Lady of Shalott Questions and Answers Marks 10/15,5,2
1 .Comment on the sexual politics in the Lady of Shalott.
Ans. 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 s Mas 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 Shalott 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. In so far 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 prolepsis 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 reason 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.”
“9 “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 signalling 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.
2. Comment on the development of the ironic situation in The Lady of Shalott with reference to other poems of Tennyson.
Ans. The development of the ironic situation is even more elaborately indirect in The Lady of Shalott. It is possible to discuss the poem in terms of rhetorical irony, emphasizing the problem of whether or not we are made to approve of the Lady’s isolation or of her leaving. But this is a problem externally imposed by critics, probably by analogy with most of the other poems in this volume, where the means and terms of judgment are indeed key issues. Here, however, the ironic situation is balanced in such a way as to suspend judgment absolutely. Unlike, say, the Soul in The Palace of Art or the mariners in The Lotos-Eaters, the Lady presents no arguments and has no real choices. She is in isolation; she is lured away; she invokes the curse. Artistic withdrawal is neither condemned nor approved. The necessity for judgment is just what marks the difference between rhetorical irony and the complex but basically contained thematic irony in this poem.
One might, interestingly enough, have made a good case for rhetorical irony in the 1832 version of the poem. At least it would have been a better case, since the revisions for the 1842 volume almost all act to broaden the focus of the poem by removing our attention from the Lady herself and directing it to her environment. [31/32] The changes emphasize the sense of a determined situation and deemphasize the image of a personality making a decision. To take one of many instances, lines 24-26 are changed from
A pearl garland winds her head: She leaneth on a velvet bed, Full royally apparellèd
to 1842’s .But who hath seen her wave her hand? Or at the casement seen her stand? Or is she known in all the land?
It is this “land”, the external world of Camelot, that emerges in’ the 1842 version as a major force and symbol in the poem, suggesting the principal lure and promise that draw the Lady out of her isola
tion. But active terms like “draw” are misleading; for the movement is only apparent, not real. The broadest, most general irony of the poem is that the Lady simply exchanges one kind of imprisonment for another; her presumed freedom is her death.
The Lady is most commonly seen as a form of the artist, and doubtless her absorption in weaving the beautiful web suggests that. But her story also, as in The Book of Thel, symbolizes the birth of the soul, the movement out of childhood protection into adulthood, the development from innocence to experience, the promise of social and unified being to the isolated ego; Hellstrom, pp. 11-12, sees the Lady as choosing mortality, but he does argue that the poem is quite un-ironic. All these possibilities coalesce around the central ironic pattern: the carefree but incomplete self, imprisoned in that self and cut off entirely from any direct experience, is drawn by the lure of sexuality, beauty, growth, and change-life itself-not into freedom and expression but into obliteration. The real dilemma is one that can be neither judged nor solved. The Lady must obey and must defy the curse.
The opening of the poem quickly establishes the ironic contrast, setting up a picture of the world that is both true and false, true in objective fact but with terribly misleading implications:
On either side the river lie Long fields of barley and of rye, That clothe the wold and meet the sky; And through the field the road runs by To many-towered Camelot; And up and down the people go,
“On either side” of the Lady is the promise of fruitfulness and warmth, gentleness and motion. The abundance of nature is [32/33] connected to heaven and to man, the grain clothes the field, joining the earth both to man and to heaven, and the field contains the road on which all human activity takes place. The center of this microcosm is Camelot, many-towered as a temple, the source of the apparently benign and unified activity. In contrast, the Lady lives on a “silent isle” (1. 17), imprisoned within “four gray walls, and four gray towers” (1. 15). It is true that within this tomblike home there is a “space of flowers” (1. 16) and that her song “echoes cheerly” (1. 30) from it, but the force of this contrast between her island and the outside world is so strong that such contradictory details are nearly swept aside. Even the suggestive revelation that the curse is connected not to isolation but to life, that she is not cursed now but will be if she chooses to live, is submerged in the continuous development of the basic ironic contrast.
Part 2 (11. 37-72) creates an image of life at Camelot, the irresistible world of “realities,” as Tennyson so enigmatically puts it, that “takes her out of the region of shadows.” (Memoir, I: 117). The main reality presented here is motion itself. In contrast to her stasis, the pictures of the world she sees are “moving”, “winding”, “whirlling]”, “ambling”, “riding”. This static-dynamic dualism is crucial: she believes the lying promise of the mirror, progressing from her death-like isolation into the whirl of movement that is literal death. The most important of these perceived images of dynamic eternal life makes her “half sick of shadows” (1. 71) and prepares her for the final destructive lure:
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.
Notice the indiscriminate or that connects the funeral and the lovers. Life offers funerals or marriages; both are equal: love is equivalent to death.
The next section (11. 73-117) is dominated by the image of [33/34] Lancelot. For the Lady, he is the symbol of personality and fulfillment in the vast scene of the world’s growth and beauty. He seems to her to provide an even more specific promise: the achievement of individual identity. He is the first person to be named in the poem, and he seems to guarantee the validity of names and their ability to give permanence and meaning to the self. He comes, riding “between the barley-sheaves” (1.74), with all the abundance of nature. Lancelot carries with him a shield, in which “A red-cross knight for ever kneeled / To a lady” (II. 78-79), an image of perpetual promise, invoked in terms of courtly love. The emphasis in Tennyson’s lines on “for ever kneeled,” however, also implies that it is only the promise, not the fulfilment, that is perpetual. The “blue unclouded weather” (1. 91) in which Lancelot appears conspires to make this image as beautiful and blinding as possible: like a “meteor, trailing light” (1. 98) he “flashed into the crystal mirror”. (1. 106).
The first “reality” the Lady actually meets after invoking the curse is the truth of this mocking nature, which is no longer blue and unclouded but dark, with a “stormy east-wind” and a heavy low sky over the “pale yellow woods” (11. 118-21). Images of oppression and waste surround her. Pathetically, she still tries, by writing her name on the prow of a boat to claim the promise of personality Lancelot had held out to her. But her personality is not confirmed, even by her death, and the tragic assertion of being is burlesqued. As she floats by Camelot, the knights “read her name” (1. 161) but respond only with misunderstanding:
Lancelot, however, is presumably differentiated from this confusion and muses quietly a moment-only to exhibit how undifferentiated he actually is;
He said, ‘She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott’
“She has a lovely face” is absurdly inadequate to the mystery and potential tragedy of the Lady’s story. We move only from one level of incomprehension to another. Lancelot is a structurally
heightened parody of those figures at the end of a tragedy-Horatio is an example-whose duty it is to interpret, clarify, and keep alive the story of the tragic action, thus ensuring the institution of a new order. Here the death is uninterpreted because there is no context to give it meaning an no interpreter. Lancelot turns from the Lady after a perfunctory benediction, dismissing her and thus permanently fixing the absurdity of her death. This, then, is what the parable of growth and development amounts to: not criticism of the Lady, or Lancelot, or “isolation”, or the world; only an ironic equation of development with decay. The Lady is born into death.
Perhaps The Lady of Shalott marks the limit of this form of Tennyson’s indirect, thematic irony; not that he was to abandon it, but it was to be subsumed in the search, for more inclusive ironies, ones that would contain even the reader: surprisingly, he found the means for this subtle rhetorical irony not in the further dissolution of his readers’ judgment but in an insistence on judgments. The secret of this extension was not in the abolition of old certainties but in the reinforcement of them. Still, and it is a large qualification, these certainties are never unopposed, they are never adequately supported, and they never provide solutions. They are certainly present and we are asked to make judgments based on them, but these judgments are either contradictory or, more commonly, trivial. They go nowhere. They never answer the questions that are raised in the poem, though they do create others. Most of all, these judgments do not provide comfort or release; they construct the ironic prison.
This rhetoric clearly involves a refinement of irony’s traditional control of perspective and distance. It is nothing new for irony to vary our perspective abruptly, asking us to see as immediate and painful what we had supposed was comfortably distant and secure. Still, though the reader is often moved against his will, he always knows where he is. In the 1842 volume, however, Tennyson is striving to project the state which irony embodies, to create the suspension and discomfort the poems discuss. Previous poems had been made ambiguous by structural or thematic means; here the ambiguity is achieved rhetorically, by making our perspective on the poem uncertain. He removes the solid position from which we 135/36] can make judgments and then urges on us both the necessity for judgments and their futility.
The most radical form of this uncertain perspective is found in the dramatic monologue, where the removal of context makes it extremely difficult not only to know how to judge but to be sure if one should judge at all. Certainly, the creation of a solid position from which one can observe how the speaker “contradicts himself” or is subject to the poet’s satire is a critical fiction, a convenience that distorts the effects of the poem.
Robert Langbaum’s The Poetry of Experience, a brilliant discussion of the problem of perspective in the dramatic monologue, uses a very open appeal to our experience in the poem to demonstrate that an overtly satiric reading of a dramatic monologue is a possible, but rather crude and uninteresting response. To see that Ulysses’s comments on Telemachus are contemptuous is one thing; to argue that this contempt acts to condemn Ulysses is something else. There is no way we can find within the poem a morality that allows for such certain judgments. By removing rhetorical securities, the dramatic monologue does, as Langbaum insists, force us to experience the speaker himself, not a meaning which is external to him.
Still, the tendency of this form to find the extreme case, in fact to be generally effective in direct proportion to the outrageousness of its argument and the distance of the speaker and action from conventional moral and social norms, means that our instinct to make judgments is very strongly activated. Langbaum argues that the tendency to the extreme case and the bizarre subject reduces judgment to absurdity and further indicates the widely accepted need of the poet to resuscitate, to drive through customary associations and revivify life.
One can grant these arguments but see them as subservient to another principle he mentions but then seems, in particular analyses, to ignore: the tension between sympathy and judgment. It seems to me that, contrary to what I take to be the implications of Langbaum’s argument, judgment is not an attendant or superficial response but an immediate and powerful one. But it is also given no place to rest, no terms with which to deal, and this very fact accounts for the ironic rhetoric. We are asked to respond simultaneously on two contradic tory levels: that of distant critical judgment and that of absorbed, direct experience. We must and we cannot do [36/37] both; and we realize, therefore, the tension between the now disjoined meaning and experience.
The dramatic monologue manifests a special form of the ironic rhetoric, which works to suspend the case of judgment by making perspective unstable. Though many of the poems that follow in my discussion here are not pure dramatic monologues but uncertain mixtures of monologue and soliloquy, they contain the essential features of the rhetoric of the dramatic monologue: the uncertainty of context, the demand for judgments, and the absence of support which makes judgments significant.
3. How is the poem influenced by the Arthurian legends? Comment.
Ans. The Arthurian legends have fascinated people over the centuries with tales of kings, noble ladies, knights, magicians, love, and death. Among those who wrote about King Arthur’s reign was Alfred, Lord Tennyson. One of his poems, The Lady of Shalott, became immensely popular for its moving pathos and mystery. Yet, the poem was based on a character from Arthurian legends-Elaine of Astolat. Several years after composing the poem. Tennyson wrote directly about Elaine’s tragic love affair with Sir Lancelot in Lancelot and Elaine, found in his epic piece Idylls of the King. Although both poems share many of the same features, they portray the two ladies quite differently from one another. The Lady of Shalott is a fairy of sorts, residing in a magical world, while Elaine is a purely human character according to Arthurian legends. The differences are quite apparent when viewed according to the women’s family structure, interaction with society, presence of magical elements, and manner of death. Thus, despite their many similarities, Tennyson makes each into a unique and completely separate figure.
Both the Lady of Shalott and Elaine of Astolat share numerous similarities in their lives. Even the places they live possess a similar name. Most of the scenes in The Lady of Shalott take place in a tower. Likewise, Elaine retreats to a tower where she keeps Sir Lancelot’s shield. Lilies surround each lady, literally and figuratively. Tennyson says that “the lilies blow / Round an island there below, / The island of Shalott” (The Lady of Shalott lines 7-9). Similarly, he calls Elaine “the lily maid of Astolat” (Lancelot and Elaine 2). Both ladies occupy their time by weaving or embroidering. William E. Buckler compares Elaine to the Lady by stating:
The “case of silk” that she decorates for Lancelot’s shield has its counterpart in the Lady’s storied tapestry; it is Lancelot who, here again unintentionally, motivates her fatal decision; like the Lady, she approaches Camelot in a mysterious funeral barge; and as Lancelot had in the earlier poem “mused a little space,” in the idyll he “later came and mused at her”.
When comparing both poems, one sees many face parallels in the two women’s lives. Nevertheless, a deeper reading reveals manifold differences between the ladies as individuals. Completely alone, the Lady lives a life of seclusion revealed by the lines “And the silent isle imbowers/The Lady of Shalott” (The Lady of Shalott 17-18). Tennyson never mentions anyone other than the Lady as an occupant of the island. She has no apparent family members to guide or help her in any way. She has no one with whom to converse while inside the castle. In fact, she has no given name, simply a title. On the other hand, Elaine has a father and two older brothers to keep her company as seen when Sir Lancelot first came to their castle: And issuing found the Lord of Astolat /With two strong sons, Sir Torre and Sir Lavaine, / Moving to meet him in the castle court; And close behind them stept the lily maid. (Lancelot and Elaine 172-75). Indeed, the father and brothers play a key role in her life as her protectors and companions. They are also the first to mourn her death, whereas Lancelot is the only one who is remotely mournful for the Lady in The Lady of Shalott. Moreover, Elaine has not a title, but a name given by her father and deceased mother. From the beginning, the Lady is mysteriously alone while Elaine thrives on her family’s affection.
The way Tennyson shows each woman interacting with her surrounding society further reveals differences between the two, The Lady resides in a remote castle on the island of Shalott. A river separates her from the surrounding land and the people who inhabit it. No one sees her, and “Only reapers, reaping early / In among the bearded barley, / Hear a song that echoes cheerly” (The Lady of Shalott 28-30). Because of this, they call her a “fairy” (35). Roger Simpson says about the Lady, “The attribution of her fairy nature is [……] contextualised within the countryman’s belief in fairies” (197). Surrounded by an aura of mystery, she inspires a feeling of fear among the people as shown by how their voices drop when mentioning her. Their fear was due to what Bob Trubshaw points out: “Accounts of medieval fairies show them to have been neither small nor particularly kindly. For many people, fairies were spirits against which they had to guard themselves by ritual precautions” (Par. 6). Since the Lady stays inside her castle year-round, she never interacts with society and never speaks to anyone throughout the poem. Instead, “moving through a mirror clear / That hangs before her all the year, / Shadows of the world appear” (The Lady of Shalott 46-48). She simply looks at the world outside her tower by means of a mirror’s reflection. Her great work that she weaves is seen by no one. Everything about her is vague and otherworldly, especially her being referred to as a “fairy.”
Elaine’s character, by contrast, is entirely human. Living in an active castle, she converses on a regular basis with her family, Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain, and others.
| In regards to her residence, “[Elaine’s] castle cannot retain the kind of mysterious force radiated by the Lady’s island [ ………]” (Goslee 180). After his life-threatening wound from the diamond tournament, Elaine nurses Sir Lancelot back to health with womanly attentiveness as Tennyson states: And never woman yet, since man’s first fall, /Did kindlier unto man, but her deep love / Upbore her; till the hermit, skill’d in all / The simples and the science of that time, / Told him [Sir Lancelot] that her fine care had saved his life (Lancelot and Elaine 854-58). During this time, Tennyson tells of her going to and from Sir Lancelot’s sick bed, thereby showing that unlike the static Lady, she moves about the territory surrounding her home. Viewed by all at the tournament when worn by Sir Lancelot, her exquisite embroidery initially reveals her to a larger society, including the royal court. For example, King Arthur recounts to the Queen that “|Sir Lancelot] wore, against his wont, upon his helm / A sleeve of scarlet, broider’d with great pearls,/ Some gentle maiden’s gift” (600-2). Later, Elaine’s death inspires those at court to feel a deep sorrow. King Arthur then commands Sir Lancelot to arrange for her to be richly entombed at Camelot. Indeed, Elaine is an active participant in her world.
Tennyson continues to portray a magical realm for the Lady as seen by the mirror, her web or tapestry, the curse, and the events transpiring after the curse. The mirror is her portal into society; in fact, it is her only link to the outside world. Through it, she sees the activity outside her window during the day and into the night. The imagery and people she views encourage her “To weave the mirror’s magic sights” (The Lady of Shalott 65). However, everything shown by the mirror is a reversal of its true form, thus giving the Lady a skewed interpretation of life. By showing a tantalizing, albeit untrue, glimpse of society, the mirror is distinctly magical. Similar to this is the web the Lady weaves. Tennyson writes that it is “A magic web with colors gay” (38). By his own words, he tells of the enchanted nature of the Lady’s artwork. Composed of scenes revealed by the mirror, the tapestry is filled with misperceptions of the real world. The tapestry is also a compilation in tangible form of her memories of the mirror’s images. Still, the most magical elements in the Lady’s world revolve around the curse.
Proceeding from an unknown source, a “whisper” reveals this dark spell to the Lady (The Lady of Shalott 39). Yet, the outcome of the curse is unknown to her. She is aware merely of its existence and that she must avoid looking at Camelot. Therefore, the mirror is necessary for the Lady to see anything outside her tower, even if they are just “shadows” (48). When referring to the curse, Herbert F. Tucker contends that “if the Lady incurs damnation by merely staying in the tower and weaving, then she must be enduring the curse right now. And so she is, if we consider that the curse may in fact be the curse of isolation under which she has been laboring since the beginning of the poem [……]” (109). When her actions bring about the curse’s more dramatic effects, the results are devastating: “Out flew the web and floated wide; /The mirror cracked from side to side” (The Lady of Shalott 114-115). First, her creative work is destroyed-the, work on which she spent possibly years. All the scenes she had woven, her tangible memories, were gone. Perhaps the web is torn apart because she finally sees the true world, causing her work to be worthless and requiring it to be destroyed. Otherwise, the web’s ruin may purely be cruel punishment for a forbidden action. Next, the mirror, her one link to society, shatters. Her method of seeing Camelot without causing the curse’s fall becomes unnecessary when she uses her own eyes instead. Thus, it is useless both in its reason for existing and in its broken pieces. By these two drastic actions, the Lady is certain that evil has fallen upon her. The curse’s final punishment is fatal, for the Lady dies because of one look at Camelot. Always viewed with fear and dread by superstitious people, a curse is by nature associated with magical properties. Quite oppositely, Elaine’s world is entirely devoid of a known curse or any other supernatural elements, implying a simple, ´everyday reality.
Lastly, the manner in which each woman dies makes a distinction between the mystical and the definite. The Lady of Shalott eventually dies because she does what the curse forbids. But first, she begins her journey by boat to the city of Camelot after nightfall. As she floats along, the reapers hear her singing a song once more. Although this time, it is an eerily “mournful” tune (The Lady of Shalott 145). The Lady does not explain her death to those who are bound to see her, but simply gives the title by which she is known. Her inexplicable arrival in the city. causes great alarm among all except Sir Lancelot. Even the knights “crossed themselves for fear” (166). Therefore, her death can be seen as nothing but ethereal. When referring to the Lady’s arrival at Camelot, James R. Kincaid says that “she manages to create [……] a flurry of superstition” (35).
On the other hand, Elaine’s passing carries a very human pathos. Her death is not caused by a curse, but because she wills herself to die. Such is her reaction to unrequited love. William E. Buckler aptly uses the phrase “fragile humanness” to describe Elaine (111). Before she dies, Elaine also sings a song, but a song of heartbreaking words: “Love, art thou sweet? then bitter death must be. / Love, thou are bitter; sweet is death to me. / O Love, if death be sweeter, let me die” (Lancelot and Elaine 1003-5). Accordingly, she asks her father to send her body by boat to Camelot. Yet, her passage to the city retains little of the Lady’s mystery. Accompanied by a mute servant to guide the barge, Elaine also grasps a letter explaining her death. She wants all the court to know that she died because Sir Lancelot did not love her.
The Lady of Shalott has no letter and leaves everyone to wonder “Who is this? And what is here?” (The Lady of Shalott 163). Thus, while the people of Camelot are initially frightened by the strange appearance of Elaine and the servant, they quickly understand the matter after King Arthur reads the letter. Although her death is tragic, it reveals an entirely human character who makes plans for her passing, which are then carried out by her family, and her body is seen by all of Camelot.
While both stories discuss Elaine of Astolat’s death caused by her infatuation with Sir Lancelot, they differ tremendously in how the ladies are presented. One is a fairy lady living in an enchanted world of curses, magical mirrors, and mystery. The other is a young maiden possessed by entirely human passions who lives in an easily identifiable world. The Lady has no one, while Elaine has a loving family. The former is secluded from society, unlike the latter’s active participation in the world. Death for the Lady comes because of a mystical curse. Elaine chooses to die due to shattered illusions of love. By writing two separate stories using the same character from Arthurian legends, Tennyson portrays his intention that the Lady should be ethereal and Elaine should be human. Clearly, he wanted to make the original story of Elaine into an enchantingly dark tale, since readers are drawn to mystery and suspense. The Lady becomes far more intriguing due to the many questions Tennyson leaves unanswered, such as who put the curse on her and why. Lancelot and Elaine, while tragic, contains few of the mysterious elements that pervade The Lady of Shalott and make the latter so enjoyable to read time after time.
SHORT QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
1 . Describe how the poem presents a conflict between the artist’s need for withdrawal and the demands of human contact and social responsibility.
Ans. As a weaver, the Lady is a dedicated artist, working night and day, but her seclusion, while it enables her to create a magical and beautiful web, prohibits her from active involvement with humanity. Thus the poem presents a conflict between the artist’s need for withdrawal and the demands of human contact and social responsibility. When she leaves the tower, the Lady forsakes her art as she has hitherto practised it, and the web is torn from the loom. This is not to say, however, that she abandons art entirely. Instead, the art of the tapestry is replaced by the art of the song, which reflects the complexities and contradictions of human life, since it is both loud and low, both mournful and holy, the result of her entrance into life and the accompaniment of her voyage to death. Thus the poem perhaps suggests that, despite the appeal of solitary detachment, the artist cannot achieve full self-realization without participation in the tumult of human life.
2. Comment on the theme of the poem.
Ans. The theme of the poem depends on how one interprets it. For example, if the reader takes into account Tennyson’s source material and thus assumes that the lady seeks the attentions of Lancelot, unrequited love and its tragic result become the theme. On the other hand, if the reader interprets the poem as a commentary on the plight of women in Tennyson’s time, the confining role of women becomes the theme. In Europe in the early 1830s, when Tennyson completed the first version of the poem, unmarried women were expected to remain passive in the home or at social events as they awaited the overtures of suitors. Married women were expected to domesticate themselves, overseeing household management and the rearing of children. Venturing into the male-dominated world to pursue one’s desires was considered anathema. If Tennyson had the latter theme in mind, the reader can only speculate on whether he was defending or condemning the Lady of Shalott’s decision to abandon her sanctuary and enter the world. Some scholars maintain that the theme is the conflict an artist (writer, painter, sculptor, composer of music, etc.) faces in his attempt to remain aloof from the world and his desire to enter it. As Natalie Lewis says,
“The lady working on her tapestry in a secluded tower represents the contemplative Victorian artist isolated from daily social life… There is a tragic ambivalence between the artist’s desire for social involvement and his fear that such an involvement will destroy his poetic inspiration. In order to objectively transform life into art, the artist needs a distance from the turbulences of life. Disillusioned from their social environment, many Victorian artists retreated into dream worlds of the past. Although they often felt the urge to make statements on contemporary social and political problems, they tried to avoid a direct approach to such topics and rather chose to address those issues under the disguise medieval legend or Christian allegory”.
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