Alongside Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven
, Alfred Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott
stands as one of the more fascinating works of poetry from the 1800s. Aesthetically it is a work of great and simply beauty, therefore providing evidence that language in a poetic simplicity can provide some of the greatest and most beautiful ideas and images. After all, in the Bible, the splendour of light was released with 'Let there be light.'
The poem appears simple on the outside, with a nice flowing rhythm, reinforced by the repetitious aaaabcccb structure and the use of the word Shalott to close almost each stanza. Yet the poem is far more complex than its language may suggest. There are hints of various critiques and subversions of traditional love narratives buried in Tennyson's work and as such The Lady of Shalott
becomes another fantasy tale that reflects on reality.
The narrative, essentially describing how one Lady of Shalott, trapped in a tower, is forced to view the world of Camelot through a mirror, lest she succumb to a curse. Eventually she does turn from the mirror to look down at the glittering, gem covered Lancelot, the poem's ultimate symbol of masculinity (and virility). As a result her mirror and artistry break, signs that her curse has fallen upon her. As a result, she leaves her tower in a boat and floats down to Camelot, only to arrive dead and drained of blood. Where only Lancelot is considerate enough to look upon her and comment that:"She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."
Many critics have suggested that The Lady of the poem is the perfect symbol for how Victorian women were expected to behave, therefore making of this poem a feminist critique. The sense pervades the poem that when the Lady looks down at her possible lover, the beautified Lancelot, it is because she is a woman and therefore supposedly given into the irrational. The very idea that this woman has to be kept hidden in a tower, concealed away from society (and perhaps from exploring her sexuality) is in itself a unique critique. Therefore, it is possible that Tennyson intended the poem to criticise the idea that women were meant to be seen and not heard; objects of beauty but not of necessarily logical capacity. The fact that Tennyson was Poet Laureate for the Queen leads one to consider the strong indications that this poem was intended to be political in nature.
Another angle to observe this poem from is the perspective of the poem as a subversion of the classic fairytale knight quest. Considering the way in which Tennyson uses Arthurian myth and legend in the poem this again seems like another way in which Tennyson perhaps criticises romantic love in relation to male and female dynamics. There is the sense that Tennyson condemns the romantic idea of the gallant chivalrous knight rescuing the damsel in distress, for in his narrative the knights do not come to rescue the damsel and instead the damsel must leave her tower for the knight, resulting in her death. This could be seen as an indication that Tennyson believes that there are no happy ever afters and that chivalry is a naive idea of the past (particular when one connects the poem to the reality of the industrialised age Tennyson lived in). Or, one could read it as a condemnation of women being forced to become independent and rely upon their own strength, that essentially without a knight to rescue them a woman will die from a curse.
One of the motifs in the poem is the use of ethereal, dreamlike constructs. Mirrors and shadows in particular feature heavily in the poem, from the mirror the Lady is forced to observe the world through. A mirror which could be seen as a symbol for the social constraints obscuring that which can be truly seen. Then again, how the Lady weaves what she sees in the mirror into a web of tapestry could be viewed as a criticism of how the artist performs their work. A particularly poignant idea when connected to the nature of Tennyson being Poet Laureate."'I am half sick of shadows,' said
The Lady of Shalott."
Whatever way you choose to read this poem it is a fascinating work (as is most of Tennyson's work). And in some senses it is a danger to read too much into the poem for fear of ignoring the sheer aesthetic beauty of it. Indeed Tennyson is a poet who understands how to capture musicality with words and as such his work should be read by anyone interested in literature.
An in depth essay written for university literature can be read here, but be warned, some may view it as long and rambling: http://www.goodreads.com/story/show/333153?chapter=1