A Glimpse of Reality: An Analysis of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Arthurian Poem “The Lady of Shalott”
“On either side the river lie, long fields of barley and of rye…”
These are the opening lines in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Lady of Shalott”. The poem, loosely based on the tale of Elaine of Astalot and Sir Lancelot, goes on to describe a fairy-like woman living in a tower on an island near Camelot. The mysterious woman, known only as “the Lady of Shalott”, weaves constantly on her loom while glancing into a magical mirror by her side; in the mirror she catches glimpses of people passing by the road beneath her tower. At the middle of the poem, the Lady falls in love with Sir Lancelot upon seeing him ride down the road; however, her love is not returned and she dies soon after. Her body floats down to Camelot in a small boat, causing a great fear to settle on the royal court. In the last stanza, Lancelot approaches the Lady’s remains and, noticing her beauty, offers up a short prayer for her.
While most readers assume this to be a simple story about ill-fated love, it actually has a much deeper meaning. At a time when Tennyson himself was undergoing inner turmoil dealing with his writings, he wrote this poem in part to describe the conflict between an artist’s work…and the world.
In the first several stanzas of his poem, Tennyson tells us about the Lady herself – when and where she lives, what she does, etc. It’s obvious that the story takes place during the reign of King Arthur – we can glean this from his mentions of “Camelot”. The Lady dwells on an island, in a castle with “four grey walls and four grey towers”; a river flows nearby, bearing boats down to Camelot. No mention is made of any interaction between the Lady and the people outside of her tower. The only people who seem to have any knowledge of her existence are the reapers working in a nearby field who hear her singing cheerfully.
Throughout the days and nights, the Lady spends her time weaving a colorful tapestry. Tennyson uses her here to represent an artist locked away in his own world, absorbed in his artwork and unmindful of the people around him. Tennyson writes that the Lady knows that there is some sort of a curse laid on her, though she doesn’t know “what the curse may be”. Yet she continues to weave, undeterred, and has little, if any, other worries.
The next sixteen lines go on to describe what our heroine sees in the mirror by her side. From the “red cloaks of market-girls” to “an abbot on an ambling pad”, the Lady watches the year-round traffic below her tower – that is, reflections. Never does she leave her loom to look out the window at the world for herself.
Despite appearances, the Lady is not entirely content. She knows that the visions in her mirror are only tastes of reality, but isn’t yet willing to leave her loom for even a moment. When she glimpses “two young lovers, lately wed” in her mirror, the Lady verbally expresses her growing dissatisfaction with mere reflections of the world. “I am half-sick of shadows”, she groans.
Almost immediately after she utters this, Tennyson brings Sir Lancelot in. “A bow-shot from her bower eaves, he rode between the barley-sheaves…” A lengthy description of the legendary hero follows, during which we learn about everything from the color of his hair to his horse’s bridle as he passes by her tower on his way to Camelot, singing gaily. The Lady, awed, watches as he moves through her “crystal mirror”.
It is at this point that the poem climaxes, with a single line- “She left the web, she left the loom…” The Lady finally abandons her work and looks out from her tower with her own eyes. The mirror is forgotten as she drinks in the sight of Sir Lancelot’s helmet, a water-lily blooming in the river below, and the towers of Camelot in the distance. A sense of relief rises in the reader as the Lady finally cuts the invisible ties binding her to her work. But that relief is short-lived.
After fatefully looking out of her window, the Lady’s loom suddenly “flies out and floats wide”. Then, “her mirror cracks from side to side”. The Lady, distressed, turns and wails “the curse has come upon me!”
Here Tennyson may be showing us an artist who has left his work to join the world/reality…and now finds that he isn’t content with returning to the life of solitude he enjoyed beforehand. Another very similar interpretation suggests that Tennyson is drawing the “curse” from a personal dilemma of his – the question of whether or not to expand his writings to cover more about the outside world (politics, daily life, etc.) and thus lose some of the “magic” of his private imaginings and yarns.
Some people, particularly feminists, are scornful of this poem. They think of the Lady as a tragic, weak sort of character whose very life and stability depends on a man she has seen but once. Yes, the Lady boldly chooses to enter reality, but doesn’t she do so because of Sir Lancelot? Closer examination, however, reveals that it is not necessarily Sir Lancelot himself that the Lady desires, but rather the whole concept of love. Notice that she isn’t moved by the “abbot on an ambling pad” (religion), the “group of damsels glad” (friendship) or even the “river eddy whirling” (nature); however, after seeing “two young lovers, lately wed” (marriage), the Lady openly envies their intimate relationship. It is love that tempts her to leave her solitude.
To further his point, Tennyson mentioned previously in the poem that his heroine “has no loyal knight, and true”- yet “in her web she still delights”. In other words, the Lady brushes aside her inward longing for romance and busies herself in art. She can “marry” either a man or her artwork- but not both. Her choice is marked clearly…and, in the end, she ultimately chooses to follow love, not because of weakness, but seemingly because she judges it to be more important than her art.
Whatever the case may be, one must admit that the unfolding scene turns ugly quickly. A storm arises, lending a feeling of disquiet to the reader; the Lady leaves her tower as the rain falls and finds an unmanned boat. Laying down and loosing the chain as evening sets in, she lets the stream carry her down towards Camelot. The rest of the poem is dedicated to the Lady’s mournful last song, her night trip down the river, and the reactions of the people who find her, dead, in the morning. The end of her creativity is symbolized in her own untimely demise.
Ironically, it is Sir Lancelot himself who appears to conclude the poem with the words “she has such a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace, the Lady of Shalott”.
Is an artist forced to choose between love and art? This is the question which Tennyson aims at us, using the Lady as his prop. He seemed to think so when he wrote the poem in the early 1830s; but his views may have changed over the next two decades, because he married in 1850 and continued to write up until his death in 1892. It is a question which many other isolated artists must certainly struggle with, though; will their artwork somehow “lose” something if they try to pursue their social and romantic interests as well? Must they devote everything to art, becoming confined as they do so? Or is there some balance between art and the bustle of “real life”?
The questions invoked by this classic poem arise, and readers over the centuries have all tried to come up with their own answers to these questions. It is what makes this poem a classic in the first place; it continues to touch and challenge us years after its publication. And isn’t that what makes great literature?
Meredith Joy is a homeschool high school student who lives with her family in Ohio. Most people would probably describe her as a shy, generally quiet person; they might also say that she is rather artistic, since she loves to draw, sketch, paint and make all sorts of crafts from the privacy of her ‘studio’ (really a table in the middle of her room piled with yarn, bits of paper, glue, and bins of supplies). Her other interests include cooking, star-gazing, writing, and of course, reading! If asked what her favorite books are, she would say “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Mark of the Lion Trilogy, and “The Hunger Games Trilogy”. As a result, she spends a lot of time day-dreaming about Middle Earth, Ancient Rome, and future North America! One of her many aspirations in life is to design costumes for films dealing with these topics.