Differences between Tennyson's 1833 and 1842 Versions of Poem
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1842
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 Tennyson is trying to push the irrelevant aspects deeper into the background, with the hope that readers will focus more on personality than on situation.
The 1833 version of the poem tells readers what the Lady of Shalott looks like in two extended passages. The first is in the poem's fourth stanza, at the end of the first section. Details bring her to life, giving her an actual, physical presence. "A pearlgarland winds her head," the poem explains: "She leaneth on a velvet bed, / Fully royally appareled, / The Lady of Shalott." At this point the revision, which follows the same general shape, describes the reaper in the field, listening to her song, rather than describing her looks. This brings in more a sense of the surrounding world, less a sense of the Lady.
The earlier version also has an entire stanza of physical description that Tennyson later removed. After the first stanza of the fourth section, after she has already come out of the castle, written her name on the boat, and climbed into it to float down river, the original poem says:
A cloudwhite crown of pearl she dight,
All raimented in snowy wight
That loosely flew, (her zone in sight,
Clasped with one blinding diamond bright,)
Though the squally eastwind keenly
Blew, with folded arms serenely
By the water stood the queenly Lady of Shalott.
This version is specific about her clothes, her posture, and her general demeanor. The 1842 version is not only less descriptive about her looks, but it removes any detail about her visual presence altogether.
Another part that changed from one version to the next was the poem's initial emphasis on death. The early version is much more graphic; in the stanza before the last it includes the lines, "A pale, pale corpse she floated by, / Deadcold, between the houses high, / Dead toward Camelot." The corresponding lines in the revised version read, "A gleaming shape she floated by, / Dead-pale between the houses high, / Silent into Camelot." The revised poem does mention death, indicating that Tennyson' s intention remained to be clear that she dies. Yet the emphasis on death in the newer version is softened, which shifts its emphasis from spectacle to meditation.
W. David Shaw, in a 1976 essay for the Cornell University Press, noted that the two versions highlight the ways in which Tennyson "wavers between the impulse to write poems of pure sensation … and his impulse to test and enlarge his poetry." Shaw uses this difference to show differences in poetic theory from the Romantic period and the Victorian period (Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, right between these two versions). Without even considering the significance to literary history of these two versions of the poem, it is still interesting to consider the two motives that Shaw attributes to Tennyson: the earlier version, the one that emphasizes death and the maiden's looks, is the one that he calls poetry written for "pure sensation," and in fact it is the one that gives the most chilling sensation.
Ultimately, each version is defined by its final lines. The first time the poem was published, the last stanza focused on the local people, referred to earlier in both versions as the "surly village-churls," who gather around the boat in amazement at the sight of a beautiful dead woman that they do not know. Lancelot may or may not be with them in this earlier form; certainly, the germ of the idea of making him an observer was there because Tennyson mentions a knight in the assembled crowd. This version ends with a quote from the Lady, written on a parchment that rests on her breast: "The web was woven curiously, / The charm is broken utterly, / Draw near and fear not—this is I, / The Lady of Shalott." The version of 1842, of course, has Lancelot approach the boat and presents his words, not hers, in the last few lines. He comments on her lovely face. Instead of the simple pathos of the baffled farm people finding out about her existence from a note that she has pinned to herself in death, something like a suicide note to strangers, the revision brings the story around to the person who unwittingly caused her death. It is mysterious and somewhat ironic in itself, but the true humanizing element is in the fact that Lancelot is attracted to her, perhaps as much as she was to him, but that neither of them will ever know.
In both versions of this poem, Tennyson managed to skirt the central issue of what it is that kills the Lady of Shalott. For those who take the poem at face value, believing the events as they are given, she is killed by a curse, one that the Lady knows specific details about but that Tennyson does not share with his readers. A cynic who does not believe in magic can read the curse as being symbolic for some psychological state that keeps her from social interaction, one that Lancelot's beautiful singing voice draws her from, but that does little to explain why she would be this way. The most satisfying clues to why Tennyson chose to do it this way come from the changes he made while revising. Removing the most graphic signs of death and corpses gives more leeway for interpreting her "death" as a symbolic consequence for leaving her safe abode. Removing her physical presence takes the poem even further from reality, forcing readers to imagine her, giving the whole situation a more unreal setting, as a drama that plays out in her mind instead of in the physical world. And bringing Lancelot in at the end stresses the conflict between the Lady's view of the world and the world's view of her. In the first reality, she and Camelot exist beside each other with no interaction, but Lancelot's interest in her in the revised view implies an emotional bond that did exist but that was cut down by this mysterious curse. Readers do not need to know what this curse is in order to feel sorry for the Lady of Shalott and for Lancelot, and, by extension, for all of humanity.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "The Lady of Shalott," in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kelly is an adjunct professor of creative writing and literature at Oakton Community College and an associate professor of literature and creative writing at College of Lake County and has written extensively for academic publishers.
"Cracked from Side to Side": Sexual Politics in "The Lady of Shalott"
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5913
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 for the one whom they entrap, the Lady's "mirror clear" is not only analogous to the Platonic realm of "appearances" (figured, in Republic Book 7, as the wall of a cave on which the shadows of the absolute manifest themselves) but also to the mediation of experience by the processes of ideological re-presentation. In the contest of the construction of gender, these processes operate, as Pollock puts it,
by means of winning our identification with the versions of masculinity and femininity which are represented to us … binding us into a particular—but always unstable—regime of sexual difference.
"All else confusion." To view the Lady's mirror from this perspective, seeing its "magic sights" as the mesmeric products of ideology, is equally to lead her cry in a different—indeed antithetical—direction to that which the "natural" reading comfortably assigns to it. Far from signaling a desire for marriage, the declaration "'I am half sick of shadows'" comes to seem symptomatic of a suggestive—and subversive—demystification of the institution of marriage as adequately expressive of female desire, sexual or otherwise. In the same way that the Lady's mirror hosts a panoply of images which significantly does not include her own, so Tennyson's poem covertly suggests its heroine's failure to identify herself with the patriarchal ideology which precisely posits marriage as integral to the completion of the destinies of women within Victorian society. Appropriately, the non-accommodation of the female subject to the narrative of an orthodox "femininity" occurs "when the moon [is] overhead," a moment symbolically associated, through the moon's own culturally defined link with menstruation, with one of the aspects of womanhood which Victorian definitions of "femininity" tend to repress.
Signifying as much the rejection of as the desire for marriage-as-telos, the Lady's utterance discloses a "key" which aporetically turns—like the poem as a whole—in two directions at the same time, both toward and away from patriarchy. If, as Tennyson instructs Boyd Carpenter, "the thought within the image is much more than any one interpretation", the effect of the subtextual excess at this point is subversively to expose a certain disjunction between the female subject and the construction or interpellation of that subject as "feminine" by patriarchal ideology. In so doing it also discloses the rationale which governs those apparently supererogatory strategies of resistance to the transition from Shalott to Camelot discussed above.
Gestures toward the subversion of the gender positions which patriarchal ideology seeks to promote, in Pollock's phrase, as "natural and unalterable" are additionally inscribed throughout the text in a number of ways, the first of which occurs at the end of the opening section of the poem:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers 'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.'
As Herbert F. Tucker points out (following Lionel Stevenson), Tennyson's image of the Lady as an invisible singer defines her as a figure for the Romantic poet derived from Shelley's "To a Skylark" and particularly from the Shelleyan comparison of the "blithe Spirit" his poem eulogizes to a "high-born maiden / In a palace-tower." But, as Tucker also notes, the lines cited above simultaneously incorporate an allusion to Wordsworth and "The Solitary Reaper." Thus alluding to Shelley and Wordsworth, Tennyson's poem is itself as much "a song that echoes" as that produced by the disembodied voice within it. But the Tennysonian echo of Wordsworth is an echo with what turns out to be a sexual difference, closer in fact to a kind of intertextual mirroring or simultaneous play of reflection and inversion. In Wordsworth's poem it is the male poet who listens—effectively transfixed—to the song of a female reaper, but in "The Lady of Shalott" we encounter a male reaper who hearkens, equally spellbound, to the song of a female poet, "'the fairy/Lady of Shalott.'" Tennyson's poem reproduces the Wordsworthian poet/reaper configuration but inverts it at the level of gender, placing the poet on the female side of the opposition and the reaper on the male side. The transgression of gender boundaries which "The Lady of Shalott" both symbolizes and blocks is discretely carried out by means of allusion as the poem unsettles the ideological fixities it vies equally to sustain.
Subversiveness of allusion is complemented in the penultimate stanza of the third section of the poem by a subversiveness of refrain. Prior to this point, and for the most part beyond it, the refrains of the poem are consistently organized in terms of strict gender distinctions. In each stanza the first refrain, located at its center, is reserved for references either to Camelot or Lancelot, while the second, located at the end or "margin" of the stanza, is given over to Shalott and the Lady. While the distribution of refrains in the poem could itself be said to be patriarchal (identifying the "masculine" as central and marginalizing the "feminine"), the customary pattern is significantly and symbolically usurped at this juncture, since it is a reference to Lancelot that appears in the space traditionally allocated to the "feminine":
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
'Tirra lirra,' by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.
Though Lancelot lacks the "sword" essential to the conception of manhood outlined by the old king in The Princess, he is nonetheless constantly defined through images of phallic power. Distanced from the Lady's "bower-eaves" by a "bow-shot," he rides a "war-horse" that suggestively parts the "barley-sheaves", he possesses a "blazoned baldric" and "mighty silver bugle", his "helmet and...helmet-feather" burn "like one burning flame together", and he is likened to a "bearded meteor, trailing light." Yet despite the emphatically phallic terms in which the person of Lancelot is represented, he is here transferred to a space the refrain-structure of the poem defines as "feminine." As with the allusion to Wordsworth, "The Lady of Shalott" obliquely accomplishes, in terms of refrain, that re-inscription of gender boundaries which it both threatens and thwarts at the level of its symbolic narrative. Moreover, the resituating of Lancelot—his crossing from one side of the gender line operative at the level of the refrain to the other—is preceded by the utterance "'Tirra lirra.'" While the context from which it is taken (Autolycus' song in The Winter's Tale 4.3) endows it with the connotations of a promiscuous male sexuality, the shape of the utterance—being that of a "feminine" rhyme—has the precisely subversive counter-effect of unmanning the singer. As with Lancelot, so with the Lady who parallels and indeed surpasses his movement into the space the structure of the poem reserves for the "feminine" with her own threefold penetration ("She looked down to Camelot," "Did she look to Camelot," "She floated down to Camelot," into that which it ordinarily sets aside for all things "masculine."
The strategies by which the text might thus be said to "loose the chain" that binds men and women to the fixity of patriarchally conceived gender divisions ("a particular—but always unstable—regime of sexual difference") take an alternative form at lines: if Lancelot is "feminized" by refrain (and rhyme) the Lady is here analogously "masculinized" by the simile which likens her to "some bold seër in a trance / Seeing all his own mischance" (emphasis added), an effect underscored by the transposition of an epithet previously applied to Lancelot ("bold") to the visionary to whom she is compared.
In his essay-review of Tennyson's first published volume of poetry, Hallam praises the poet as one who (unlike Keats and Shelley) "comes before the public, unconnected with any political party, or peculiar system of opinions." But if the notion of "coming before the public" creates a curiously prophetic identification between the poet of Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and the eponymous heroine of "The Lady of Shalott" (originally published in 1832), the Lady in turn suggests herself to be a figure for the politics—particularly the sexual politics—of the poem in which she is located. Just as the Lady makes an enigmatic debut before her public, "A gleaming shape she floated by, / Dead-pale between the houses high, / Silent into Camelot", so Tennyson's poem finds itself negotiating opposed political impulses—reaction and subversion, the weaving and the unthreading of the "web" of patriarchal ideology.
One of the most significant ways in which "The Lady of Shalott" manifests its politically self-divided stance toward the values of patriarchal ideology—colluding with and critiquing them at once—is by means of what might be called a discourse of the gaze. For patriarchy the difference between "masculine" and "feminine" sexuality is articulated in terms of a difference between activity and passivity. These differences are in turn rehearsed at the scopic level where the gaze—the act of looking—is identified with a "masculine" (rather than "necessarily male") subject-position while women come, as the silent and passive objects of the gaze (and the "masculine" desire of which it is the sign), to occupy the site of the "feminine" and are as such denied the possibility of experiencing themselves as actively desiring subjects.
Tennyson's poem begins its reflections on the gaze and the question of sexual power-relations to which it gives rise in the opening stanza:
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.
Though the "Gazing" described here appears not to be gender-specific (it is collectively the practice of "people"), the poem nonetheless already suggests that the relation between gaze and object within its mythic realm is ordered in terms of a conventionally patriarchal logic, since the object of the popular gaze is "where the lilies blow … / The island of Shalott," locus of the central—if obscure—female figure of the poem. The complementary identification of the gaze with a "masculine" subject-position which this implies is made explicit in the next stanza:
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.
Displaced onto "Four gray walls, and four gray towers" that "Overlook a space of flowers," the gaze begins to emerge as a form of phallic surveillance of the female subject (or object) for which the "space of flowers" functions as a metonymy.
While the text thus appears to validate patriarchal structures by mapping the gaze/object relation in terms of an opposition between "masculine" and "feminine," it also subversively exposes the ideologically constructed nature of the "feminine," thereby circumscribing the claims for mastery—both erotic and epistemological—which men make over women. While the action of Tennyson's phallically gazing towers is to "Overlook" the field of their vision in the sense of surveying it from a higher position, they seem equally not to be all-seeing, to "Overlook" being not only to survey but also to fail to apprehend or recognize. The doubleness of the language of the poem shows the "masculine" gaze to be in a significant sense a blind or "castrated" one. The implication is that the way in which men like to see women—viewing and representing them, for example, as "feminine" objects of desire—is indistinguishable from a process of not seeing them, imprisoning the female within a set of culturally constructed images from which, paradoxically, it will always already have escaped: "woman," as Julia Kristeva argues, constitutes "something that cannot be represented, something that is not said, something above and beyond nomenclatures and ideologies."
The question of the (non)representation of women is quite literally posed by the lines already cited from the third stanza of the poem:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?
In the context of the blindness of the "masculine" gaze toward the female subject—which it typically chooses to see as a "feminine" object—the Lady's literal and particular failure to appear "at the casement" constitutes the ironic symbol of the generalized respect in which "woman," in the Kristevan sense, can only appear, as opposed to being ever plainly manifest or knowable, either within the space of representation for which the casement is a figure or on the horizon of the patriarchal gaze that frames her.
But if she is an unseen presence (as "woman" for Kristeva is always effaced) Tennyson's Lady is crucially unseeing also, interdicted from assuming the gaze, the "masculine" position of erotically desiring subject, by the threat of a "curse" which, like her mirror indeed, "hangs before her all the year":
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
Though the Lady herself is ignorant of the nature of the curse, its meaning and raison d'être are readily enough decipherable from the perspective of the analysis in the poem of the workings of patriarchal ideology. For the Lady to appropriate the gaze would be for her to effect the crossing of the patriarchal gender line from "feminine" to "masculine" and so to precipitate, through an act of female self-empowerment, the "confusion" to which the lines cited from The Princess refer and which her own poem both adumbrates and symbolically moves to oppose in causing the attempted transition from Shalott to Camelot to issue only in death, product of the curse.
Under these conditions, indirectly imposed by the anonymous "whisper," the Lady must herself mediate her gaze via the mirror:
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot.
The mirror is not only the site of "shadows" but also of light, that which bestows definition and shape upon objects and, as Isobel Armstrong puts it, "enables perception to occur." It is precisely the quality of light, as much as phallic power, with which Lancelot is associated throughout the third section of the poem—from the moment that the sun flames upon his "brazen greaves" to the brilliant crisis of his double reflection: "From the bank and from the river, / He flashed into the crystal mirror." Thus constituted as a phallic figure of light, Lancelot personifies the very processes of patriarchal ideology, whose labor frames and fashions women (and men).
Though these processes in part entail the positioning of women as silently "other," passive objects to the "masculine" gaze, the poem, at lines 109-117, violently inverts these conditions:
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me,' cried
The Lady of Shalott. (emphases added)
Appropriating the gaze, the Lady enters the position of the desiring subject and so enacts—at the scopic level—the crossing from "feminine" to "masculine" gender positions originally figured in the projected foray from Shalott to Camelot. In this respect her action not only results in cracking the mirror literally, but also embodies an overturning of that for which the mirror is the figure—the ideological status quo. But if the literal mirror is subsequently found to be magically mended in the fantasmatic shape of the Lady's "glassy countenance," to what extent does the text duplicate this process in terms of the mirror-as-figure? How comprehensive, in other words, are its attempts to salvage the patriarchal gender images beyond which the iconoclasm of the Lady's gaze momentarily advances her?
Insofar as it equips her with a "glassy countenance" at all, it would seem that the intent of the text, at the beginning of its fourth and final part, is to restore the ideological mirror, since to "look to Camelot" with eyes of glass is not to see at all and for the Lady to become the precise opposite of what she had previously fleetingly been—not subject but object. Yet if she is thus objectified (and the continuity of the text with patriarchal values therefore reasserted) the Lady nonetheless retains a glimmer of transformative potential, being, at least until "her eyes [are] darkened wholly," an object of a particular kind—a looking-glass in fact, a mirror. As such, the Lady constitutes a reflective surface by dint of which the one who gazes into it (Lancelot) may behold himself in the act of seeing. In this respect she might be said to possess the capacity for inducing in the "masculine" gaze a certain self-consciousness as to its own strategies, a recognition of its own blindness with regard to the female subject and female sexuality and of the truth that the way in which men traditionally view women is critically discrepant from how women see themselves.
To the degree that it contains the elements of a critique of patriarchal ideology, "The Lady of Shalott" seeks, equally, to bring about—for the (male) Victorian reader for whom Lancelot is surrogate—just such an altered vision of the relations between men and women. Within the myth within the text, however, the revolutionary moment is badly missed:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, 'She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.'
Though Lancelot reflects "a little space," perhaps briefly speculating upon the possibility of seeing women other than patriarchally, he evidently does not reflect long enough, going on to re-articulate, with "'She has a lovely face,'" the orthodox perception of women as the object of the "masculine" gaze.
From this vantage it appears that the lazy blessing Lancelot confers upon the Lady at the conclusion of the poem is no better than a disguised version of the curse drawn into operation at the end of the third part of the poem, since the latter is elaborated precisely in terms of her transportation back across the gender line, from "masculine" to "feminine" positions, subject to object of the gaze, "Who" to "what":
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Through the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot.
No longer the bold "see-er" she once had been, the Lady's course is emphatically re-assimilated to the criteria of the "femininity" she had previously violated—even "her blood," at line 147, is "frozen slowly," in a detail which suggests, amid this poem of moons and curses, a repression of menstruation as "unfeminine." "Lying, robed in snowy white," she becomes the very bride—submissive and virginal, desired not desiring—whose image had traversed her mirror to such equivocal effect at the end of the second section of the poem.
But if this passage seems to avenge female self-empowerment it goes on to counter its own actions. Recollecting lines 64-72, in which the socially symbolic rituals of marriage and death are arbitrarily juxtaposed, the text now transforms the one into the other: groom Lancelot, whose "bridle bells" not only ring, but also merrily pun at line 85 ("bridle"/"bridal") becomes a reaper, the lady her own elegist:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot.
In the context of the crossing from Shalott to Camelot, the supervention of death betokens, as we have seen, the reactionary orientation of the text, its resistance to the very questioning of the forms of patriarchal ideology which it seeks, conversely, to provoke at other levels. Yet the fact that the trajectory of death is at this point conflated with that of marriage has the effect of redefining—indeed reversing—the value of death-as-sign within the economy of the sexual politics of the poem. As a figure for marriage, death comes, that is, to re-open the ideologically dissentient potential of the poem by suggesting that marriage, far from entailing the fulfillment of each sex through the other (as in The Princess) is tantamount, for women, to a form of self-annihilation.
As a response to the questions which it raises, "The Lady of Shalott" proves itself, in the language of In Memoriam, to be "A contradiction on the tongue" from first to last, simultaneously affirming and displacing those patriarchal visions of women and the relations between the sexes which held sway throughout the Victorian period and which are still today predominant. Thus exhibiting a sexual politics which is continually at odds with itself—being neither reactionary nor radical but both at once—Tennyson's poem emerges as no less centrally fractured, or "cracked from side to side," than the mirror within it, precisely unsure in fact as to quite which side of its own covert political and socio-sexual debate it is on—that of patriarchy and reaction or women and subversion.
Source: Carl Plasa, "'Cracked from Side to Side': Sexual Politics in 'The Lady of Shalott,'" in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 30, Nos. 3-4, Autumn-Winter 1992, pp. 247-61.
The Quest for the "Nameless" in Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott"
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3818
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 the Lady of Shalott, and what is the meaning of her presence in Camelot? These questions and the accompanying unease of possibly being identified among the citizens tempt the reader to separate himself from the curious and unknowing crowd, leave the wharf, and step into the Lady of Shalott's boat—as if to take her part. In this shift, he moves to an understanding, a reading, the impulses of which are similar to those that press the Lady through the poem from the tower, to the river, to Camelot. These impulses reflect the movement from the doubly enclosed, piecemeal images visible from the tower to the more continuous and definite vision of the last section of the poem. There is a desire within the reader to move from a fragmented and metonymic space to a metaphoric landscape in which the Lady becomes continuous with her surroundings. But the metaphoric vision eventually destroys itself and dies with the Lady. In the end, this destruction places the reader closer to Tennyson's dilemma, his difficulty in leaving the world and passing into a "Nameless," shadow-less realm.
To understand the reader's desire to insert himself into a metaphoric relationship with the poem and to comprehend his ultimate undoing, we need to consider the Lady of Shalott's unfolding, for in many ways the two movements are analogous. In the beginning of "The Lady of Shalott," images come and disappear as pieces and shadows of the world proceed through the Lady's mirror. Between these abbreviated images are spaces which syncopate the continuous weaving motion—the winding of the river and the road, the coming and going of the people—that tries to hold the lines of the poem together. These intervals frustrate the almost mechanical advance of the procession, and throughout the early parts of the poem, come to be more visible and compelling than the images, especially when Tennyson marks them in time and in synecdochic forms. For instance, it is only "Sometimes" or at particular times of the day ("when the moon was overhead" that the market girls, the village churls, a shepherd boy, a long-haired page, a knight or two, a funeral, and "two young lovers lately wed" enter and exit from the domain of the mirror. And, when they do, it is the pieces of these images which have separated themselves out that impress the eye and engage the gaze of the Lady. In her passive way, she sees only parts: the red cloaks of the market girls, the curly hair of the shepherd lad, the long hair of the page, and the plumes and lights of the funeral procession. These glide singly and separately through her mirror like the individual pulses of the shuttle sliding through the warp.
Surrounding the tower, pieces neither reaching nor touching one another accent the spaces between images. The tower overlooks "a space of flowers." The reader, though, does not have to wait until the second stanza to experience these spaces, for immediately in the opening lines, Tennyson plunges him into a gap which divides the fields and allows him to see that "On either side the river lie / Long fields of barley and of rye," and involves him in the Lady's initial view of a world dominated by separateness and without promise of continuity and wholeness. There is little sense of a mutual dependency, a dialectic of opposites, between the whole and the part. One does not take life from the other. Rather the pieces dislocate the continuity and create a landscape in which there are openings and discontinuities. The fields which are "Long" and "meet the sky" would extend without a break if the river and the road travelling through and dividing them did not interfere. The water itself would flow "for ever" if "Little breezes" did not cut into the waves and create patches of movement. These synecdochic images must necessarily admit beginnings and endings, so a "margin, willow-veiled" borders and cuts off the river from all that surrounds it; water must separate the Lady, the tower, and the island from the fields. In this land of pieces a shallop skims by and disappears, and the Lady's voice, isolated from her, leaves the tower and comes surrounded by space and silence to the reapers below. The sounds render her presence by echoing her just as the mirror reflects.
In the early verses the vision is metonymic as well as synecdochic, for these single images are always succeeding one another. They do not flow into one another; rather they live for a moment until they are replaced by others—as soon as the shepherd-lad exits, the damsels arrive to occupy the space he had temporarily filled. The verses proceed as a procession. Without succession the cloth of the poem cannot hold. It is as if there were an attempt to weave a poem, though with broken lines and threads. If the Lady of Shalott does not constantly replace one image or thread with another, the tapestry and the poem must fly apart, as the tapestry does.
This synecdochic and metonymic vision is no different when Sir Lancelot enters in Part III. If anything his coming intensifies all that has passed before, for like his double reflection, his presence exaggerates this disjunction of a world dominated by parts and motivated by replacement. Even more distant from the land than the Lady in the tower, Lancelot and the rays of images shining from him seem to dangle and dazzle in open space ("The gemmy bridle glittered free"; "A mighty silver bugle" hangs from his "blazoned baldric"), and like an arrow released from the bow, Lancelot himself flashes by, cut off from all about him ("Some bearded meteor" moving "over still Shalott"). Tennyson's description of Lancelot, however, concentrates not only upon the successive and separated parts of his armor but also upon his movements with which, like the road and the river, he cuts through the fields ("He rode between the barley-sheaves") and divides the landscape. The effect of his action, though, is quite different from that of the road or the river, for Lancelot's brightness when coupled with the sun's brilliance ("The sun came dazzling through the leaves") seems paradoxically both to expand and fill the gaps of his passage. His glistening presence wounds the fields, yet simultaneously fills and heals the scar. One rapid, brilliant piece blends with another and for an instant the collective aura overwhelms all boundaries and divisions: "The helmet and the helmet-feather / Burned like one burning flame together." When Tennyson compares the knight's brilliance to a meteor that is "trailing light," these blended pieces even seem to melt away the frame of the mirror. Now continuity and wholeness seem as possible as the promise of eternal faithfulness depicted on Lancelot's shield (the knight "for ever" kneeling "To a lady." That momentary presence pushes the Lady from her loom, her mirror, from her synecdochic and metonymic space, and urges her and the poem forward.
Once the Lady's perspective shifts, so does the landscape. In the first three parts, images move horizontally across her static, vertical world; now, because she turns away and comes down, she moves horizontally through static, vertical structures. With that change come other inversions: instead of passively watching images move through her mirror, she becomes the image which passes through. Over becomes under as she glides into towered Camelot "Under tower and balcony." Echoes swell to full sounds; the fairy name takes on form and becomes the inscribed name; once empty skies and placid river swell with the rain. Action, fullness, and inscription replace passivity, emptiness, echoes, whispers, and rumour. The Lady emerges as a Lancelot: she gleams, she reflects, she is the one who is paradoxically to cut through and to remind the onlookers of the absence of wholeness, but she does it in a different manner. Of course, the analogy cannot be exact, for Lancelot's initial dazzling, doubly-reflected presence brings at best a promise and at worst an illusion of the Lady's metaphoric vision. At the end he is not in the Lady's vessel but somewhere apart by "a little space" from both her and the citizens. His isolation, his continuing the creation of spaces between images, suggests that there is something hypocritical, even Satanic, about him. This hint of evil is not, as some would have it, because he is indifferent to the Lady but because he has knowledge of her and her metaphoric vision which he chooses to avoid. It is as if in remaining apart on the wharf, he stood beside Tennyson who could never quite let himself completely enter the Lady's vessel even though the impulse toward the mystical and non-representational was strong within him.
The Lady is different from Lancelot because when she leaves the tower, inscribes her name on the prow of the boat, and floats down the river to Camelot, she turns her back on the vision of her past and inserts herself into a metaphoric relationship with her surroundings and her self. With this shift, she moves into the spaces between the fields and the people and fills them with her form: her name and her body. No longer is there a silence between her name and her body, a pause between her singing and the audible echoes. The true weaving and mingling of threads of experience take place, so that vertical and horizontal structures merge. The static tower blends with the moving, horizontal boat. When the Lady is in the boat that moves through the gaps between the fields, she closes the spaces, as her voice and her body spill over into the landscape, and, in turn, that landscape bends to meet her. Her white robe "loosely" flies "to left and right" and the leaves from the willows lining the bank fall lightly upon that robe. The sky reaches the earth; the inside, the outside; and together they eradicate the "as if” of the previous separateness. This separateness, dependent upon gaps, makes everything into an "as if”; but in Part IV there is rarely a gap between the image and its context. Tennyson relies little on simile. In fact, in revising the 1832 version of the poem he chooses to rid the lines of similes. The Lady herself becomes a metaphor. She is not "like" a brilliant meteor but is "A gleaming shape." With her "glassy countenance" she becomes both mirror, seer, and object.
As in the metaphoric landscape described above there is a yoking, a glissement, rather than an interrupting. Now it is the Lady who catches the others' gaze. It is she, not Lancelot, whom the people view and through whom they recognize the limitations of their own vision. When the citizens of Camelot regard her, understandably they are fearful because they fear to see a reflection of their own lack and emptiness. Although her name appears upon her boat, and her body is as an image, her coming tells of a world which does not have to depend upon image and name. As their questions reveal, the citizens are dependent upon such tangible tokens and are trapped, as the Lady once was, in a landscape of successive, unconnected images framed by "who" and "what." Theirs is not a place to admit transcendence or a unifying vision. The Lady's, however, is: Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., is correct—the Lady has moved to "insight." But that insight does not have to be regarded in a Christian mystical context, for her movement is not necessarily to a vision which exists beyond the image. Rather it is a journey to a pre-imagistic understanding which negates image and recaptures a condition that does not require representation. In her recovery of a pre-imagistic state, she participates in the metaphoric impulse, for, even though metaphor begins in the concrete and seems initially to depend upon the conjunction of representations, the tension between that yoking scatters the objects and discards them, and seems finally to strain to retrieve a knowledge which is not at all linked to representation. The metaphor seems to wish to forget image. It is, therefore, understandable that in the poem, all that remains for the citizens is that scattering—her dead body and her inscribed name.
When the Lady inserts herself into the spaces of the landscape and thereby acknowledges the possibility for continuity and similarity in experience, she also places herself within a context which recognizes differences and otherness. As metaphor teaches, similarity is impossible without difference. The Lady's act of writing her name is an important aspect of her involvement with metaphor. It is as if the name were an abbreviated metaphor. The written name brings with it hopes of continuity because it is a fixed designator; it also admits differences because the very act of naming acknowledges the presence of the Other and the necessity for that presence to break away from a metonymic relationship with her parent, the land of Shalott (she is, after all, the Lady of Shalott), and create her own identity.
In the early parts of the poem, the Lady's name seems indefinite, some arbitrary identifier imposed on her by the reapers. She is neither conscious of her name nor desirous to use it. She has "little care." It is only when she leaves the tower that she cares. Then by taking on the name (baptising herself if you like) and inscribing it on the very vessel of her mediation into her surroundings, she goes to Camelot. (It is interesting to note that when Tennyson revised the 1832 version of the poem, he moved the name forward from the stern of the boat to the prow.) This inscribed name, the mediator, becomes a mirror through which she can see and present herself as being distinct from others and allow them to discover how they in their imagistic-dependent world are different from her. It also becomes a means by which she, as Tennyson did on occasion when he would repeat his name to reach a higher plane, can separate herself from a world ironically enslaved to naming objects.
However, because she does write her name, death and wounding are also inevitable. On the one hand she escapes the limits of metonymy, but on the other hand she faces the experience of loss, for naming is also a form of mourning, like the mournful carol she sings at the end. To name is to experience closure. It is as Claude Lévi-Strauss writes, "as far as one can go." Naming involves death also because it aspires to the ultimate, to fix the margin. However, in attempting to fix the margin the name grows more conscious of the absence of the ultimate, that is of the difference between the fixed reference and the idea. As Walter Benjamin suggests, names are the incomplete and inadequate mirrors of meaning. They are the fact of knowledge; not knowledge itself. Names name the death of oneness and are dependent upon representation.
Because there is a sense of loss accompanying naming, when the Lady of Shalott asserts her name into the consciousness of Camelot, she wounds and ruptures the synecdochic order of the dull-witted society and exposes its emptiness. When the citizens gaze at her name, they feel an absence to which their only responses are questions tying them more tightly to their dependency upon representation and pulling them further away from the presence of the Lady's metaphoric vision, a vision which could heal the wounding of their consciousness by her name. Theirs is not a place from which they can travel beyond the rupturing of consciousness into the salvation of metaphor.
The citizens on shore cannot participate in the Lady's metaphoric world; consequently, they also cannot go where metaphor leads and follow her into the final stage of her journey—her death and the death of metaphor. Just as she reaches "The first house by the water-side," her blood freezes, her eyes darken "wholly," and her singing ends. With her death and the coming of darkness and silence, she moves into a realm where the elements—light, time, space, and place—which form and bind words, sounds, and images are neither present nor absent. Perhaps beyond the audible reverberations of the poem, her death takes her where metaphor reaches and reclaims what metaphor paradoxically aspires to grasp, but cannot: a state not linked to representation—hence, a state previous to itself, an accomplishment which ironically causes the death of metaphor by foreclosing its characteristic impulse which is a desire to undo itself as well as others' desire for it.
In the end, then, the Lady is relieved of the burden of the metaphoric impulse to reach for what it cannot grasp, a burden which stares back at those left on shore. While the citizens stand gaping, struggling with their limitations and their dependency upon image and name, she enters a nameless, imageless realm which exists prior to the assumption of metaphor, name or the "symbolic." But now that there is a glimmer, a suggestion, of that realm, her presence for others is more than the challenge of her metaphoric vision; it is also a reminder of the pre-symbolic, raw state which because of its very nature resists and irritates metaphor and increases its burden. Her death, therefore, offers a strange reversal, for it reveals vividly the limitations of the representational world, even those of that world's most integrative act—the metaphor—an act which when well done undoes itself. Her death frustrates whatever impulses there might have been for others to leave the metonymic space behind, recover and participate in the metaphoric, and, thereby, heal their wounded consciousness.
The Lady's journey to a metaphoric landscape and her release from that burden is important in itself, but it also needs to be reconsidered briefly in terms of the reader's movement through the poem. When the reader first encounters the poem he is separated from it, imprisoned in his own tower into which flash words, phrases, sounds, rhythms, and rhymes. These succeed each other as he moves from line to line—forgetting, losing, and replacing. He waits for some word, some rhythm, some figure of sound to catch and hold him and remind him, like the picture of eternal reverence on Lancelot's shield, that there is something which unites the spaces between images and words. Eventually the reader inserts himself into these spaces and, like the Lady of Shalott, becomes more aware of both the differences and similarities working with and against each other. Once he has entered the metaphoric relationship with the poem, the reader's impulse is to sustain that relationship and find salvation in its integrating act. But this impulse involves bearing the burden and treachery of metaphor.
If in becoming the agent for metaphor, the reader attempts not only to integrate one image, space, and word with others and create some sense of wholeness, but also to follow the desire of the metaphor to reach a pre-imagistic or pre-symbolic state, the reader courts his own undoing and discomfort, and faces his own duplicity. The reader tempts disaster, for at the moment of integration when there appears to be an understanding of the text, a feeling of reaching the "truth," the metaphor pushes on. Momentarily it goes where its impulses take it and bursts open to expose a prior, raw, non-representational "truth." That revelation (the death of the metaphor) destroys the promise of salvation which the reader thought he had found in metaphor. Now he is caught between image and non-image, between the symbolic and the raw, in a space between areas for which there is no integrating act. No longer can he rest; he has been trapped by the very act which supported him. In the end, he stands between the citizens and the Lady, belonging to neither world. Frustrated, the reader joins Lancelot and, perhaps, Tennyson on the wharf. Together poet and reader momentarily resemble and anticipate the doubters in "The Ancient Sage" (1885) who, in metonymic time measured by "Thens'" and "Whens," "creep from thought to thought." They stand powerless to follow the metaphoric impulse and pass into the "Nameless" and leave images, names, and words, the "shadows of a shadow-world," behind. They cannot die with the Lady. Neither can they be the ancient sage who, when he sits alone, "revolving in" himself, finds:
The mortal limit of the Self was loosed,
And past into the Nameless, as a cloud
Melts into Heaven.
"The Lady of Shalott" is a poem that acknowledges the poet's and the reader's dilemma. It is as if Tennyson were attempting to use the poem as a vessel to rescue himself and his reader from an enclosed and image-bound landscape and move into a recognition of the non-representational. But, as much as he repeats the Lady's name, allows the sounds of the refrain to resound, and, in the manner of the ancient sage, lets the poem revolve in itself, he cannot push the poem into a "Nameless" state. The poem, like the Lady's boat, remains to stare back and remind Tennyson and the reader of their bondage to "mortal limits"— rhyme and words. Like the swallow on the lake "That sees and stirs the surface-shadow there," the most that the poem, Tennyson, and the reader can do is dip "into the abysm" beneath the rhyming shadow world.
It is difficult to refrain from reconsidering Tennyson's conclusion from the point of view of a later poet who entered the same lists, but attempted to achieve another outcome. In "Sunday Morning" Wallace Stevens acknowledges our dependency on detail (the "old dependency of day and night"), yet suggests that it is those very fleeting particulars which consummate our "dreams" and "desires." As for death, it is in fact death itself that engenders meaning ("Death is the mother of beauty,"). If Stevens is right, the poet and reader do not in the end have to fear "the immense disorder of truths" ("Connoisseur of Chaos"), but can stand beside that "pensive man" who is the "connoisseur of Chaos," and see "that eagle float / For which the intricate Alps are a single nest."
Source: Ann C. Colley, "The Quest for the 'Nameless' in Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott,'" in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 23, No. 3, Autumn 1985, pp. 369-78.