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The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Tennyson
“The Lady of Shallot” is the narrative of a woman who lives in a tower on the island of Shallot, which is connected to Camelot by a river and a road. Each day, the woman weaves a tapestry depicting the scene visible from her window, which includes Camelot. However, she is cursed; the woman is unaware of the source of the curse, but she is aware that she is unable to look straight out the window, and thus views the themes of her artwork through a mirror beside her. The woman is content to weave, but is weary of viewing life just through the lens of reflection. Sir Lancelot passes by one day, looking dashing and handsome in his gleaming armour and singing. The woman walks over to the window and looks right out, and the moment she does, she realises she has been cursed. As a result, she leaves the tower, locates a boat by the river, writes “The Lady of Shallot” on the boat’s side, and floats downstream toward Camelot. She dies as she drifts along, singing and observing all of the sights that were previously forbidden to her. The boat cruises through Camelot, and while all of the knights make the sign of the cross upon seeing a corpse pass, Lancelot remarks, “She has a lovely face.”
Tennyson first published this poem in 1832, when he was 23 years old, in a compilation titled Poems. Tennyson had gained widespread critical praise and national prizes up to that point, but critics severely lambasted the 1832 collection, primarily due to poems such as “The Lady of Shallot” that dealt with mythical settings rather than actual ones. Tennyson’s greatest friend died the following year, 1833, which upset the poet as much as anything else in his life. For an extended stretch of time, during what became known as “the ten years’ silence,” nothing by Tennyson was published. In 1842, he published a new volume, likewise titled Poems, to widespread critical acclaim. The new book included a significantly updated version of “The Lady of Shallot,” which is the version currently studied.
The Lady of Shallot is a mystical lady who resides alone on an island above King Arthur’s Camelot. Her job is to use a mirror to view the world outside her castle window and to weave what she sees into a tapestry. She is forbidden by magic to look straight at the outside world. Farmers living on her island hear her singing and recognise her, but they never see her.
In her mirror, the Lady sees regular people, loving couples, and knights in pairs. She eventually finds Sir Lancelot riding alone in his reflection. Despite the fact that she is aware that it is forbidden, she gazes out the window at him. The mirror shattering, the tapestry flapping in the wind, and the Lady experiencing the full force of her curse.
A sudden fall storm erupts. The lady departs from her castle, locates a boat, signs her name on it, climbs aboard, sets it adrift, and sings her death song as she wanders down the river to Camelot. Locals discover the boat and body, recognise her identity, and are heartbroken. Lancelot prays to God for her soul’s salvation.
This is one of the most popular poems of Tennyson. The Pre-Raphaelites were fond of depicting it. Waterhouse painted “The Lady of Shalott” in three independent works. Agatha Christie created “The Mirror Cracked From Side to Side,” a Miss Marple mystery that was adapted into a film starring Angela Lansbury. Tirra Lirra by the River is the narrative of an Australian novelist’s decision to break free from imprisonment.
The poem was especially popular with Pre-Raphaelite artists, who shared Tennyson’s passion in Arthuriana; several members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painted scenes from the poem.
Tennyson’s writings were illustrated by William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti for the 1857 Moxon edition. Hunt depicted the Lady’s turn to see Lancelot. Lancelot’s gaze on her ‘beautiful face’ was represented by Rossetti. Neither illustration satisfied Tennyson, who chastised Hunt for representing the Lady entangled in the threads of her tapestry, a scene that does not occur in the poem. Hunt noted that he sought to capture the essence of the poem in a single image, and that her trapping by the threads alluded to her “abnormal fate.” Hunt was captivated by the sight and returned to it several times throughout his life, eventually painting a large-scale replica soon before his death. He required assistance because he was too feeble to finish it on his own. This intricately designed image of the Lady, trapped inside the flawless circles of her woven world, is a fitting representation of the weaving arts’ mythology. This piece is presently in the collection of the Hartford, Connecticut-based Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
John William Waterhouse depicted three scenes from the poem in his paintings. On 1888, he painted the Lady setting sail for Camelot in her boat; the Tate Gallery presently owns this painting. Waterhouse painted the Lady at the climactic moment when she turns to look at Lancelot through the window in 1894; this painting is now in the Leeds City Art Gallery. Waterhouse painted “I Am Half-Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott, in 1915; this painting is now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Because the stories are so similar, paintings of Elaine of Astolat frequently resemble those of the Lady of Shalott. One feature that differentiates them is the presence of a servant rowing the boat.
The poem begins with a description of a river and a road that pass through extensive fields of barley and rye on their way to Camelot. The residents of the town travel down the road and gaze down the river at an island called Shalott. Shalott is covered in a variety of flora and flowers, including lilies, aspens, and willows. A woman known as the Lady of Shalott is imprisoned on the island within a structure comprised of “four grey walls and four grey towers.”
Both “heavy barges” and small open boats travel to Camelot along the river’s shore. However, has anyone seen or heard of the lady who lives on the river island? The reapers who harvest the barley are the only ones who hear the echo of her singing. The exhausted reaper listens to her singing at night and whispers, “It is the fairy Lady of Shalott.”
The Lady of Shalott spins a wondrous, vibrant web. She has heard a voice whisper that if she looks down at Camelot, she will suffer a curse, which she is unaware of. As a result, she focuses exclusively on her weaving, never raising her eyes.
However, as she weaves, she is confronted by a mirror. She sees “shadows of the world” in the mirror, including the highway road, which also goes through fields, river eddies, and the town’s peasants. She also occasionally encounters a group of damsels, an abbot (church authority), a young shepherd, or a crimson-clad page. She occasionally sees a pair of knights riding by, despite the fact that she has no loyal knight of her own to court. Despite this, she enjoys her lonely weaving, albeit she shows displeasure with the world of shadows when she catches a glimpse of a funeral procession or a married couple in the mirror.
A knight in brass armour (“brazen greaves”) rides over the barley fields beside Shalott; the sun glistens on his armour. While he is riding, the stones on his horse’s bridle sparkle like a constellation of stars, and the bridle bells ring. As he gallops alongside the isolated island of Shalott, the knight carries a bugle on his sash and his armour creates ringing noises.
The gems on the knight’s saddle glitter in the “blue, cloudless weather,” giving him the appearance of a meteor in the purple sky. His brow sparkles in the sunlight, and his wavy black hair cascades out from beneath his helmet. As he travels by the river, his picture flashes into the mirror of the Lady of Shallot, and he sings “tirra lirra.” The Lady ceases weaving her web and abandons her loom upon seeing and hearing this knight. The web begins to fly from the loom, the mirror begins to fracture, and the Lady declares her impending doom: “The curse has come upon me.”
The Lady of Shalott descends from her tower and discovers a boat as the sky begins to pour and storm. She inscribes the words “The Lady of Shalott” around the boat’s bow and casts her gaze downstream to Camelot, as if a prophet foreseeing his own doom. She rests down in the boat in the evening, and the stream transports her to Camelot.
As she floats down to Camelot, the Lady of Shalott wears a pristine white gown and sings her final song. She sings until her blood turns to ice, her eyes darken, and she passes away. When her boat enters Camelot stealthily, all of Camelot’s knights, lords, and women come from their halls to witness the sight. They “cross…theirselves for fear” as they read her name on the bow. Only the noble knight Lancelot has the audacity to push aside the mob, examine the dead woman closely, and say, “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace.”
The poem has four parts, each of which has separate, isometric (equal-length) stanzas. Each of the first two parts contains four stanzas, while the final two parts comprise five. Each of the four parts concludes with directly cited speech: first, the reaper’s whispered identification, then the Lady’s half-sick sorrow, then the Lady’s proclamation of her doom, and finally, Lancelot’s blessing. Each stanza comprises nine lines that follow the AAAABCCCB rhyme system. In the fifth line, the “B” always stands for “Camelot,” while in the ninth, it stands for “Shalott.” The lines “A” and “C” are always tetrameter, but the lines “B” are trimeter. Additionally, the grammar is line-bound, with the majority of phrases not exceeding the length of a single line.
This poem was written in 1832, updated, and published in its final form in 1842. Tennyson stated that he based it on an Old Italian romance, although the poem also has a strong resemblance to Malory’s Morte d’Arthur’s account of the Maid of Astolat. Tennyson’s lyric, like Malory’s, contains references to the Arthurian story; in fact, “Shalott” appears to be remarkably similar to Malory’s “Astolat.”
The poem’s enchantment originates in large part from its feeling of mystery and elusiveness; however, these elements equally complicate the work of analysis. Nonetheless, most historians believe “The Lady of Shalott” is about the clash between art and life. The Lady, who weaves her magical web and sings her song in a remote tower, can be interpreted as a metaphor for the introspective artist who is removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life. A curse befalls her the instant she puts her painting aside to look down on the actual world, and she dies tragically. Thus, the poem portrays the tension between an artist’s desire for social involvement and his/her worries about whether such a commitment is feasible for someone dedicated to art. The poem may also express a more personal dilemma for Tennyson as an artist: while he felt an obligation to seek subject matter outside of his own mind and immediate experiences—to comment on politics, history, or a more general humanity—he also feared that this expansion into broader territories would destroy the magic of his poetry.
Parts I and IV of this poem are about the Lady of Shalott as she appears to the outer world, while Parts II and III are about the world as it seems to the Lady. Tennyson depicts the Lady in Part I as being cut off from the rest of the world by both water and the height of her tower. We are not told how she spends her time or what she thinks about; as a result, we are denied access to the interiority of her world, just like everyone else in the poem. Surprisingly, the only people who know she exists are individuals whose jobs are diametrically opposed to hers: reapers who toil in physical labour rather than sitting and creating works of art.
Part II discusses the Lady’s captivity experience from her own point of view. We learn that her estrangement is the product of a mystery curse: she is not permitted to look out on Camelot, thus her only knowledge of the world comes from the reflections and shadows in her mirror. (It was typical for weavers to use mirrors to see how their tapestries were progressing from the side that would eventually be displayed to the viewer.) Tennyson observes that she frequently witnesses a funeral or a wedding, a disjunction that emphasises the Lady’s interchangeability, and therefore the conflation, of love and death: indeed, when she subsequently falls in love with Lancelot, she will bring about her own death.
Whereas Part II refers to all of the numerous types of individuals the Lady sees in her mirror, including the knights who “come riding two and two” (line 61), Part III focuses on one specific knight who catches the Lady’s eye: Sir Lancelot. This magnificent knight is the star of the King Arthur legends, and he is best known for his clandestine liaison with the lovely Queen Guinevere. He is a “red-cross knight,” his shield “sparkled on the yellow field,” he wears a “silver bugle,” he passes through “blue unclouded weather” and “purple night,” and he has “coal-black curls.” He is also wearing a “gemmy bridle” and other bejewelled outfits that shimmer in the light. Despite the rich visual details provided by Tennyson, it is the sound of Lancelot, not his appearance, that compels the Lady of Shalott to cross her boundaries: only when she hears him sing “Tirra lirra” does she leave her web and seal her fate. The shift from the static, descriptive present tense of Parts I and II to the dynamic, active past of Parts III and IV marks the deepening of the Lady’s experiences in this part of the poem.
Part IV replaces the preceding section’s luscious hue with “pale yellow” and “darkened” eyes, while the brilliance of the sunshine is replaced by a “low sky raining.” The Lady is struck with death the instant she sets down her work to gaze upon Lancelot. As a result, the end of her artistic solitude means the end of her creativity: “Out flew her web and floated wide” (line 114). She also loses her mirror, which was her main means of communication with the outside world: “The mirror cracked from side to side” (line 115). Her departure from the outer world deprives her of both her art object and the instrument of her craft—as well as her very existence. Perhaps the greatest misfortune of all is that, despite surrendering herself to Lancelot’s gaze, she dies entirely underappreciated by him. The poem concludes with Lancelot’s tragic trifling answer to her immense passion: all he has to say about her is that “she has a lovely face” (line 169). After abandoning her talent, the Lady of Shalott becomes an art object; she can no longer provide her inventiveness, but only a “deadpale” beauty (line 157).
The Lady of Shalott: Themes
In this poem, the protagonist is ensnared by a spell without knowing where it came from or why it was cast on her, and without considering how to break it. She appears to accept it as her fate: “And so she weaveth steadily, / And little other care has she” the poem says (lines 43–44). The only condition of this unexplained curse is that she is unable to look out her window at the panorama of nature and humanity depicted in the poem’s first section. She does not appear to mind that she is cut off from direct contact with the outside world. She does not attempt to understand why she has been cursed in this manner. Tennyson does not attempt to explain the curse; he makes no attempt to explain why this woman is denied the immediate pleasures and difficulties of everyday life. Perhaps the poet intended for the psychology underlying her incarceration to be open-ended, inviting readers to interpret her circumstances and conduct in a variety of ways. The critical point is that she is isolated, compelled to watch the world indirectly through a mirror, and she does not appear to react to this privation until her initial apathy is overcome by her interest in gorgeous Lancelot.
Artifice and Art
The Lady of Shalott’s perception of reality is contingent upon the reflection in her mirror. While mirrors are often thought of as devices that exactly replicate the scene they reflect, their representations are not identical to reality. They invert the subject and reduce it to a two-dimensional plane. Furthermore, objects mirrored in this mirror are incapable of causing harm to the Lady of Shalott in the same manner that objects viewed directly can. Her artistic imagination further alters the mirrored landscapes of the Camelot countryside as she combines them into her tapestry: it is her delight “[t]o weave the mirror’s magic sights” (line 65). Thus, the Lady is shown as an artist, more concerned with her creative interpretation of her indirect experience than with her actual life experience. Indeed, she exemplifies the nineteenth-century emphasis on the artist’s challenges and concerns. The reality, as she knows it is flat yet, imparts a sense of depth; she creatively changes that reality with her brilliant threads while also rendering it two-dimensional. By glancing out the window, she confronts genuine reality, shattering the mirror she no longer requires and thereby destroying her creation. Reality obliterates the art she has produced.
Numerous scholars assert that the Lady of Shalott dies of a broken heart as a result of her unexpected infatuation with the dazzlingly handsome Lancelot and his refusal to reciprocate her passion. This interpretation holds true for the original tale that inspired the piece; in the storey of Elaine of Astolat, Elaine indeed faces rejection. The Lady of Shalott, on the other hand, is a variation on that character in a number of ways. Tennyson renamed Astolat Shalott, an ancient variant of the name. Lancelot and the Lady never meet in his poem; when he finally sees her, dead in her boat, he exhibits belated interest.
Readers are informed of Lancelot’s physical allure long before the Lady is. He is characterised as having a broad, clean brow; his shield depicts a knight kneeling before a lady; and his saddle is jewelled. However, it is the sound of his wonderful singing that entices the Lady to glance out the window. Immediately upon seeing him, her weaving literally flies out the window, and her mirror shatter. “‘The curse is come upon me'” she says (line 116).
This reaction can be interpreted symbolically. Distracted by Lancelot, she attracts the curse. The curse may be interpreted as the loss of her ability to perceive the world creatively. In other words, she loses her ability to keep her mind focused on work. The cracked mirror, in turn, symbolises that she can no longer confine herself to the artwork once her interest in another person takes her into the wider world. She is not “rejected” by Lancelot in this version because he is unaware of her until the very end; still, she is so drawn to him that she ends her own life to see the face that goes with that voice.
The Lady of Shalott does not perish instantly upon realising she has been cursed. Even if her exposure to the real world results in her death, it also results in her being able to express herself directly in the world. She exits the tower, locates a boat, and signs it with her title before reclining in it and casting off. Her journey down the river serves as a passive introduction to the realm of action. Alternatively, it might be interpreted as her submission to her emotions. Curiously, even though Lancelot is the one who diverts her attention away from her weaving and therefore seals her fate, her final deed is unfocused on him. She allows the river to carry her whither it will, past all of the people and places she has only partially intuited in the mirror, and she sings, expressing herself to the world around her at this moment.
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