One of the earliest interpretations of The Lady of Shalott, that I was taught, and still one of my favorites, is that it was an allegory for the life of an artist. Tennyson was saying that he believed that the artist must remain removed from life, an observer of it only, if he wished to create art or poetry. If one became too immersed in life the reality of it, the ugliness that it contained, would overwhelm the artist and he would loose his gift. Thus the Lady of Shalott is in her ‘ivory tower’, not only above the life going on below her, but also only observing it through a mirror. In this way she only apprehends images of life and nature not their reality, she sees the shadows of the world (line 48) but not the world itself. The language of the poem reflects this romanticized view of the world. This is a place where everything is picturesque. ‘Little breezes dusk and shiver’ (line 11) while shallops with silken sails skim down the river (line 22) all in ‘unclouded weather’ under a ‘dazzling sun’ (line 75). Even funerals, normally dark and somber affairs, become mystical with their plumes, lights and music as they move through the ‘purple night’ (96). At the centre of the poem’s images is the most romantic ideal of all, the kingdom of Camelot.
The world does not see the Lady of Shalott either. It hears her singing, and has knowledge of her art but not of the artist herself. This inner life of the artist is something that the world cannot truly understand only guess at by interpreting what they see in the artist’s work. Thus the reapers believe the Lady of Shalott to be a fairy, a mystical being, rather than a flesh and blood woman (35-36).
Into this world of idealized shadows rides what is probably one of the best known illusions of all, Sir Lancelot. When the Lady of Shalott sees Lancelot in the mirror she sees the image of a chivalrous and handsome knight, a knight that we know, courtesy of Mallory, has already, or soon will, seduce another woman away from her ‘duty’. The image on his shield, that of a knight kneeling before a lady, is highly ironic given that Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere destroyed not only the harmony of Camelot but also the lady he professed to love. But the Lady of Shalott doesn’t see Lancelot’s true nature. She sees exactly what Lancelot wants the world to see, a loyal and true knight’ (line 62). This image is so appealing that it draws her away from her loom and she looks out the window seeing the world directly for the first time. What is interesting in the poem is that the description that Tennyson gives of what the Lady sees includes no mention of Lancelot himself. She sees the water lily, the castle at Camelot and Lancelot’s helmet and plume (111-113). Perhaps in this moment she realizes that the man does not live up to his image. This confrontation with reality causes the tapestry (web) to disintegrate and the loom to break. The Lady’s art, and her ability to create it is destroyed.
The last part of the poem is the most poignant. Laying in her boat while she dies the Lady of Shalott literally becomes her last work of art, what we would call, today, performance art. Tennyson describes her in a robe of snowy white floating gently down the river singing as she dies. Eventually she arrives at the kingdom that she has so long idealized in her tapestries. Lying dead-pale (line 157) in her boat ‘gleaming’ (line 156) as she floats by her appearance is so extraordinary that she draws the castle occupants away from their revels and stuns them into silence.
As an allegory for the life of an artist I think that Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott works very well. It shows how the artist must idealize the world around them, to not see what is ugly and filled with despair. It also shows how the world reacts to the artist’s need for this emotional distance, filling in the blanks as it were, with their own interpretations. Tennyson’s artist is also, ultimately, unknowable save by the art they leave behind them and even that is subject to misinterpretation. When Lancelot sees the Lady of Shalott he remarks that she has a lovely face (line 169) apparently content not to solve the mystery of who she was or how she came to be there.