Lord Tennyson’s well known poem, “The Lady of Shalott” embodies the fairytale story of a woman set on the island of Shalott. Never seen by the people, it’s fabled she is the guardian of Excalibur, king Arthur’s sword, bound by a curse that is unknown even to her yet a moments laps in judgment results in her destruction. The mystery, artistry and symbolism captivates me.
Tennyson sets the stage for this poem with vivid descriptions of Camelot and the world surrounding the Lady of Shalott.
“By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle embowers
The Lady of Shalott.”
These lines indicate that she lives on an island on a river that leads to Camelot; thus proving why she’s often referred to as “the Lady of the Lake”. This poem embodies the pre- Raphaelite era and it’s pursuit of bringing back the elaborate and surreal stories of fairies, maidens and shining knights of the crusade. Tennyson’s approach to the poems artistry adds body, creating a dreamlike feeling that is intoxicating. However he also captures your affection for a Lady whose only connection to the outside world is through a mirror in front of her. The relationship between the reader and the Lady only amplifies the climactic moment when she spots Sir Lancelot returning to Camelot and turns to look at him, this activates her unknown curse and the mirror, her only reflection of the world, breaks. Her statement of recognition that is famous “‘the curse has come upon me’ cried the Lady of Shalott”, is for me one of the most beautifully portrayed moments in the poem.
Their are two versions to this poem yet they both paint a picture of a woman who has chosen to immerse herself in her art (“There she weaves by night and day | A magic web with colours gay.”) Than be apart of the outside world. The Lady of Shalott is wary of the curse but, as said in the poem, has little care in what it is. Never the less, the way that Tennyson describes the everyday life and scenery that’s reflected in the mirror, and showing how the lady of Shalott captures it in her tapestries, indicates that she does have some interest in the outside world. Indeed the Lady of Shalott mentions her restlessness in her situation by saying she’s ” half sick of shadows”. Tennyson’s meaning in the Lady’s life and story could reflect her naivety. She chose her art over life in the world not bothering to look at what it would cost her. But ironically the mirror is her only link to the world. This proves she doesn’t fully wish to disconnect herself from life around her; instead she uses the life passing by as her inspiration.
The Lady of Shalott can be viewed as an elaborate parable that showcases her mediocre attempt at compromise. For me, I think she wished to observe the world without the risks that came with being apart of it, not thinking of what that would mean or what she would be losing. When she saw Sir Lancelot she saw the world the might have had. I believe at that moment, all of her observations of everyday life, love and faith, the realization of the things she gave up, impacted her with such force that she turned from the mirror and saw the world in its raw, undiluted form. She no longer was seeing life’s reflection, causing the mirror to break from side to side. It was what bound her, the unknown enforcer, that activated her destruction and she knew that it was over. Her calm preparation for her death can indicate that she set the curse on herself, as a promise to never risk the dangers of the world by looking at it directly. The artistic presentation of her death is to me, powerful, lending a beautiful but broken picture of her end.
Tennyson’s imagery and artistic reflection gives flesh to the legend of the Lady of Shalott. Showing the story in a tragic, lyric and romantic sense that is surreal. I will always admire the beautiful imagery and fairytale- like tone of “the Lady of Shalott”.