Tennyson places the convoluted climax of "The Lady of Shalott" at the very end of Part III. As the Lady of Shalott sits at her loom, Sir Lancelot flashes into the mirror.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
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.
In this powerful climax Tennyson focuses the action exclusively on the Lady of Shalott. He uses the word "she" six times in five lines. And, more importantly, it is the first time in the poem the Lady of Shalott moves: she walks across the room to the window. The web of shadows she weaves flies out the window and the mirror through which she watches the outside world cracks "from side to side", signaling the unleashing of the curse.
1. Flower symbolism attributes purity of heart to the water-lily. Why would Tennyson have the Lady of Shalott see a water-lily bloom as she realizes she is cursed?
2. The Lady of Shalott makes "three paces through the room." In "The Palace of Art" Tennyson writes of the soul,
And so she throve and prosper'd: so three years
She prosper'd; on the fourth she fell,
Like Herod, when the shout was in his ears,
Struck thro' with pangs of hell.
The corpses the soul sees towards the end are "three-months-old." Does Tennyson use "three" simply for consonance? What symbolic purpose does the number three serve in these different cases? Is it the same purpose?
3. What is the significance of Tennyson's use of synecdoche when describing the Lady's sighting of Lancelot? In other words, why does he write "She saw the helmet and the plume" instead of "She saw Sir Lancelot"?
4. The Lady of Shalott's mirror could represent the artist's vision of the world and her loom the artist's work. Yet she is compelled — by erotic desire? — to look at the world through her own two eyes. In light of the Pre-Raphaelites' Ruskinian praise for direct observation of nature, why does Tennyson have the mirror crack when the Lady of Shalott does just that? Why is she punished for looking at the world without the aid of a "mirror"?
Last modified 3 October 2006