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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In this poem, the main character exists under a spell without knowing what its origin is or why it has been put on her and without thinking of how she can remove it. She seems to accept it as her fate: "And so she weaveth steadily, / And little other care has she" (lines 43-44), the poem explains. The one stipulation of this mysterious curse is that she cannot look out her window at the panorama of nature and humanity that is so clearly outlined in the poem's first section. She does not seem to care that she is deprived of direct contact with the world. She does not question why she has been cursed like this. Tennyson does not provide an explanation for the curse; he does not offer a reason why this woman is denied the immediate pleasures and problems of real life. Perhaps the poet wanted the psychology behind her captivity to be open-ended and to invite readers to apply various interpretations to her situation and behavior. The important point is that she is isolated, forced to observe the world indirectly through a mirror, and she does not seem to object to this deprivation until her interest in handsome Lancelot overcomes her initial detachment.
Art and Artifice
The Lady of Shalott's view of reality depends on the reflection she perceives in her mirror. Mirrors may be thought of as devices that accurately duplicate the scene they reflect, but images in mirrors are different than reality. They...
(The entire section is 882 words.)