An introduction to ‘The Lady of Shalott’

An introduction to ‘The Lady of Shalott’

An Arthurian legend inspired one of Tennyson's most famous poems. Dr Stephanie Forward considers how 'The Lady of Shalott' reflects contemporary questions of gender and creativity, and provided the subject for works by artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt.

Tennyson was fascinated by medieval literature and culture, and had a particular interest in Arthurian legends. He was drawn to the romance of a lost era and its chivalric code.

His original version of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ had twenty stanzas, and was written when he was just 22. It was included in Poems: a volume published towards the end of 1832, although its title page bore the date 1833. Tennyson claimed that he based the poem on an Italian work, Donna di Scalotta, which was from a collection called Centro Novelle Antiche (i.e. One Hundred Ancient Novellae). The poet was distressed and daunted by the negative reviews of some critics, including a particularly insulting article by John Wilson Croker in The Quarterly Review (6 April, 1833). Subsequently he revised his poem, removing one of the stanzas, and it was republished in 1842.

The Moxon illustrated edition of Tennyson's Poems

The Moxon illustrated edition of Tennyson's Poems [page: [67]]

William Holman Hunt’s illustration to ‘The Lady of Shalott’ from the Moxon edition of Tennyson’s Poems, 1857. Hunt later turned the image into a painting.

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The Lady and Sir Lancelot

Use of the present tense and a steady rhyme scheme of aaaabcccb imbue the verse with a feeling of intimacy and immediacy. At the same time, Tennyson conveys the repetitive, monotonous nature of the Lady’s life, trapped within ‘Four gray walls, and four gray towers’, on a ‘silent isle’. She is weaving ‘A magic web with colours gay’, while ‘Shadows of the world appear’ in a mirror. In contrast to her passivity, the world outside is described as full of activity. Beyond the tower and the island, the bustle of everyday life proceeds: ‘up and down the people go’; the wave ‘runs for ever’; ‘The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d’; the harvesters reap and pile up the sheaths; ‘The knights come riding two and two’, and so on. The isolated Lady becomes ‘half sick of shadows’, but she is conscious that a curse will come upon her if she looks down directly at Camelot.

Tennyson’s stunningly evocative description of the dynamic Sir Lancelot is enhanced by the skilful use of alliteration. When the Lady catches sight of him in ‘the crystal mirror’, she is distracted from her labours. Critics have noted that Sir Lancelot’s ‘Tirra lirra’ echoes the song of Autolycus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. In the Bard’s play the refrain is about ‘tumbling in the hay’, hence the poet may be implying that the Lady is sexually frustrated.

The impact of the climactic 13th stanza is achieved, in part, by repetition of the word ‘She’. The Lady suddenly becomes active, rather than sitting passively at her loom. However, when she ventures to look down to Camelot, tragedy ensues:

Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Leaving the tower she gets into a boat and floats towards Camelot, robed in virginal ‘snowy white’. Sir Lancelot gazes down upon her corpse. Ironically he does not realise the extent of her yearning for him. The dead Lady’s love is unrequited: he simply comments on her ‘lovely face’.

Interpretations

Tennyson’s poem lends itself to a number of possible interpretations. The Lady’s confinement and the limitations of her life may invite comparisons with the restricted routines imposed on women in Victorian times. In the 19th century they were expected to devote themselves to the domestic sphere of marriage and motherhood; to uphold moral values, and promote harmony in the home. To a degree, then, the isolated Lady in the tower reflects the concept of purity: a passive, cloistered woman would be safe from unchaste behaviour. The ethereal, silent Lady is nameless, identified by her location and defined by expectations of ‘acceptable’ feminine activity. ‘Bold’ Sir Lancelot, on the other hand, is free to engage with the public realm.

Another view is that Tennyson is saying something about the isolation experienced by creative people, and implying that artistic endeavour conflicts with life. The Lady can be seen as a representative figure. Secluded in the tower she works industriously; but when she is disturbed by the attractive knight she is doomed. During the course of his career Tennyson often felt overwhelmed by his celebrity status, which impinged upon his privacy and interrupted his writing.

The mirror and the loom may bear symbolic meanings. Weaving can be interpreted as a metaphor for female creativity; whereas the cracking mirror can signify the Lady’s ‘cracking’ sanity. Alternatively, a practical explanation has been identified: weavers did actually use mirrors, placing them behind tapestries during their creation. This enabled craftsmen to assess the effect of their handiwork.

Depictions

Many artists were inspired to produce interpretations of Tennyson’s poem, including Pre-Raphaelites William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John William Waterhouse. In 1850 Hunt began to depict the Lady at various stages in her life. Decades later, his oil painting of 1905 shows how potent his desire remained to evoke the spirit of the Lady. A Waterhouse painting of 1888 shows the Lady seated in the boat, drifting ‘down the river’s dim expanse’ to her doom. Key scenes captured the imagination of these artists.

In 1857 the publisher Edward Moxon produced a lavish de-luxe edition of Tennyson’s poems, priced at 32 shillings. This contained 54 wood-engraved illustrations, including contributions by Pre-Raphaelites. Rossetti chose to focus on the final scene of the poem, with Lancelot looking down upon the dead Lady. Hunt produced a woodblock engraving to express the Lady’s feelings in the 13th stanza. His portrayal suggests that she is experiencing the dawning of sexual desires and energy. Her behaviour subverts gender norms. Although Hunt presents her with a seemingly strong facial expression and stance, she is entangled in the threads of her tapestry. Tennyson did not describe this scene in his poem, and the poet and his family disapproved of such artistic licence.

Frederick Tennyson lamented: ‘How vilely the Artists have treated my brother.’[1] The poet’s wife, Emily, was unhappy because the illustrations were inaccurate: ‘even in those things that are fine in themselves, there is for the most part some departure from the story’.[2]

The Moxon illustrated edition of Tennyson's Poems

The Moxon illustrated edition of Tennyson's Poems [page: 75]

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s design for ‘The Lady of Shalott’ from the Moxon Tennyson, 1857.

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Footnotes

[1] Cited in Ann Thwaite, Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), p. 322.

[2] Ibid., p. 322.

  • Stephanie Forward
  • Dr Stephanie Forward is a lecturer, specializing in English Literature. She has been involved in two important collaborative projects between the Open University and the BBC: The Big Read, and the television series The Romantics, and was a contributor to the British Library’s Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians site and to the 20th century site. Stephanie has an extensive publications record. She also edited the anthology Dreams, Visions and Realities; co-edited (with Ann Heilmann) Sex, Social Purity and Sarah Grand, and penned the script for the C.D. Blenheim Palace: The Churchills and their Palace.

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