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“God in his mercy lend her grace”: The Dilemma of the Artist in Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”

The Victorian era marked a new interest in the Arthurian mythos, spurred on by a wider social interest in medievalism and Romanticism.  The nearly canonical cycle of the Arthur story, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, was reprinted in 1816 for the first time in almost two hundred years; the newly republished legends inspired a new generation of authors, poets and artists including Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Pairns 8-10).  Though Tennyson may have published his first Arthurian poem, “The Lady of Shalott”, before reading Malory’s text[1], his Lady is clearly based on a figure that appears in several of the Arthurian and Grail cycles, alternately known as Elaine of Astolat, the Demoiselle d’Escalot, Elaine the White, Elaine the Fair, and in the Italian romance Donna di Scalotta, which likely served directly as the basis for Tennyson’s poem (Potwin 238), the Damigella di Scalot.  Tennyson continued to be fascinated by the Arthurian legends throughout his life and eventually produced Idylls of the King, a cycle of twelve narrative poems that retell the tales of Camelot, which was published between 1856 and 1885.  His poems were influenced and inspired by the Arthurian and Grail cycles that came before his, however Tennyson’s work also contains elements that are without historical precedent in the stories that came before.  In “The Lady of Shalott”, his inventions draw attention to the underlying themes of the poem; the literary Elaine, as she existed before Tennyson, was already said to have loved Lancelot with an unrequited passion that killed her and sent her bedecked body down the river by boat to Camelot, but there is no reference in any of the earlier texts to a tower, an island, a curse, a song, the Lady’s weaving, or a mirror.  These elements are entirely the invention of Tennyson himself, suggesting that they are significant in understanding and examining the meaning intrinsic to the poem.  The inclusions emphasize the geographic and emotional isolation of Tennyson’s heroine, as she is set apart from the world by her seclusion in a prison, isolated from society by a supernatural curse, and able to view the world only through a glass darkly.  Her craftsmanship at the loom records life from an outside perspective; the expressive and emotional power of her songs creates a connection with the world outside her tower.

A Sequestered Tower and Indirect Gaze: The Landscape of Isolation

Tennyson’s Lady is significantly removed from the world in which she lives, both geographically and emotionally or psychologically.  In fact, it is difficult to describe her as living within the world at all; unlike the earlier versions of Elaine that precede her in the Arthurian literary tradition, Tennyson’s Lady is wholly unable to interact with society, because she is subject to a curse, and she instead lives a lonely existence in a tall gray tower above the bustle of life across the river.  Tennyson devotes the first four stanzas of the poem, which make up the entirety of Part 1, to vibrant descriptions of the landscape of her isolation; amidst the lush, verdant countryside sits the “silent” Island of Shalott (l. 17), upon which the Lady is trapped by “[f]our gray walls, and four gray towers” (l. 15).  The cold, stark imagery of the tower stands in stark contrast to the rich, organic descriptions of a world abundant and ready for harvest: “On either side the river lie / Long fields of barley and of rye, / That clothe the wold and meet the sky” (ll. 1-3).  There is activity in the fields, but the world inside the tower and the world of the kingdom below exist separately and are unable to interact to any significant degree.  The Lady is imprisoned in the tower, distanced from the world by the curse she has heard whispered is upon her (ll. 39-40).  Unable to look upon the world outside her tower with her own eyes, she views only “[s]hadows” of its contents and inhabitants as they are reflected through the mirror behind her loom (l. 48), leaving her able to watch and interpret the actions of nature and society without the ability to participate.

The curse has been suggested to represent “the inescapable condition of the poet’s art”, a sign of a deeper conflict between the internal world of the artist and the external world of society and social interaction (Culler 46).  The artist struggles between her isolation during the creative process and a desire to participate in the day-to-day events of life with others.  The distance between the artist and her subject is often emphasized by critics as being “removed from reality” several times (Hellstrom 13).  The curse, therefore, has been said to doom the Lady “to produce an art object that is an inversion of a dim unreality” (Wright 287).  However, Wright goes on to argue that this interpretation is fundamentally flawed, as the interpretations of reflection are exaggerated by some scholars.  The mirror itself, rather than being a device solely present for the sake of the fairy tale, is necessitated by the task she performs; as her weaving has her working the back side of the image, the mirror allows her to see the front of her work, and is a common practice for weavers (287-8).  The mirror’s function of reversal does not figure largely in the text; in fact, the theme of reflection that flows throughout the poem sees every significantly reversed image righted before it reaches the eyes of the Lady, through acts of double reflection.  The sight of her beloved, Sir Lancelot, is both reversed and righted, as his image is reflected in the river and then righted again in the mirror: “From the bank and from the river / He flash’d into the crystal mirror” (ll. 105-6).   With its function of reversal negated, the mirror serves only to divert the gaze of the Lady from settling directly on her subject and instead fixes it upon her work.  By distancing her gaze from the world, Tennyson suggests that art is a solitary and introspective pursuit; in studying the reflections of the world outside her window, the Lady reflects on their beauty and strives to imitate and capture their beauty.

Sight and Sound: To Record or Express

Set away from the world, alone in a tower without human companionship, Tennyson’s Lady spends her days weaving images of a world in which she cannot participate; though she sees the world only at a distance, reflected through the mirror behind her loom, she maintains a scrupulous record of the events that occur in the kingdom outside her window.  She sits at her loom “by night and day”, weaving “steadily”, completely fixated on her task (ll. 37, 43).  The textile art produces a record, but as Culler suggests, the product of the Lady’s craft is a mimetic work (46); she observes and records, but does not embellish or interpret what the images mean to her personal experience.  If the curse represents the poet’s condition, it suggests that the artist who simply records without participating or understanding is solitary and unfulfilled; though “in her web she still delights / To weave the mirror’s magic sights,” it is clear that it is a desire to interact with the outside world that keeps her transfixed, as the image of “two young lovers lately wed” causes her to cry out: “I am half sick of shadows” (ll. 64-5, 70, 71).  The Lady is alone, without her other half: “She hath no loyal knight and true” (l. 62).  Unable to converse or dialogue with others because of her isolation, the mimetic art that she produces is the only way that she is able to respond to the world around her.  It is significant that she is drawn from her introspection not by Lancelot’s image, but by the sound of his song:

From the bank and from the river

He flash’d into the crystal mirror,

“Tirra lirra,” by the river

Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She looked down to Camelot.

(ll. 105-113)

At the sound of his song, the Lady leaps up to take three steps across the room, spurred to action by the call of his voice.  The syntax of these lines is anaphoric and asyndetic, suggesting that she “acts with whole-hearted determination … when she knowingly gives herself up to an outside force” (Gray 45-6).  Whether or not the Lady is cognisant of the consequences of her actions as she performs them, the attraction to Lancelot does elicit a response of whole-hearted determination from the poem’s heroine.   She leaves behind her tools for recording and looks directly upon the world, engaging it completely for the first time.  Sound is the one integrating force that exists in the poem between the world of the tower and the world of the kingdom below.  The Lady is first introduced through her song, which reaches the ears of the reapers in the fields below:

Only reapers, reaping early

In among the bearded barley,

Hear a song that echoes cheerly

From the river winding clearly

Down to tower’d Camelot:

(ll. 28-32)

While the Lady is distanced from visually and physically interacting with the natural world and the company of others, she is in some way able to influence others and receive some form of recognition in turn; the reapers know her by her voice, even though the Lady is unaware of their response (ll. 35-6).  Once she knows that the curse is upon her, Tennyson’s heroine signs her name on the prow of an abandoned boat and makes her way down the river, performing a funeral dirge.  The scene is pointedly similar to her earlier song:

And as the boat-head wound along

The willowy hills and fields among,

They heard her singing her last song,

The Lady of Shalott.

(ll. 141-4)

Both songs wind through the natural world, eventually reaching the ears of others.  Having been roused by the power of song, the Lady engages in a performance and signs her name to it, encouraging an appreciative response from others; with the curse upon her, she reaches out to the world around her in the most effective way the poet can: by projecting her voice into the world around her and attaching her name to the result.

Conclusions

The elements Tennyson invented and introduced to his version of the story of the Lady of Shalott emphasize her geographic and emotional isolation, as she is set apart from the world by her seclusion in an island tower, isolated from the kingdom in which she lives by a supernatural curse, and able to view the outside world only indirectly.  Her craftsmanship at the loom records life from an outside perspective, keeping her separate and unable to participate in society.  However, the expressive and emotional powers of music and songs create a connection between the Lady and the world outside of her tower.  Although the curse is her undoing, her mournful song attracts the interest and attention of the entire kingdom, “Knight and burgher, lord and dame” (l. 160), and the acceptance and admiration of the object of her affection, Lancelot, who leaves the Lady-poet with a hopeful wish:

But Lancelot mused a little space;

He said, “She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace,

The Lady of Shalott.”

(ll. 168-171)


[1] “I do not think that I had ever heard of the latter when I wrote the former [Tennyson’s note].” (Tennyson 1235)

Presented to: Angus Cleghorn, ENGL 3402, 24 March 2010

References

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