The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

"The Lady of Shalott"

This poem reflects Tennyson's interest in the legends attached to the court of King Arthur; the background story here involves not only a young woman's love for Sir Lancelot--King Arthur's foremost knight--but also Lancelot's guilty love for the King's wife, Queen Guinivere. Tennyson makes no reference to the latter love in this poem but he could assume that his readers would know the story of Lancelot and the Queen's adultery and immediately sense the tragic consequences for the Lady of Shalott.

Like Blake's "TheGarden of Love," Tennyson's poem turns on the contrast of two worlds, embodied in opposing image clusters. Unlike Blake's poem, however, there is no clear sense here that one world is strongly preferable to the other. Each world is powerfully attractive; each world is also defined by limitation and lack. Like Arnold's poem, "The Forsaken Merman, "Tennyson's poem conveys a sense of being torn between two worlds. Perhaps the tension reflects a culture in transition, as the poet struggles with the difficult shift from Romantic to Victorian sensibilities. Or perhaps it represents the sense of living in an age of contradictory and oppositional forces, the sense of divided consciousness, that marks the beginnings of the modern world.

Parts I and II of the poem convey the contrasts between the worlds of Camelot and Shalott; the musical echoes of the two names suggest indeed that the two "worlds" are almost mirror images of each other. What sounds, images, and actions associate Camelot with work, activity, freedom, variety, fertility, business, love, death? What associates Shalott with beauty, innocence, purity, stillness, mystery, art, loneliness, imprisonment?

The Lady understands that a curse will come down upon her if she ever looks out the window at Camelot. She weaves her tapestry of Camelot, then, not by looking directly at the scene out her window but rather by viewing its reflection in her mirror--looking not at reality, but at the "mirror's magic sights." If the mirror is the mind, then her art is a subjective art, representing not reality but the reflection of reality in the imagination. This aspect seems to associate her art with Romanticism.

Love, however, becomes too strong a temptation and the entry of Sir Lancelot into the mirror breaks the Lady's resolve. Is it love, however, that brings about her destruction or is it love of this particular knight, Sir Lancelot? In Part II of the poem, we see another double image: Sir Lancelot riding through the barley-sheaves and the idealized image of a knight kneeling to his lady, depicted on Sir Lancelot's shield. Is this the image of the ideal and perfect knight that Lancelot fails to be? Is it an ironic mockery of the ideal, since the Lady he is known to be kneeling to is Queen Guinevere? Lancelot as he appears in the poem is all male beauty--possibly a somewhat superficial lover, but certainly not sinister. Yet the context of the legend suggests that the Lady has fallen in love with a man who can never love her back. The world she has entered is one of mischance, misadventure, and fatality.

The transition in the poem then is from a static, pure and immortal world to a vibrant but fallen, mortal world. The state of innocence has been lost but innocence has also been shown to be inadequate to our desire. What is the moral here; or is there a moral? Are we perhaps left instead with the haunting, disturbing quality of the Lady's last song--perhaps the new art of the new era?

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