Tennyson’s Lady

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.

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4 Responses to Tennyson’s Lady

  1. mrubling says:

    Interesting post! I found this poem really alludes to the life of a Victorian artist. She works on her tapestry in a secluded tower, much like a Victorian artist isolated from daily social life. As mentioned in class, the Victorian era was a period of progress/transition and many such as Tennyson were turning to the past for inspiration (the poems within Idylls of the King taking place in the medieval times, Ulysses and The Lotos-Eaters in the mythological past).
    These artists seem disillusioned from their own social environment and so retreat into the past, longing for a time of romantic possibilities and peaceful rural/pastoral settings. Although they might’ve felt the urge to make statements on their own contemporary Victorian social and political problems, I feel like they tried to avoid a direct approach to such topics and rather chose to address those issues under the disguise medieval legend or Christian allegory.

  2. carlyferguson1 says:

    Whoa interesting post. I never thought of this poem as an allegory for the life of an artist. But while reading your analysis so many of the things you mentioned automatically made me to draw many similarities between Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. Although different, Plato used shadows in a cave versus life outside to create a metaphor to depict reality and perceptions. Much like Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot, all these character know is shadows, light, noise and no real idea as to what reality is really like other than the reflections or shadows they see.

  3. mdrvodelic says:

    I really liked how you focused on the visual, artsy side of the poem. When you mentioned the artist must remain removed from life and if one becomes too immersed in life then the artist would lose their gift, is interesting because that’s exactly what happens the the Lady of Shalott. She becomes so infatuated with breaking the curse, with wanting to find her love that she immerses herself into the reality of life and falls prey. She did not remove her art from life. Life stole her focus, leading to her losing her gift and her life.
    A very thoughtful post! I really liked it!

  4. nicolericher says:

    I loved this post. The first time I read The Lady of Shalott, that was the base interpretation taught to me as well. I think that her disappointment coming face-to-face with reality is more heartbreaking than the idea that she died a subject of unrequited love (we have Shakespeare for that.) That being addressed, I wonder if Tennyson fully intended this interpretation when he wrote that “she knows not what the curse may be,” (42) so that we as readers could construe our own meanings towards what the curse would and could mean. In the artist versus reality/society interpretation, “little other care hath she” (44) for that would mean pondering the reality of her circumstance, and thus, pondering harsh realities of the world outside her art – which is essentially looking away from her mirror-world, is it not?

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