Sunday, 25 March 2007

"She hath no loyal Knight and true..."

Write a critical analysis of one poem that has not been looked at in detail either in the seminar or in the lecture part of the course, and which relates to the specific time period covered in the lectures since the beginning of term.

There is much about Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” which gives the impression of a fairytale. It appears to be a simple narrative, progressing chronologically through sections or “parts.” The first sets the scene and describes vividly the area around the tower from which the Lady is separated. The second elaborates further on the situation and sets up an atmosphere of mystery and magic. The third describes Lancelot’s appearance and the Lady’s reaction. The fourth describes the Lady’s death. The narrative is ballad-like: its predominantly iambic metre and form of repeated rhymes placed close together, with a refrain or near-refrain at the end of each stanza, make it sound like a song. Its simplicity is deceptive, however, as there are many unanswered questions in the narrative, such as how the curse came about, and a deeper meaning seems to be present. Brooke writes: “As to its meaning, folk have exhausted themselves to find it, and fruitlessly. It was never intended to have any special meaning. Tennyson was playing with his own imagination when he wrote it.”[1] I will be exploring, in the course of this essay, alternative views of the poem in order to assess whether this statement does the poem justice.

In doing this, it is necessary to examine the poem in more detail and address certain questions it raises. Lines 39-42 read:
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be.
The reader is then led to question the precise nature and origin of the curse. Perhaps what are important are not the specifics of the curse, however, but what they represent psychologically in terms of the Lady’s isolation. All of stanzas six and seven are dedicated to what the Lady is missing out on. It is seeing what she’s missing, particularly in terms of romantic love, that causes her to declare that she’s “half sick of shadows” (line 71). There is, however, a possible suggestion of ambivalence in that she is only “half” sick: perhaps the curse of isolation was somehow her own choice, as it protects her from being hurt by others.

Any doubts the Lady may have had are overcome by seeing Lancelot. The lengthy description of him conveys that her focus is on him entirely, and so conveys her love. Much of the language used to describe him is related to fire: his helmet and its feather “burned” (line 94) and his curls are “coal-black” (line 103). This could show that her love for him, like fire, is beautiful but also potentially destructive and painful. The cracking of the mirror (line 115) could be potentially confusing; Ricks explains that curse forbade her “to look directly at life – she must see life only in her mirror.”[1] He believes that it cracks because “she sees somebody doubly mirrored… the protection is cancelled out,”[2] but I think it is more likely that it cracks because she looks down to Camelot, as that is what she was forbidden to do, hence, “The curse is come upon me.” (line 116). There is a sense that she is so overcome on seeing Lancelot that she cannot help but look, as her agitated state is conveyed with a succession of lines beginning with “she” (lines 108-113).

The final section is perhaps the most perplexing as the Lady’s death is unexplained. Ricks writes that she dies “as by some mysterious suicide, some consumptive wish not to go on living.”[3] She appears to have gone mad, lying in her boat and singing (lines 134-144), and this is matched in pathetic fallacy with the noise of the wind and stream (lines 118-121), heard sonically in the poem by the repetition of “ing” at the end of these lines. The tone becomes heavy and oppressive. There are religious connotations to her song’s being described as a “carol” (line 145), but these too go unexplained. It is my belief that these mysteries in the poem are strong evidence that it has a deeper meaning than merely the narrative.

It seems sensible, then, to consider a psychological interpretation of the poem. Sinfield writes that it is about development of the self: it bears witness to “the infant’s move into language and identity, veering away from the discovery that the self is a construction which is always in language, and casting around for an ultimate reality somehow beyond language.”[4] The poem seems to me to be primarily about the relationship between the self and the outside world, as Sinfield has pointed out: the Lady’s “name and ‘Camelot’ are the twin refrain words, but she cannot relate the two – cannot locate a coherent sense of her self in the world.” By writing her name on line boat (line 125-126),“she claims her name as a necessary prelude to social life, but the project is doomed.”[5] Indeed, the tower itself can be seen as a metaphor for social isolation, and the mirror for observing social interaction without participating. Lines 10-18 are dedicated wholly to juxtaposing the Lady’s world in the tower with the outside world. The curse, then, could be seen as social isolation itself and its consequences if broken the disaster of a failed attempt to connect with others.

It is important, however, not to ignore the Arthurian myth on which Tennyson bases his story. This is particularly the case as he retold the same story again later, in “Lancelot and Elaine” which Shaw describes as simply “the longer version” of “The Lady of Shallott.”[6] Elaine was the maid of Astolat, which is a near-anagram of Shallot. We must naturally wonder what it was about this tale that appealed to Tennyson so much that he would retell it twice. Elaine “falls in love with Lancelot and dies of unrequited love.”[7] Perhaps, then, it would be wiser to see the essence of “The Lady of Shallot” as being in terms of the absence of romantic love rather than social interaction. Perhaps, though, Tennyson sees romantic love as itself the pinnacle of social interaction.

In conclusion, there are several ways in which “The Lady of Shallott” can be interpreted. Ricks describes it as “an intensely memorable myth in which the wish not to face reality and the wish to face it, the impulse toward life and the impulse toward death, an inexplicable guilt and a timorous innocence, shine forth as from a cracked mirror.”[8] Tennyson himself saw the poem as being about the individual’s relation to the real world, the world of substance, and less substantial worlds we build for ourselves: “the, for some one, in the wide world from which she has been so long secluded, takes [the Lady] out of the region of shadows into new-born love for something that of realities.”[9] This relationship between the world and the self encompasses the relationship between the self and others. It is evident, then, that “The Lady of Shallot” is not merely a story or a fairytale but has a strong psychological aspect and a deeper meaning also.


Brooke, Stopford A., Tennyson: His Art and Relation to Modern Life (London: Isbister and Co. Ltd., 1894)
Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy (eds.) The Norton Anthology of Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton and Co. Inc, 2005)
Ricks, Christopher, Tennyson (Hampshire and London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1989)
Shaw, Marion, Alfred Lord Tennyson (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988)
Sinfield, Alan, Alfred Tennyson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986)

“Elaine" A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, ed. Elizabeth Knowles. Oxford Reference Online. (

[1] Christopher Ricks, Tennyson (Hampshire and London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1989) , p. 74
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Alan Sinfield, Alfred Tennyson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986), p. 99
[5] Sinfield, Alfred Tennyson, p. 68
[6] Marion Shaw, Alfred Lord Tennyson (Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1988), p. 133-134
[7] “Elaine,” A Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, ed. Elizabeth Knowles, Oxford Reference Online
[8] Ricks, Tennyson, p. 76
[9] Tennyson quoted in Ricks, Tennyson, p. 75-6

1 comment:

Bhavika said...

We are studdying this poem as part of our section on Victorian Poetry, and your ctitical analyses of the poem has been invaluable to my understanding of its essence and deeper meaning. By highlighting the multifarious aspects of the poignant poem, stressing all its subtle nuances, and referring to the perspectives of many critics like Christopher Ricks, you have transcended the superficial narration of the poem as a mere fairytale, and have delved deeper into its finer aspects and psychological meaning. You have also delineated its historical context (Elaine of Astolat and the Italian novella Donna di Scalotta) which further simplify its understanding. The crux of it is, that you've done a wonderful job.
The only flaw is, however, that certain critics view it as a poem based on female sexuality (both the Victorian and Gothic viewpoints on a woman's sexuality) which has been excluded.
Anyway, keep posting! :)