Mermaids of Death: Floating Girls in Art, Poetry and PASADENA
What is it about women and water that captures the imagination? Mermaids, naiads, undines, sirens, Rusalka, La Llorona, the Lady of the Lake—these images of women in the water, often personifying death to passersby—where do they come from? And what is the appeal? I collect images of water women. Maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces and water is my element. Or because I love the work of certain artists who, like my favorite poet, T.S. Eliot,” heard the mermaids singing each to each” and could not resist their call.
There’s tragedy in these water-bound women. Rusalka and La Llorona are in constant mourning, the former having been murdered, the latter for having murdered her own children. But these are myths, supernatural manifestations, the afterlife of the drowned.
Some victims never rise.
Ophelia (lushly depicted by here by the wonderful Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais) went mad after the death of her father at the hands of her betrothed, Hamlet.
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element; but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Ophelias abound in contemporary literature. There’s an entire series of books focused on saving, understanding, or raising a young Ophelia. She has become a cypher for the lost teenage girl, a Persephone for the modern age. Shakespeare cleverly tapped into the older myth of the young Spring goddess kidnapped by Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Perhaps that’s why she echoes in my mind.
Another Pre-Raphaelite artist, John William Waterhouse, tackled the Arthurian subject of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott.
A curse was laid upon the lady, should she dare to look upon the world directly. Instead she watches the world through a mirror until she is “half-sick of shadows.” It’s the sight of the brilliant Sir Lancelot on his way to Camelot that brings her to the window, and her death in a small boat, sailing after the knight.
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 pale, pale corpse she floated by,
Dead cold, between the houses high,
Dead into tower’d Camelot.
The Lady of Shalott, Alfred Lord Tennyson
It’s unclear who laid the curse upon this lady, but isn’t it a familiar danger for girls everywhere? Be careful, little girl. The world is a dangerous place. Dress as you want, and the world might hurt you. Speak your mind, and the world might shut you up. We wouldn’t want you to come to any harm.
La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche—who knows what her story might be? What brings the man with the bagpipes to the shore to see her holy presence fade? Some say she is a Christian martyred by a pagan king. Or, perhaps she is an allegory for the muse? The story is an untold one, but the mystery behind her fate consumes us.
I own each of this images, and more. But, remarkably, it was only today, while floating in my own swimming pool, that I realize I’ve added to the genre.
My floating girl, Maggie Kim, has little in common with Ophelia, the Young Martyr, or the Lady of Shallot on the surface. She’s a modern day glamour girl living in the California sun. Or, at least she was. What felled Maggie Kim? Was it love? Was it sorrow? Was it the wicked world outside?
You’ll have to wait for the book to find out.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot