In Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott," what does the lady have in common with time?
In Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shalott," this lady and time have one thing in common—motion: but the speed of it is different outside the house, than inside.
The lady has no control over her life. She cannot be a part of the world at large—time for her moves differently than outside. We know that time is not the lady's friend. The more time that passes, the harder it is for her to live life alone. And trapped inside, the days move slowly—her life seemingly a slow torture.
Tennyson portrays motion...of nature: willows, breezes and water, moving free—without constraint...
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river... (10-13)
Conversely, the Lady of Shalott spends all of her time within four walls. Within those walls, time hardly moves. It almost hangs—quietly:
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers (15-16)
The lady's feelings of isolation from society (seen with "grey") are a commentary on time, and how sadly she spends hers—she might has well be frozen:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand? (24-25)
Those outside of the lady's home measure their days in terms of the time they invest in working or playing. The reapers, for example, work only in the morning. Then they rest.
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley... (28-29)
However, there is no real rest for the lady. She weaves constantly—she is weary; and she sees no end in sight, either for her work or her life.
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy… (33-34)
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colors gay. (37-38)
There is no joy in her use of colored thread—it is symbolic of life on the outside; it is as close as she will ever get to a normal life...to see the colors of nature in thread, but not in person.
Again, the passage of time is noted—in terms of years. This segment alludes to the long-standing punishment of this cursed woman who lives in the shadows of life, in the imaginings of what life must be like free from the evil magic that holds her captive.
And moving thro' a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year... (46-47)
Life outside of the woman's home seems to fly eagerly. Time within trickles by slowly.
Then the lady stops it. Though doomed, the moment her foot steps outside her door—once she passes through the doorway that separates her from the world—her relationship with time changes—her ability to experience the world increases, and now she races to see and feel all she can before she dies.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot. (109-113)
All of a sudden, her life is full. She can still not control the time around her, but in the brief period it takes to leave the room, the woman is fully in sync with time outside her home. She now sees the beauty of Camelot—from which she has always been separated. Ironically, the only thing that moves slowly now is her coming death.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly... (145-147)
The curse moves slowly. The carol's chanting slows. The movement of her heart slows and stills as she breathes her last.