Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Lady of Shalott” has most often been read as an allegory of the artist’s condition in a society indifferent or even hostile to art. The Victorian age was not, by and large, especially sympathetic to art and artists. Many Victorians believed that poetry had had its day and could offer little of use in an age of serious scientific, industrial, and social effort. Put plainly, many Victorians believed that poetry “did” nothing, that it was merely idleness and frippery. Others, perhaps no more sympathetic to the real requirements of the artist, suggested that poetry could justify itself if it celebrated the serious social achievements of the modern age—if, in other words, it put itself to work providing moral edification for the reading masses. Certainly, many of Tennyson’s contemporaries took him to task for writing poems remote in their imaginative wonders from the mundane struggles and triumphs of the passing hour. Tennyson had a strong tendency to idealize the isolated, self-absorbed artist rapt in his visions of unearthly beauty, and this “art for art’s sake” doctrine came in for strong criticism from well-meaning Victorian critics. “The Lady of Shalott” is, in one dimension, Tennyson’s allegorical rejoinder to those utilitarian critics.
In the allegorical scheme, Camelot represents the world of commerce, politics, social responsibility, and daily life. Lancelot himself represents the temptations of worldly fame and power to...
(The entire section is 534 words.)
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