arts 1 and 2 of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" (text) provide the backdrop for the central action of the poem — the flight of the lady from her captivity and her subsequent death. The "silent isle" on which she lives is marked only by "Four gray walls, and four gray towers". This description, with its repetitious construction and use of the bland color gray, permeates the reader's image of the island with dullness and monotony. Furthermore, Tennyson pointedly remarks that the gray towers "Overlook a space of flowers" which plays up the contrast between the lifelessness of the gray stone, and the vibrancy of the garden outside (16). Even his use of a contained rhyming couplet brings the aesthetic disparity into the foreground. And so, Tennyson's vision of the Lady of Shalott immediately sets her apart from the vitality of the natural world, placing her in a realm of stagnancy and inertness. Indeed, it is interesting to note that, like many of the Preraphelites, the focus on a solitary contemplative female figure is a recurring theme in his work, for example, in Mariana.
Yet, amidst her colorless environment, the Lady of Shalott weaves "A magic web with colors gay" (38). How can we interpret this spontaneous production of magic, art and color? It appears as though Tennyson is indicating that the production of art occurs in melancholy isolation from the very world it mimics. Thus, in the first two parts of "The Lady of Shalott" Tennyson constructs a representation of the artist as a solitary and confined figure, inexplicably compelled to create, as if literally bound by a "curse".
1. Does the Lady of Shalott have any agency in this section of the poem?
2. I have read the poem as a representation of artistic isolation and melancholia, but what does the poem have to say about the status of women in the Victorian setting? Is "The Lady of Shalott" as much a story of unfulfilled romantic desire as it is a poem about artistry?
3. Compare the figure of the Lady of Shalott with Mariana. How do their situations run in parallel and how do they differ?
4. Why does Tennyson use the word shadows instead of reflections when he talks about the images in the mirror?
5. What function does the reference to Sir Launcelot as a "red-cross knight" (near the beginning of Part 3) serve in the context of Tennyson's poem?
Last modified 1 October 2006