Tennyson's Presentation of the Lady of Shallot

Categories: Poems

With The Lady of Shallot, Tennyson explores various themes within the structure of a conventional Romantic poem; the poem may be interpreted as a story representing the plight of the artist, or even as a comment on the female roles in Victorian society, but the imagery and language remain flowing and powerful either way.

The social context is, of course, significant; Tennyson wrote the poem during a period of social and intellectual change, where people began to question accepted wisdom, and pursue their own line of questioning.

Thus the poem may represent Tennyson's desire as an artist to shatter the barrier that held him back from reality, but it is also a comment on the very nature of the artist, who strives to perfect his art and may only achieve perfection in death. Tennyson, from the first stanza, presents us with two distinct and separated areas: nature, and the Lady's walled tower. The tower, a phallic image in itself, conveys the manner in which masculine dominance in the Victorian era led to creative and intellectual suffocation for women.

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Alternatively, considering Freudian theory, one could consider the image of a female imprisoned by a phallic structure to represent the emasculation that Tennyson feels as a poet, because outside, the "[w]illows whiten, aspens quiver,/Little breezes dusk and shiver/ Thro' the wave that runs for ever." The language clearly emphasizes the magnitude of nature's creativity, and its freedom, yet the Lady cannot even look on jealously because she has been cursed. Observing this beauty through a mirror, she tries in vain to recreate it on her tapestry, but the sheer futility of this is demonstrated through the images of perpetuity and passivity in the fifth stanza.

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She weaves "night and day" and "She has heard a whisper say,/ A curse is on her if she stay/ to Look down to Camelot." Firstly, the enjambment conveys the sense of continuity, and crucially, it tells us that despite Romantic poetry's fixation with the individual, Tennyson accepts the ultimate insignificance of the individual, or perhaps the artist.

The "curse" is the conceit of the poem, and once again, could firstly suggest the misogyny inherent in Victorian society: by labelling it a curse, Tennyson satirises his contemporaries' refusal to believe that change was necessary and even possible. Recognising female repression as outdated and redundant, the irony is clear when he calls it preordained. However, a more interesting understanding of the curse would seem to involve a reference to Aristotle's Allegory of the Cave. Aristotle's dialogue described a society that lived in a cave, facing inwards and trapped by chains. They see on the wall in front of them shadows that they perceive to be reality, but of course reality is an altogether different proposition, and the people cannot understand its true nature nor grasp it. In the same way, the Lady, as an artist would, draws her perception of nature which she must view through a mirror.

The mirror, however, in Renaissance times and later, was symbolic of self-delusion and vanity thus suggesting that any perception the Lady makes, and any art she creates is tainted by hr own prejudices and beliefs. The repressed images and dark colours (the castle is described as having "[f]our gray walls, and four gray towers"), then, seem to signify Tennyson's frustration with this growing gap between reality and perception, and his inability to cope with the sheer beauty of reality manifests itself as the realisation of the curse, which causes the mirror to crack "from side to side" and the web to fly out of the window. The surreal, violent images are sexual at times because the Lady's encounter's with reality is destructive, but an epiphany. While searching for the perfect art form, Tennyson feels that he has broken out of the cave and the destruction of the tapestry represents to me its relative insignificance and triviality in comparison to the colourful, dynamic environment.

I also feel that this artistic inspiration is personified to an extent by "Sir Lancelot" whose "helmet and ... helmet-feather/ Burn'd like one burning flame together." The images are dazzling yet harmful, and the passion the Lady feels for Lancelot is all -consuming. So, Tennyson's quest slowly eats away at him, and his frustration at being unable to clearly depict the reality he has seen (through his art) leaves him in mental conflict. The mere "tapestry" is unable to capture the infinite, brilliant aspects of nature like "the sun" that came "dazzling thro' the leaves," the "starry clusters" or "the blue unclouded weather."

Consumed by her desire for art, the Lady ignores prophesies of her death like the "funeral with plumes and lights" and the "bearded meteor." In fact, the latter image shows the manner in which Tennyson ironically illustrates this separation of reality and perception: The beard on the meteor is in fact its trail, yet the image conceals the true nature of the world that the Lady sees. I believe that the "broad stream" is another mythological allusion to the River Styx, and in a "trance" that symbolises her detachment from

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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Tennyson's Presentation of the Lady of Shallot. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/tennysons-presentation-of-the-lady-of-shallot-essay

Tennyson's Presentation of the Lady of Shallot essay
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