Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" is a fine example of a poem whose poetic achievement lies at the precise convergence of both a fascinating subject matter and several significant stylistic elements. A narrative that takes on mythic overtones by recasting an Arthurian story, this poem is somehow still able to stay very much rooted to the natural; indeed, much of the poem either performs the natural, or is informed by it. Because so much of this is contrapuntally weaved in and out of the narrative, as a deeply rooted part of the Lady of Shalott's life as an embowered woman, an undeniable symbolism arises. One might call this poem a distorted still-life — not the literal definition for visual art, but much more metaphorically — in that there are certain fixations in the poem, such as the mirror, the loom, the river, music, even the color red ("red cloaks of market girls," "a red cross knight," "long-hair'd page in crimson clad"), that work together within a similiar landscape and thereby carry symbolic weight. But perhaps what is most interesting of this still-life approach is the severity of irony given to the poem — given to its subject matter, and thus theme.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
            And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
"I am half sick of shadows," said
            The Lady of Shalott.

[...]

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 the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
            Over towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote  125
            The Lady of Shalott.

While the poem begins with four stanzas that slowly work into greater and greater detail about the myth of a woman through a description of the landscape and anonymous workers, we do soon learn much more personally — from inside the four walls — how the Lady of Shalott lives. The first stanza quoted above is not the first in the poem to narrate how she weaves in insolation; we learn early on that she does so under a yet unknown curse. But the quoted stanza's importance is that there is irony in this bit of character development for the mythic woman: Though she apparently "delights / To weave," she is "'half sick of shadows'". It is also here that Tennyson brings in a polyphony of symbols — the mirror and the loom — which are further layered with the natural in the following stanza. After witnessing the livelihood of the knight, after finally feeling her total isolation — the loss of freedom in all her years of weaving and seeing the world through a distorted tableau — the Lady of Shalott realizes her doom: the irretrievable loss, her curse, her irony. Tennyson describes it as the physical breakage of the mirror and the physical departure of the web. He then follows by suggesting that the will of the Lady causes the weakness of the natural, and that in order to fully come out of the isolation, she will reject the circular — forever continuous, unchanging, unpredictable — pattern of the loom for the horizontal — down or upstream, wide, farstretching, unforseeable, most importantly, real being — path of a boat. Of course, we have already been flooded with images of that river and its great expanse.

Questions

1. It is impossible to ignore the repetitions in this poem. In each stanza, Tennyson uses some sort of preposition to introduce Camelot in the fifth line, and always ends with "The Lady of Shalott." Does this diction have any great significance than rhyme? Along these lines, how does the rhyme scheme affect the poem?

2. Compared to Robert Browning's two poems, "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess," this poem has a set form and metre, giving it an apparently deliberate musical quality. Is this arbitrary or does it serve a purpose in conveying the poem's theme or telling the story? How might it affect tone or mood for the poem entire?

3. Using this poem in particular, how might one explain why Tennyson was so important to the Pre-Raphaelite movement in literature and art?

4. There are both subtle and extremely dramatic instances of irony in the poem. To what effect does Tennyson use irony in the last stanza when Lancelot greets the dead Lady of Shalott?

5. The reapers introduced in the fourth stanza stood out to me because they conjured up the image of the anonymous mass. If their introduction is not just arbitrary, what do they represent more universally within the context of Tennyson's poem?


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson

Last modified 30 January 2008