“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 which the artistic temperament succumbs at its peril. The mirror and the web represent the arts, and the lady the artist. This schematizing is reductive but not inaccurate, for the poem is at some level almost certainly a dramatization of the artist’s desperate condition in a world of commercial energies, democratic sentiment, and mass standardization. The artist, like the lady, is strong only in a world of images, and the price of this strength is isolation. Like the lady, the artist’s connection to the busy world of real life can only be tangential; his or her songs are at most overheard in the bustle of politics and business. In an age making insistent demands on the strenuous efforts of individuals in cooperation with social ventures, the artist may inevitably feel misgivings about his self-absorption and isolation, but the artistic temperament also knows that no reconciliation with such a world is possible except at the cost of artistic integrity. Lancelot is desired at the cost of imaginative power.
If this is Tennyson’s allegorical view of the artist’s position, it is a view far removed from the strong poetic faith of his Romantic predecessors such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth. The great Romantic poets had believed in the transforming power of poetry. They believed that it was strong enough to act upon the real world and that the poet was a person of might—not so Tennyson, at least not in “The Lady of Shalott.” If the lady is Tennyson’s allegorized poet, then his poet is hiding out and is imperiled in a world of intractable fact. The lady is no match for the commercial power of Camelot; by comparison, her mirror is fragile and her web tenuous, and she turns from them only to be destroyed.