17

In Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott" there is the following verse:

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
    To look down to Camelot.

She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
    The Lady of Shalott.

(Emphasis mine).

Now part of her curse, as I understand it, is that she cannot leave Shalott, and cannot look out the windows because she may see Camelot. So why is it stay? She has to stay! Shouldn't it be stray? As in her eyes stray to look out the window to Camelot?

10

The word stay here means stop or pause. From Merriam-Webster:

intransitive verb

1: to stop going forward : pause

2: to stop doing something : cease

Or from the Macmillan dictionary:

4 [transitive] formal to stop something such as a court case from continuing
The defence has filed a petition to stay proceedings.

The sense is:

If the lady stops her weaving in order to look down to Camelot, a curse will take effect.

The lines you've quoted are from the 1842 version of the poem, which uses stay intransitively and obscures the sense a bit. The corresponding lines in the 1833 version use the verb transitively, and make the sense clearer:

No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmed web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving
, either night or day,
    To look down to Camelot.

(Emphasis added)

That of course is exactly what happens. The lady sees Lancelot in the mirror, stops weaving, and rushes to the window to catch a further glimpse of him as he rides down to Camelot. This sets the curse in motion.

8

The full sentence of these two lines is:

A curse is on her if she stay to look down to Camelot

The translation of this verse to modern prose would be:

She will be cursed if she keeps looking at Camelot and not on her weaving

Therefore she focuses on her weaving intently, but gets captivated by the reflections of the outside world in her mirror. And of course she eventually looks out and becomes cursed.

TL;DR: She started looking at Camelot, she's cursed if she doesn't stop that

  • Except that she does not need to repeatedly look outside the window to Camelot for the curse to take effect. Just one look is enough. – verbose Jan 25 '17 at 19:17
  • @verbose I understood the poem to mean not repeatedly, but if she continues to.. – Riker Jan 25 '17 at 19:17
  • Even so; she isn't looking at Camelot at all. She's looking at a mirror. The only time she sees Camelot directly is when she looks out the window after Lancelot. So the question of continuing to see Camelot doesn't arise. – verbose Jan 25 '17 at 19:36

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