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 it more human.
The main reason that this poem is able to successfully present a magic spell without explaining why or how that spell occurred is its setting. The story takes place in Camelot, a mythical land that, if it ever actually existed, certainly was not the kingdom that the ancient stories present. Popular imagination has attached itself to the historical facts, adding stories about Merlin the sorcerer, the Lady of the Lake, and the magical Sword in the Stone, Excalibur, that could only be handled by a person who was good and wise. Because magic is, by its very definition, outside of the ordinary laws of nature, there is a tendency to accept it as unknowable and to leave issues of magic unexamined.
But it is wrong to assume that magic has no rules at all. Like the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, the medieval stories of the Knights of the Round Table used magic to pass judgements on morality. For example, Odysseus's ten-year journey home from the Trojan War was said to have been caused by his failing to properly offer a homage to the god Poseidon. Similarly, Lancelot, Camelot's bravest and most chivalrous knight, is not able to find the coveted Holy Grail because of his affair with Arthur's wife, Guinevere. Thus the honor of finding the Grail is passed to Lancelot's son. The major difference is that the Greek myths were based on religious customs, while the magic involved in the Arthurian legends affirmed Christian principles. Saying that the curse on the Lady of Shalott is "magical" does not remove the need for a cause, even if it helps to dampen readers' curiosity.
In both versions of this poem, Tennyson worked against natural human curiosity, tweaking it without satisfying it. Doing so tells readers that the details surrounding the curse are really not important to his message. In some ways, Tennyson's method anticipates Modernism which did not actually develop until the 1920s. The First World War (1914-1918) was so catastrophic that it changed many systems of thought, including literary theory. The Modernist poetry that resulted did more than just dictate poetic information to readers and invite them to appreciate the poet's verbal skill: it acknowledged that readers are aware that they are reading a poem that somebody wrote. "The Lady of Shalott" counts on its readers to be aware of its author's existence and to wonder about the thought process that led him to leave out critical information. The only sensible explanation that readers can arrive at is that he means to downplay the mystical aspect of this myth and to focus attention on the psychology of the character who is the poem's focus.
There are only a few differences between the version of the poem published in 1833 and Tennyson's 1842 revision, but, surprisingly, they serve to make the setting and the character even more obscure. Usually, poetry tries to render a vivid experience, and so an author's changes often serve to make the visual experience clearer, not hazier. Again, the assumption must be that...
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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 all a canonical one (which, in these instances, also blithely turns the "she" of the text into the "he" of its readers)—and the ideology of approaches which see "The Lady of Shalott" as a proto-Yeatsian allegory of choice between "Perfection of the life, or of the work," might be described as implicitly "utilitarian": by reading Tennyson' s poem as "a myth of the poetic imagination" and concluding that the artist/poet must remain antithetically and irrevocably divorced from "life," the critic simultaneously consigns the text to just that condition of purely aesthetic limbo which largely defines the Lady's plight throughout the poem.
What the canonical/utilitarian approach fails to take into account, in other words, is the question of the relation of the poem itself to "life"—its implication, that is, in the specificities of its own historical moment. Hence it remains blind to the existence of a certain conflict between what "The Lady of Shalott" says about the art/life relation and the way in which that relation is instantiated and configured by the text itself. At the level of the symbolic narrative within the poem, art and life would indeed seem to be fatally opposed to one another and the text to offer a reluctant manifesto for the romantically isolated poet. Yet, as Joseph Chadwick has shown, "The Lady of Shalot" itself constitutes an art-work produced and indeed enabled—albeit obliquely—through an active engagement with its own contemporary moment. For Chadwick, "despite the feudal setting of the poem … it is Tennyson's own social order, not the one from which he drew the Lady and Lancelot" that creates "the problems of autonomy and privacy [the poem] confronts." In this respect, the dialogue of the poem with its historical context ironically refutes the necessity for aesthetic withdrawal from "life" or history which it appears internally to affirm. Far from being mutually exclusive, what Tennyson's poem conversely demonstrates is that art and life, the aesthetic and the political, are fully interwoven: the involvement in the social world which is symbolically the destination of the Lady in the poem is, from the first, a condition at which the poem has already arrived. As such, "The Lady of Shalott" bears out Alan Sinfield's contention that "even poetry which appears to be remote from political issues is in fact involved in the political life of its society."
One of the concerns at the heart of the political (as well as intellectual, social, and cultural) life of Tennyson's nineteenth-century context is, as criticism generally acknowledges, the "Woman Question." While "The Lady of Shalott" addresses this question, it does so, as will be shown, in a systematically ambivalent manner, at once upholding and dislocating patriarchal assumptions about the issues which the question entails—those of gender, sexuality, the institution of marriage, and the space occupied by women in society.
As befits a text whose operations are profoundly equivocal, the landscape into which "The Lady of Shalott" draws its reader is one precisely ordered in terms of opposition and division: "On either side the river lie / Long fields of barley and of rye." Yet the opening description of place includes a detail whose effect is to disrupt the coherence of another opposition—between illusion and reality—which is central to the organization of symbolic space within the poem as a whole. While firmly divided from one another, Tennyson's "fields," we are told, nonetheless "meet the sky" fashioning a conjunction which, as Edgar F. Shannon, Jr. points out, is purely the result of an optical illusion. Though the text seeks to confine the presence of illusions solely to "The island of Shalott", it is evident from the outset that they exist in realms beyond its boundaries. Even before the opposition between "the silent isle" and Camelot can develop into an opposition between "the region of shadows [and] that of realities," the latter opposition is itself being skeptically revealed as illusory, problematic, in some way flawed.
Tensions between the setting up and upsetting of distinctions are operative not only in terms of the relation between illusion and reality but also at the level of the representation of gender difference in the poem, raising—as such—the question of its sexual politics. Feminist criticism maintains that the categories of gender (as opposed to sex)—"masculinity" and "femininity"—are not naturally or self-evidently given but instead ideologically produced by society and culture. Insofar as these categories are at the same time hierarchically organized in favor of men, the ground of their production is, as feminism also argues, a patriarchal one. The ideological sleight-of-hand by which patriarchy mystifies or tropes the cultural as the natural (thus preserving its dominion) is neatly summarized by Griselda Pollock:
Patriarchy does not refer to the static, oppressive domination by one sex over another, but to a web of psycho-social relationships which institute a socially significant difference on the axis of sex which is so deeply located in our very sense of lived, sexual, identity that it appears to us as natural and unalterable.
The way in which the relations between the sexes, which constitute power-relations also, are ideally woven for and by patriarchy is itself graphically outlined in a passage from Tennyson's The Princess: A Medley, published in 1847, five years after the appearance of the revised version of "The Lady of Shalott":
Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey;
All else confusion.
These lines return us, by contrast, to "The Lady of Shalott," a text whose stance toward patriarchal ideology is substantially less didactic than that propounded by the old king—the Prince's father—who is their speaker.
At first glance, however, it would appear that, despite the medievalism of the poem, the disposition of social space in "The Lady of Shalott" accurately replicates, as the citation from Chadwick implies, the gender conventions informing Victorian society. On the one hand, the Lady is consigned to a private and socially peripheral space of "Four gray walls, and four gray towers," located on the far side of a "margin, willow-veiled", while on the other, the public realm of Camelot is inhabited by "bold Sir Lancelot": mythic past conforms to socio-historic present, as private and public spaces are respectively identified with "femininity" and "masculinity" in both.
Considered as a response to the patriarchal norms embodied in the Shalott/Camelot opposition, the inclination of Tennyson's poem appears—from the perspective of narrative structure—to be to support and maintain them. While the central action in the text concerns the Lady's attempted performance of a crossing from private/"feminine" to public/"masculine" worlds, this movement is one which, strictly speaking, goes uncompleted, or is permitted to occur only posthumously:
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
Intercepting the Lady's crossing by means of death, the narrative of the poem registers its own resistance to the transgression of gender divisions—and hence the possibility of political change—of which that crossing is the sign.
As the index of resistance to such a possibility, the death which the text eventually imposes upon the Lady is only the formal or explicit culmination of a process which commences much earlier. This process works, through a series of strategies, to transform the future toward which the Lady travels into a repetition of the past she seeks to escape, thus creating the illusion that the patriarchally subversive crossing from Shalott to Camelot is itself illusory, since a future that repeats a past effectively erases the present that ordinarily facilitates the passage from one to the other. The first of these strategies occurs precisely at the point, in fact, at which the Lady prepares to leave Shalott: "She left the web, she left the loom, / She made three paces through the room." If these lines retard even the motion they describe—the Lady's crossing of her studio—through syntactic repetition, arresting "paces" into stasis, they are similarly and secondly followed by the typographical effacement of the larger crossing from Shalott to Camelot in the shape of the blank space between the third and fourth sections of the poem. The Lady's emergence on the other side of this space is accompanied by a sudden shift in seasons—from "the blue unclouded weather" of summer to autumn:
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.
With this shift, as Chadwick notes, the Lady "finds a world just as gray as the one she has left", as the future again repeats the past.
The pattern of temporal inversion and elision we are outlining constitutes, to recapitulate, a kind of proleptic supplement to that resistance to the (ideologically disruptive) crossing from Shalott to Camelot which is made textually explicit with the Lady's death at lines 150-153. This pattern extends to include a further detail. Though, at line 115, the Lady's mirror is dramatically "cracked from side to side," it would appear, at line 130, to have been uncannily restored, in the figuration of her face—newly directed toward Camelot—as a "glassy countenance" (emphasis added). The effect of this detail—like that of those noted above—is implicitly to invert the Lady's voyage d’amour, slyly fold it back upon itself. Not only blocking the transition from Shalott to Camelot with death but also signaling its resistance to the subversion of patriarchal values which that action connotes through a range of subliminal gestures, "The Lady of Shalott" thus fairly lucidly confirms Arthur Hallam's definition of the contemporary poetic impulse as "a check acting for conservation against a propulsion toward change".
But the paradox which appears to render the strategies of resistance in the poem superfluous is that while the movement from Shallot to Camelot, "feminine" to "masculine" spaces, is symbolically transgressive, the desire which initially prompts it would seem, at the end of the second section of the poem, to be entirely compatible with patriarchal norms:
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.
The "natural" reading of the last four lines of this stanza (alleged by Hallam Tennyson to contain "the key to this tale of 'magic symbolism'" is one which turns the Lady's cry, "'I am half sick of shadows,'" in the direction of an unequivocally confessional desire to substitute participation in the lived reality of marital love for the contemplation of its image. Even as the Lady's movement from Shalott to Camelot figures the deregulation of patriarchal gender codes and is variously resisted by the text, the desire which propels it—being for marriage—seems to work to reestablish the text in a relation of continuity with the patriarchal status quo.
Yet to define the Lady's discontent with the conditions of her existence as stemming from the self-conscious recognition of marriage as the telos of her desire is to mask the inscription of a subversive counter-meaning beneath the conformities of the textual surface of the poem, converting it into an instance of the Barthesian text of plaisir "that comes from culture and does not break with it, [and] is linked to a comfortable practice of reading." As frequently noted, it is possible to translate the predicament described in "The Lady of Shalott" into the terms of a neo-Platonic allegory. Just as in the tenth book of Plato's Republic, the work of art duplicates a reality itself only the copy of a higher realm of "essences," so the labor of the female artist in Tennyson's text is the weaving of the "magic web" out of the images which appear in her mirror as "shadows of the world", the reality of Camelot. But this is by no means to exhaust the allegorical potential of Tennyson's poem. As the site of the production of images—one of which is that of the newlyweds—which effectively are reality...
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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...
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