The Lady of Shalott
The Victorian era in England is one that was witness to an explosion in romantic and classical art. Going back to the Renaissance and even the ancient classical myths that were the inspiration of grave tragedy and ecstatic aestheticism, Tennyson like many others of this period sought to capture what was in essence only attainable through the arts. In his poem "The Lady of Shallot", this is precisely what he did. Tennyson's symbolism of humanity's struggle with its own identity, its perceptions of social and natural reality as well as its place in the world are all presented in this poem in a thought provoking manner. What will be done here in this paper is a closer look at the symbolism expressed in the image of the mirror that the lady is in view of, as well as some of the other poetic features that serve to communicate the predicament of the human experience.
The great Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) wrote two versions of his famous ballad "The Lady of Shalott," a 20-stanza version in 1833, and a 19-stanza version in 1842. Both are quite similar, and retells an aspect of Arthurian legend, a theme explored by Tennyson in several other of his works, including:
- Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere
- Idylls of the King
With "The Lady of Shalott," Tennyson uses the legend of Elaine of Astolat, drawing upon a 13th century Italian novella. In the original Arthurian legend, Elaine dies because of her unrequited love for Lancelot. In the poem, The Lady of Shalott lives in an island castle on a river that flows to Camelot, suffering from some mysterious curse. Constantly, she must weave on her loom, but not look out on the world. One day, Sir Lancelot rides by and is seen by the lady. She leaves her castle, gets into a boat, but dies before reaching Camelot.
Several painters in the 19th century depicted scenes from Tennyson's poem. John William Waterhouse painted three different pieces, all inspired by "The Lady of Shalott." Additionally, many writers have alluded to the work, specifically using the line "I am sick of shadows." Many literary critics see aspects of feminism in the work, as the Lady of Shalott breaks free from her emotional and physical bonds in order to find love on her own terms.
the world outside Shalott sees her like she sees them, in a shadowy manner. Since the residents of that 'real' world are graced with but casual and rare glimpses of the Lady, she is given the title of 'fairy.' Indeed, this is a most appropriate title for her, since, like all mythical and legendary creatures, she is known not only by word of mouth by those who are so lucky to have 'seen' her, but by way of pseudo-sensual representation that yield nothing more than distant, intangible, unempirical evidence of her presence. This is very much like the early tales of fairies. One had never been caught, nor properly observed, yet many people faithfully believed in them nonetheless. Another form that the mirror takes on is that of a door. For not only does it provide knowledge about some other world where the lady is indefinitely cut off from, but it hints of serving as a doorway through which persons can come in through and go out of. Although not fully promising to allow entrance through it, the mirror nevertheless appears as if it could be such a means of transportation. The poem tells us that "sometimes through the mirror blue, the knights come riding two and two (Eliot, 16)." This verse suggests that there are not only visions seen through it but interaction between the two worlds, though subtle in their actions. The Lady probably feels the rush of the horses as they ride by, the smells of the knights' leather mail, the sounds of their hooves as they gallop through and all other wondrous, but brief, sensations associated with the distant encounters.