for only so long.
The curse is now upon women again, in 2022. And the witch is six-headed and black-robed. Again, we see an outside force deciding what should be done with our individual bodies. This particular outside force consists of a few people sitting in a room, batting around ideas written in a government document and applying those ideas to the anatomy of women and girls. A few people in a room have now decided that a few people in fifty other rooms can determine what every single woman and girl can or cannot do with their most personal selves. I am trying to describe this horror on the most basic level. We are so used to the abortion debate that we do not see that this should not even be a conversation. Whether or not a woman (or girl) gets an abortion should not and should never have been an agenda item on any government document.
Men, women, governments, churches: Keep your hands and decisions off my body. The Lady doesn’t need the knight anymore, and she never wanted the witch. She’s got her own money. She can vote. The Lady doesn’t need The Man. There is just so much more for her to do with her time.
In Volume 3, Issue 3 of Club Plum, women grapple with their forms in mirrors and paintings and bathrooms and alleys, still the object of eyes and fists in 2022. Presidents are volcanoes, but they are also queer and women, if not now then one day soon. We have to hope.
Yours in words and art,
Thea Swanson is a feminist atheist who holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University in Oregon. She is the Founding Editor of Club Plum Literary Journal, and her poetry, fiction, essays and reviews are published in places such as World Literature Today, Mid-American Review and Northwest Review.