While on our Sunday canoe, paddling through the more gentle waters of the summery River Severn, a bizarre mantra entered my head. As the sun dappled and shimmered on the water and the delicate branches of willows brushed the glimmering surface, a single line from Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott ran round and round my head; following the rhythm of the paddle and echoing the beat of moving water.
The head on wind made me understand just how wonderful an eddy really is. Sheltered from the breeze (or gale force wind!) such a river corner is a true blessing for the watery traveller. When in want of a much needed respite, directing the canoe into an eddy brought not only relief to poor underused muscles but an understanding of just how beautiful and inspiring our waterways are. The gentle lull and pull of water around our man-made craft highlighted our vulnerability to the elements, to nature and its resolute path to wherever it desires. Even when seemingly calm and still and silent, something treacherous and dangerous lurks; the undercurrent cutting away at the river bank waits to spume foreign bodies back into the flow, out from safety to be flushed away.
But there is a moment just before you realise the gentle ebb is pulling you backwards when everything is utterly serene. The metronomic click of the paddle is replaced with the breeze whistling and fluttering through the young spring leaves; the lap of water graces the ears as birds and bugs alternate their songs and buzzing to add to the orchestra’s delicate tune. Everything seems to glow golden and happy, warm and content. Hypnotically lulling into a false sense of security. Then you are spun, slowly at first, backwards with the current and pushed back into moving water, the ripples carrying you over the rocks and the journey, and song, moves on.
So much of this journey kept my mind on The Lady of Shalott. It is a poem I know well, but not to recite unfortunately. I have taught its narrative and terrible sadness on many an occasion. Despite the tragic sentiment to the story of the cursed weaver, trapped in her tower on a lonely, river-locked island, the lasting pictures in my head are of the incredible natural beauty. Tennyson wrote of the river with such artistic flare that there are certain images imprinted on my mind forever; the world clothed in barley and rye, aspens quivering in the breeze which tickle the water as it flows beneath, the water’s path veiled in willows with their mournful bow and, of course, blooming water lilies in the whirling eddies. My weekend’s journey may not have been flanked by reapers or red cloaked market girls and the gallant plumes of Lancelot were not seen (unless we count Steve’s ensemble – not quite knightly!) but all in all, I could well imagine the potency of the cursed Lady’s obsession with the outside world.
The sterile closeting away from nature and beauty and company would drive anyone to distraction, to insanity and beyond. All the comings and goings of the world seen through her mirror must have been torture. I think, for me, it would not have been Lancelot which turned my head. I would long cast aside my weaved web to hang my head in the sunshine, drink in the air and breeze, and all the sights and sounds of the river alone.
For now I choose to leave aside the sad focus of Tennyson’s tale and celebrate his vision of nature and the unpredictable beauty which it brings to life. And dream of our next opportunity to indulge first hand.