In Sharyn R. Udall's reading of William Holman Hunt's Lady of Shalott, drawn for the Moxon Tennyson, she draws upon the association between textiles and texts: "In one recent, widely applied observation, Roland Barthes characterized the weaver as a maker of not just textiles but texts. Thus, weaving can be seen as a metaphor for writing or, more broadly, for creativity" (35). When placed over the "Lady of Shalott," this interpretive lens characterizes the lady as an artist figure through which Tennyson and Hunt can discuss problems of artistic production. The idea of a text as textile, something purposefully produced, focuses on the materiality of the art-object and the agency of its creator. We are forced to look at the poem and its accompanying illustration somewhat as lines produced on a page, as form opposed to content.
A dedication to formal rigor characterizes Tennyson's poetry, as well as the lady's weaving. It sometimes operates in a similar manner to the unknown curse which forces the lady's continued artistry. Formal structure separates Tennyson's poetry from the parlance and attitudes adopted in normal social discourse. So too does the lady's obsessive weaving prevent her from having for herself the speech of those "two lovers lately wed" that she overhears inside the tower. Form therefore becomes a limiting, though necessary, bind for the artist figure.
W. Holman Hunt stresses this artistic bind in his illustration for Tennyson's poem. He captures the lady at the moment of her rebellion against form (when she turns from her weaving to glimpse the outside world). In a detail absent from Tennyson's poem, wild threads of the lady's tapestry entwine around her. The tables have turned here: formal features overtake the artist when her attention strays from them, as artificial constructs, to the content of the actual world. The lady's weaving, from which these wild strands leap, is remarkably similar to a web in its unusual circular shape and its black and white color scheme. Hunt perhaps gestures to another famous textile maker who looses creative control: Arachne. In Arachne's case, however, the offensive content of her weaving overshadows its formal mastery. In angering Athena, content causes her punitive transformation into a spider which is incapable of varying the content of its formal creation. In the adding the uncontrolled threads and web-like tapestry to Tennyson's poetic images, Hunt points out the dangers of an imbalance between form and content in artistic production.
Are there any other potential interpretations as to Hunt's addition of the disorderly threads?
In the article quoted above, Udall gives the following interpretation of the circular loom:
Her existence is merely the immobile hub of a wheel around which the passing parade of people and events outside her window rotate like spokes. The centrifugal force thus generated holds the reader's attention at the poem's center. A device used by Tennyson in many poems, this wheel-like structure was adapted by Hunt in his illustrations of the Lady of Shalott. His use of the circular loom suggests a continuity and cohesiveness in form as well as meaning. (34)
Do you find this reading persuasive?
What are the implications for the relationship between illustration and text when the artist is able to create characterization which the actual text may not support?
Are there ways in which we can see Tennyson trapped between form and content in the poem, especially knowing that he continually revised it during his lifetime? Consider the change in line 148: the 1832 version reads, "And her smooth face sharpened slowly" (a version which George Eliot told Tennyson she preferred).
Landow, George P. "Tennyson's Poetic Project." The Victorian Web.
Udall, Sharyn R. "Between Dream and Shadow: William Holman Hunt's "Lady of Shalott." Woman's Art Journal 11.1 (1990): 34-38.
Poems by Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet Laureate. London: E. Moxon, 1857.
Last modified 1 November 2007