Adapted from the author's "Tennyson and the Ladies of Shalott," Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts, Ed. George P. Landow, Brown U.: 1979.
The Lady of Shalott" (text of poem), one of the most popular of Tennyson's poems, inspired painters throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. The five most popular subjects for illustration were
- the embowered lady by a window longing for love after she sees the "young lovers, lately wed" in the mirror;
- the climactic moment she first sees Lancelot;
- the Lady leaving her island;
- the Lady in her boat dying for love or because of it; and
- the dead Lady in her boat floating on the river.
These five subjects reveal a great deal about the Victorians' conception of love and women.
William Holman Hunt, who remained interested in the poem throughout his career, created the most famous visual portrayal (now in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford) of its subject, but many other artists, including John William Waterhouse, s, Sidney Harold Meteyard, Arthur Hughes, and John Atkinson Grimshaw, created their own versions. The designs that Hunt and Rossetti made for "The Lady of Shalott" in Moxon's edition of Tennyson's poetry (1857) produced a new awareness of the poem's pictorial potential. After the Moxon edition the publication of many illustrated books of Tennyson's poetry provided such artists as Walter Crane and Howard Pyle (who created luxurious books illustrating the single poem) the opportunity to create atmospheric and exotic images by representing various scenes from the life of the Lady, as well by representing analogous subjects, such as Doré's Elaine and Millais's Mariana, of which he did both a wood engraving and a painting. Each artist interpreted the poem in his own way, drawing upon the imagery of the poem itself, prior interpretations and related subjects, current literary interpretations and his own predilections. As documents of popular opinion and attitudes, these works reveal much about the Victorians' conception of love and women, a subject that this essay will explore. In order to appreciate the different visual interpretations of "The Lady of Shalott," one must address its literary source, the relationship of the poem to its historical period, and the different artistic interpretations it has generated — critics and artists having interpreted the poem in a number of ways, the most popular of which include variations on the themes of the embowered lady isolated from life and love and the conflict between the artist's own sensual vision and his need to experience life directly.
The poem's popularity rests, more than anything else, on its embodiment of the highly complex Victorian conception of woman, and the correlative Victorian attitude toward the home. The overwhelming problems Victorian England faced created a psychological need to retreat into the safety of the home where delicate spiritual values could be protected and preserved. Thus the home became a special place set apart; it assumed the nature of the sacred enclosed garden or hortus conclusus, and the woman as center of the home — responsible for the spiritual well-being of the family — assumed an importance previously inconceivable. She became the guiding light to her husband, the means by which his very soul could be saved, and at the same time her enshrinement as the pure woman enhanced her sexual desirability. Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, who could not be more unattainable, perfectly embodies the Victorian image of the ideal woman: virginal, embowered, spiritual and mysterious, dedicated to her womanly tasks.
The tension Tennyson establishes between the interior room and the exterior world, between the natural, material world and the shadow of that world reflected in the Lady's magic mirror, gives expression to the Victorian preoccupation with the contrast between the exterior and the interior worlds. The concomitant ambiguity of space and realities — the realities of the exterior world, the Lady's interior world, the reflections of both worlds in the mirror, and the reality of the material work of art — provided artists with an interesting aesthetic play of space and reality.
Last modified 30 November 2004