The development of the ironic situation is even more elaborately indirect in "The Lady of Shalott." It is possible to discuss the poem in terms of rhetorical irony, emphasizing the problem of whether or not we are made to approve of the Lady's isolation or of her leaving. But this is a problem externally imposed by critics, probably by analogy with most of the other poems in this volume, where the means and terms of judgment are indeed key issues. Here, however, the ironic situation is balanced in such a way as to suspend judgment absolutely. Unlike, say, the Soul in "The Palace of Art" [ text of poem] or the mariners in "The Lotos-Eaters," the Lady presents no arguments and has no real choices. She is in isolation; she is lured away; she invokes the curse. Artistic withdrawal is neither condemned nor approved. The necessity for judgment is just what marks the difference between rhetorical irony and the complex but basically contained thematic irony in this poem.
One might, interestingly enough, have made a good case for rhetorical irony in the 1832 version of the poem. At least it would have been a better case, since the revisions for the 1842 volume almost all act to broaden the focus of the poem by removing our attention from the Lady herself and directing it to her environment. [31/32] The changes emphasize the sense of a determined situation and deemphasize the image of a personality making a decision. To take one of many instances, lines 24-26 are changed from
A pearl garland winds her head:
She leaneth on a velvet bed,
Full royally apparellèd
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land?
It is this "land," the external world of Camelot, that emerges in the 1842 version as a major force and symbol in the poem, suggesting the principal lure and promise that draw the Lady out of her isolation. But active terms like "draw" are misleading; for the movement is only apparent, not real. The broadest, most general irony of the poem is that the Lady simply exchanges one kind of imprisonment for another; her presumed freedom is her death.
The Lady is most commonly seen as a form of the artist, and doubtless her absorption in weaving the beautiful web suggests that. But her story also, as in "The Book of Thel," symbolizes the birth of the soul, the movement out of childhood protection into adulthood, the development from innocence to experience, the promise of social and unified being to the isolated ego; Hellstrom, pp. 11-12, sees the Lady as choosing mortality, but he does argue that the poem is quite un-ironic . All these possibilities coalesce around the central ironic pattern: the carefree but incomplete self, imprisoned in that self and cut off entirely from any direct experience, is drawn by the lure of sexuality, beauty, growth, and change — life itself — not into freedom and expression but into obliteration. The real dilemma is one that can be neither judged nor solved. The Lady must obey and must defy the curse.
The opening of the poem quickly establishes the ironic contrast, setting up a picture of the world that is both true and false, true in objective fact but with terribly misleading implications:
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go
"On either side" of the Lady is the promise of fruitfulness and warmth, gentleness and motion. The abundance of nature is [32/33] connected to heaven and to man, the grain clothes the field, joining the earth both to man and to heaven, and the field contains the road on which all human activity takes place. The center of this microcosm is Camelot, many-towered as a temple, the source of the apparently benign and unified activity. In contrast, the Lady lives on a "silent isle" (l. 17), imprisoned within "four gray walls, and four gray towers" (l. 15). It is true that within this tomblike home there is a "space of flowers" (l. 16) and that her song "echoes cheerly" (l. 30) from it, but the force of this contrast between her island and the outside world is so strong that such contradictory details are nearly swept aside. Even the suggestive revelation that the curse is connected not to isolation but to life, that she is not cursed now but will be if she chooses to live, is submerged in the continuous development of the basic ironic contrast.
Part 2 (ll. 37-72) creates an image of life at Camelot, the irresistible world of "realities," as Tennyson so enigmatically puts it, that "takes her out of the region of shadows." (Memoir, I: 117). The main reality presented here is motion itself. In contrast to her stasis, the pictures of the world she sees are "moving," "winding," "whirl[ing]," "ambling," "riding." This static-dynamic dualism is crucial: she believes the lying promise of the mirror, progressing from her death-like isolation into the whirl of movement that is literal death. The most important of these perceived images of dynamic eternal life makes her "half sick of shadows" (l. 71) and prepares her for the final destructive lure:
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. [ll. 66-72]
Notice the indiscriminate or that connects the funeral and the lovers. Life offers funerals or marriages; both are equal: love is equivalent to death.
The next section (ll. 73-117) is dominated by the image of [33/34] Lancelot. For the Lady, he is the symbol of personality and fulfillment in the vast scene of the world's growth and beauty. He seems to her to provide an even more specific promise: the achievement of individual identity. He is the first person to be named in the poem, and he seems to guarantee the validity of names and their ability to give permanence and meaning to the self. He comes, riding "between the barley-sheaves" (l. 74), with all the abundance of nature. Lancelot carries with him a shield, in which "A red-cross knight for ever kneeled / To a lady" (ll. 78-79), an image of perpetual promise, invoked in terms of courtly love. The emphasis in Tennyson's lines on "for ever kneeled," however, also implies that it is only the promise, not the fulfillment, that is perpetual. The "blue unclouded weather" (l. 91) in which Lancelot appears conspires to make this image as beautiful and blinding as possible: like a "meteor, trailing light" (l. 98) he "flashed into the crystal mirror". (l. 106).
The first "reality" the Lady actually meets after invoking the curse is the truth of this mocking nature, which is no longer blue and unclouded but dark, with a "stormy east-wind" and a heavy low sky over the "pale yellow woods" (ll. 118-21). Images of oppression and waste surround her. Pathetically, she still tries, by writing her name on the prow of a boat to claim the promise of personality Lancelot had held out to her. But her personality is not confirmed, even by her death, and the tragic assertion of being is burlesqued. As she floats by Camelot, the knights "read her name" (l. 161) but respond only with misunderstanding:
Who is this? and what is here? And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer; And they crossed themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot. [ll. 163-67]
She manages to create only a flurry of superstition.
Lancelot, however, is presumably differentiated from this confusion and muses quietly a moment — only to exhibit how undifferentiated he actually is;
He said, 'She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott' (ll. 169-71).
"She has a lovely face is absurdly inadequate to the mystery and potential tragedy of the Lady's story. We move only from one level of incomprehension to another. Lancelot is a structurally heightened parody of those figures at the end of a tragedy — Horatio is an example — whose duty it is to interpret, clarify, and keep alive the story of the tragic action, thus ensuring the institution of a new order. Here the death is uninterpreted because there is no context to give it meaning an no interpreter. Lancelot turns from the Lady after a perfunctory benediction, dismissing her and thus permanently fixing the absurdity of her death. This, then, is what the parable of growth and development amounts to: not criticism of the Lady, or Lancelot, or "isolation," or the world; only an ironic equation of development with decay. The Lady is born into death.
Perhaps "The Lady of Shalott" marks the limit of this form of Tennyson's indirect, thematic irony; not that he was to abandon it, but it was to be subsumed in the search, for more inclusive ironies, ones that would contain even the reader: surprisingly, he found the means for this subtle rhetorical irony not in the further dissolution of his readers' judgment but in an insistence on judgments. The secret of this extension was not in the abolition of old certainties but in the reinforcement of them. Still, and it is a large qualification, these certainties are never unopposed, they are never adequately supported, and they never provide solutions. They are certainly present and we are asked to make judgments based on them, but these judgments are either contradictory or, more. commonly, trivial. They go nowhere. They never answer the questions that are raised in the poem, though they do create others. Most of all, these judgments do not provide comfort or release; they construct the ironic prison.
This rhetoric clearly involves a refinement of irony's traditional control of perspective. and distance. It is nothing new for irony to vary our perspective abruptly, asking us to see as immediate and painful what we had supposed was comfortably distant and secure. Still, though the reader is often moved against his will, he always knows where he is. In the 1842 volume, however, Tennyson is striving to project the state which irony embodies, to create the suspension and discomfort the poems discuss. Previous poems had been made ambiguous by structural or thematic means; here the ambiguity is achieved rhetorically, by making our perspective on the poem uncertain. He removes the solid position from which we [35/36] can make judgments and then urges on us both the necessity for judgments and their futility.
The most radical form of this uncertain perspective is found in the dramatic monologue, where the removal of context makes it extremely difficult not only to know how to judge but to be sure if one should judge at all. Certainly, the creation of a solid position from which one can observe how the speaker "contradicts himself" or is subject to the poet's satire is a critical fiction, a convenience that distorts the effects of the poem.
Robert Langbaum's The Poetry of Experience, a brilliant discussion of the problem of perspective in the dramatic monologue, uses a very open appeal to our experience in the poem to demonstrate that an overtly satiric reading of a dramatic monologue is a possible, but rather crude and uninteresting response. To see that Ulysses's comments on Telemachus are contemptuous is one thing; to argue that this contempt acts to condemn Ulysses is something else. 'there is no way we can find within the poem a morality that allows for such certain judgments. By removing rhetorical securities, the dramatic monologue does, as Langbaum insists, force us to experience the speaker himself, not a meaning which is external to him.
Still, the tendency of this form to find the extreme case, in fact to be generally effective in direct proportion to the outrageousness of its argument and the distance of the speaker and action from conventional moral and social norms, means that our instinct to make judgments is very strongly activated. Langbaum argues that the tendency to the extreme case and the bizarre subject reduces judgment to absurdity and further indicates the widely accepted need of the poet to resuscitate, to drive through customary associations and revivify life.
One can grant these arguments but see them as subservient to another principle he mentions but then seems, in particular analyses, to ignore: the tension between sympathy and judgment. It seems to me that, contrary to what I take to be the implications of Langbaum's argument, judgment is not an attendant or superficial response but an immediate and powerful one. But it is also given no place to rest, no terms with which to deal, and this very fact accounts for the ironic rhetoric. We are asked to respond simultaneously on two contradictory levels: that of distant critical judgment and that of absorbed, direct experience. We must and we cannot do [36/37] both; and we realize, therefore, the tension between the now disjoined meaning and experience.
The dramatic monologue manifests a special form of the ironic rhetoric, which works to to suspend the case of judgment by making perspective unstable. Though many of the poems that follow in my discussion here are not pure. dramatic monologues but uncertain mixtures of monologue and soliloquy, they contain the essential features of the rhetoric of the dramatic monologue: the uncertainty of context, the demand for judgments, and the absence of support which makes judgments significant.
Last modified 28 March 2001