Essays and Criticism
Differences between Tennyson's 1833 and 1842 Versions of Poem
The story told in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott" obviously lacks a key narrative element, making it, at least in theory, a flawed attempt at storytelling. Handled less skillfully, it might easily have been rejected by readers and literary critics as a weak attempt to use powerful language to make up for its storytelling deficiencies. The poem concerns a damsel who lives in a stone tower, threatened by a curse that she knows, somehow, will kill her if she looks out her window at the world that surrounds her. The curse is real; she does look, and she dies. The basic question that must go through the mind of anyone who reads this poem is how the curse came to be. Tennyson could not have failed to notice what an important aspect of the story he left out.
Assuming, then, that Tennyson left this crucial information out on purpose, it is very likely that he had that same purpose in mind while making changes to the poem between the first and second published versions, dated, respectively, 1833 and 1842. Neither version could have been written with the goal of writing a clear story, not with that glaring omission, and the revision does nothing to fill in the missing details. But adding up all of these oddities draws a line to Tennyson's true purpose. A comparison between the two versions shows more than just corrections or adjustments in the 1842 revision. The later version is even more mysterious than the original, which, unexpectedly, makes...
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"Cracked from Side to Side": Sexual Politics in "The Lady of Shalott"
Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" (1842) is often read by critics as a poem centrally concerned with the question of the relation between "art" and "life," conditions respectively symbolized in the worlds of Shalott and "many-towered Camelot." The poem resolves this question, it is usually argued, by the recognition that "life" is inherently antipathetic to the possibility of an ongoing artistic production—an insight taken in turn to be enacted by the death which befalls the Lady who gives the poem its title in the course of her attempted sortie from the one realm of the poem to the other. A paradigmatic formulation of this canonical approach is provided by Walter E. Houghton and G. Robert Stange in their anthology, Victorian Poetry and Poetics (1959). According to their notes to the poem, "The Lady of Shalott" suggests
that the artist must remain in aloof detachment, observing life only in the mirror of the imagination, not mixing in it directly. Once the artist attempts to lead the life of ordinary men his poetic gift, it would seem, dies.
So persistent is this view that Alastair W. Thomson similarly claims, thirty years later, that Tennyson's poem "represents the dilemma of the introspective artist, condemned to a life of shadows, and risking destruction if he turns to reality."
No reading is ideologically innocent, however—least of...
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The Quest for the "Nameless" in Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott"
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.
The questions "Who is this and what is here?" that the fearful, dull-witted knights, burghers, lords, and ladies are left pondering are those questions which gaze back at the readers of "The Lady of Shalott" long after its fluent lines have drifted away from the closing of the poem. They place the almost unsuspecting audience among the citizens of Camelot, looking at the inscribed name and wondering what to do with it: Who is the Lady of Shalott, and what is the meaning of her presence in Camelot? These questions and the accompanying unease of possibly being identified among the citizens tempt the reader to separate himself from the curious and unknowing crowd, leave the wharf, and step into the Lady of Shalott's boat—as if to take her part. In this shift, he moves to an understanding, a reading, the impulses of which are similar to those that press the Lady through the poem from the tower, to the river, to Camelot. These impulses reflect the movement from the doubly enclosed, piecemeal images visible from the tower to the more continuous and definite vision of the last section of the poem. There is a desire within the reader to move from a fragmented and...
(The entire section is 3818 words.)