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Analysis of ‘The Lady of Shalott’

In part two Tennyson eepens the reader’s understanding of the lady and her situation, using morbid imagery and oxymoronic devices. Tennyson focuses the reader on Lancelot in part three by using light-based imagery and pathetic fallacy to make clear the purpose of Lancelot’s character in the poem. Finally, part four displays usage of sinister imagery to conclude the story and leave the reader with a sense of unease. The first part of the poem displays a lot of metaphors involving encasement, beginning with the lines, ‘Long fields of barley and of rye, That clothe the wold and meet the sky’.

This creates a sense of nurturing, as if fields are wrapped round the world to protect and care for it. The metaphor triggers imagery of a cloth or blanket being wrapped around an object or person for warmth and comfort, making the reader feel at ease. In this time period, villages depended almost entirely on harvest for food; however, the metaphor characterises the crops as it implies that they do not just provide food, but keep the area unperturbed and secure, giving the harvest an air of superiority.

The theme of encasement suddenly stops being quite so ambient and takes a sinister turn in verse two when the island is introduced: ‘Four gray walls, and four gray towers’. Tennyson uses this description of the tower in which the lady lives to shock the reader slightly, as it follows the metaphor of enveloping the world. He builds up a sense of security in being surrounded at the beginning of the poem but then catches the reader off guard by introducing this line which sounds unnervingly like a description of a prison and suggesting that there is ‘more than meets the eye’.

This is a powerful technique in setting the scene because the writer immediately separates the island, which holds an ominous, imprisoning building, from the rest of the world, which seems warm and secure. This difference in surroundings between the island and Camelot is then confirmed by the lines, ‘And the silent Isle imbowers The Lady of Shallot’, which continues the idea that the lady is trapped and isolated from the rest of the world, Camelot in particular.

This atmosphere of having barriers then links in with some further characterisation of the ladys natural surroundings, using the metaphor, ‘By the margin, willow-veil’d’. Here, Tennyson described the riverbank as being ‘veiled’ by willow trees, which is a compelling metaphor since it implies concealment and the notion that the area has something to hide. As well as this air of mystery, the writer gives the poem a sense of sorrow, since willows are associated with grief or loss, hence the term ‘weeping willoW.

However, the willow is a very symbolic plant with a lot of different interpretations linked to it; Tennyson lived in the 1800s, a time when willows were well-known as being associated with fertility and nurture, due to their natural habitat of watery areas such as riverbanks. Similarly, the island is introduced in verse one with the term, ‘where the lilies blow. Lilies are a symbol of purity and chastity, giving the impression that the ady is innocent and pure, whilst the maternal character of the willows suggests that nature surrounding the lady cares for her and protects her as a parent would.

Tennyson’s characterisation of the ladys natural environment as hiding and guarding her from the rest of the world manipulates the reader to familiarise her with fairy-tale figures, adding to the air of mystery about her. Furthermore, the metaphor of willows ‘veiling’ the lady and hiding her from the world is given character by the two occasions which veils were very often associated with in the 1800s: weddings and funerals. This is almost oxymoronic in the sense that the marital theme predicts love and unison whilst the funeral theme predicts death, suggesting that the ladys destiny shall go either of two very different ways.

Tennyson confuses the reader here, because up until this point in the poem he has used a careful combination of imagery relating to care or safety and imagery relating to imprisonment or death. This then appeals to the reader’s curiosity, since the reader is compelled to find out who the lady is and why she is isolated, surrounded by such contradictory scenery. Finally, part one ends with the lady eing described as a kind of mythical or fairy-tale figure since nobody is sure about whether or not she is real, which only confuses and compels the reader more.

The second part creates an atmosphere of sympathy for the lady’s situation using a variety of techniques, making part two the most confusing section of the poem. As the reader finds out about the lady’s dilemma, Tennyson makes clear that the lady is determined to stay content by using the lines, ‘And so she weaveth steadily, And little other care hath she’. The writer includes this metaphor for its long lasting effect rather than its immediate one, as the reader ill naturally link it to the last lines of part two: ‘I am half sick of shadows’.

Possibly the most powerful pair of lines in the poem, these create a very poignant feeling towards the lady’s situation and her personality as a whole, since she seems to make an effort to detach herself from a world to which she cannot belong, whilst still desperately craving company and a normal life in Camelot. By this point in the poem, the reader is very aware of the tragic story and probably picks up on the morbid insinuations throughout this section, the most obvious one being the usage of the colour red.

Throughout this section the colour red is used to trigger themes and emotions but in particular, to make the reader aware of the fatality and morbidity of the poem. The first time the colour is used is in the description of the ‘red cloaks of market girls’, whilst Tennyson creates a picture of the goings on around the Lady and how she only sees glimpses of them. Red is a very eye-catching colour so it is easy for the reader to imagine a flash of red in the lady’s mirror as market girls pass; the vividness and passion associated with the colour emphasise the lady’s cold detachment from the world.

However, in verse two of part two the theme of colour becomes morbid very suddenly, similar to the way in which the theme of encasement suddenly became sinister in verse two of part one. The writer continues to describe the passers- by in relation to the lady, one of them being a ‘long-hair’d page in crimson clad’ Here the reader imagines a flash of red in the ladys mirror once more, but this time Tennyson has made a link to blood which is oxymoronic since it provides a comparison between the innocence of market girls and the fatality of blood, again, building upon the idea that there may be ‘more than meets the eye’ in this poem.

This morbid imagery is very powerful because the image of red cloaks is still fresh and prominent in the readers mind so to suddenly suggest that there is a deathly overtone in descriptions of seemingly innocent villagers, plants doubt in the readers mind when considering the innocence of other aspects of the lady’s surroundings. This also triggers a feeling that the lady’s detachment isolates her from community during times of grief and loss, which is confirmed in the line, ‘For often thro’ the silent nights, A funeral, with plumes and lights’.

The imagery involving death manipulates the reader to sympathise with the lady for ot having a chance to live satisfactorily, whilst also being aware of the fact that she must grieve alone. Whilst there is a large amount of imagery and other techniques used in part two, this section is most recognised by the reader as the one in which the overall theme of the poem is made clear or decided.

There are a number of different perceptions regarding what the curse may represent, including a fear of the unknown or a barrier between a person and society; however, one of the most common perceptions is the idea that the lady represents women in the Victorian ociety: her weaving represents the basic, unappreciated household chores of a Victorian woman; the tower in which she is trapped represents the Victorian home in which she must stay and care for her family; the curse represents a catch-22, meaning that if she leaves the house and is free to live as she wishes, she would be shunned socially but if she stays, she is cursed to barely live at all and only see the world through the eyes of her husband and children, who may live as they wish. The entire story is based around the social expectations of a woman. Tennyson begins to leave hints about this theme, one of the most ffective lines being, ‘She hath no loyal knight and true’.

He uses this line to manipulate the reader into a state of pitying the lady and condemning men of the Victorian society because she would have been expected to have absolute loyalty to her husband, yet nobody would ever be loyal to her in this way. This theme then prepares the reader for the appearance of Sir Lancelot in the poem. Tennyson’s description of Sir Lancelot is full of satire since, in literature, the character of Sir Lancelot is well known as being the hero of King Arthur stories and whilst, in the poem, he is described as being the courageous war-hero, e does not take any action in helping the lady; in fact he may be considered the reason the lady dies.

The writer introduces Sir Lancelot as a stereotypical hero with pathetic fallacy: ‘The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves’. Whilst the lady is often associated with or represented by plants and nature, the knight is introduced with pathetic fallacy involving light shining through the natural surroundings, leaving the lady forgotten and overshadowed by Lancelot’s striking entrance. Tennyson continues this imagery using words which describe light including, ‘sparkled’, ‘glowed’, burned’ and ‘flamed’ to create an aura of ver-exaggerated heroism about the knight, which builds upon the reader’s preconceived ideas and stereotypes of a ‘knight in shining armour’ because the writer idealises the character of Lancelot to a point of ridicule.

Tennyson makes it clear to the reader that Lancelot represents the ideal man since he is described as being bold and surrounded by light; however the reader pities the lady in comparison because, considering the gloomy attitude with which her environment is described, her life seems to be the polar opposite of Lancelot’s. This creates a feeling of disdain for Lancelot because the reader is aware of the njustice in the lady’s very existence, yet no character in the poem acknowledges her sorrow. Similarly, Lancelot’s horse is galloping and the confidence which Tennyson brings across in Lancelot’s character emphasises the fact that he is free to do as he pleases. This aggravates the reader because the lady is forced to stay trapped in the tower and weave, just as a wife was expected to stay at home and care for her children or carry out boring household chores for which she would never be appreciated, whilst her husband was allowed to travel the world.

Lancelot represents the husband, a theme confirmed by the reference o ‘bridle bells’ since Tennyson is literally referring to the bells on the horse’s bridle but uses a play on words to describe the bells as being bridal, or marital. Furthermore, part three has a large number of metaphors about or relating to astronomy. ‘the sun came’, ‘golden galaxy, ‘starry clusters’, and ‘bearded meteor, implying that Lancelot’s supposed importance in the poem and to the lady is so great that he is compared to the colossal bodies of stars and planets. Tennyson includes this because he wants the reader to be aware of the significance a man was said to hold in a ladVs life during the Victorian era. Overall, whilst Lancelot is portrayed to be the perfect knight’, he is not a likeable character from the point of view of the reader, since his appearance is perfect to the point of ridicule.

Tennyson portrays him in this way so that the reader understands that, although Victorian literature was full of idealistic love and romanticism, the poem is not about love. As the passion and excitement which Lancelot brings to the poem builds, the lady hears him singing and the pace of the poem suddenly quickens in the final verse of part three. Whilst the structure of the third stanza remains he same as previous stanzas, each line is made up of short statements of action, a style which contrasts with the otherwise consistent level of description in the poem; this combined with the repetition of ‘she’ and the smooth assonance in ‘loom’, ‘bloom’ and ‘plume’ catches the reader’s attention and draws the reader to the fact that this is a very important part of the poem.

Similarly, throughout the poem, part two in particular, the reader has been manipulated to sympathise with the lady so, when the lady sacrifices her life to see Lancelot, the bold knight is naturally expected to come to her rescue in the next part. The final section of the poem contrasts with the first three in attitude, as Tennyson creates a threatening, sorrowful mood within the first two lines: ‘In the stormy east-wind straining, The pale yellow woods were waning. The use of pathetic fallacy in the first line counters Lancelot’s entrance in which the sun shone brightly; this change in mood surprises the reader and implies that the poem will not have a happy ending. By describing the wind as ‘straining, the writer gives the effect that the lady has reached her limits and can no longer contain her desire to escape. Furthermore, when giving an account of

Lancelot’s surroundings, Tennyson says, ‘sparkled on the yellow field’, which contrasts with his description of the ‘pale yellow woods’ in part four, deepening the idea that the lady is surrounded by darkness and gloom whilst Lancelot is surrounded by colour and light. Tennyson also uses the time of day to set the mood: the shining sun in part three suggests that the lady saw Lancelot in the early afternoon; however the word ‘waning’ suggests sunset. This metaphor uses day to represent the lady’s life, the evening to represent the curse falling upon her and night to represent her death: a technique also used in other poems by Tennyson, such as ‘Crossing the Bar’.

He also builds upon the metaphors in part one, in which the willows portrayed a maternal figure in the ladys life, in the line, ‘Down she came and found a boat, Beneath a willow left afloat’. The lady knows that she is going to die and she only wishes to see Lancelot and Camelot before she dies, so it seems fitting that she finds a boat floating under a willow: her metaphorical parent and protector throughout her life aids her in her last act. A metaphor involving a willow emphasises the lady’s tragic youth and innocence, causing the reader to feel a twinge of melancholy. The overall mood of the first verse is one of sorrow, as the lady is close to her death.

The second stanza revives the mystical atmosphere created in part one, combining it with the sorrowful mood of the first stanza. As the lady gazes down the river, Tennyson compares her to a person who has pre-cognitions: ‘Like some bold seer in a trance, Seeing all his own mischance- With a glassy countenance Did she look down to Camelot’. The simile regarding clairvoyance represents the lady looking down the river to Camelot and eerily predicting her death in a dream-like state. The reader is perhaps a little overwhelmed at this point since the lady is a character who may be defined by her drive and determination, hence the line: ‘And so she weaveth steadily”.

For her to have accepted her grim fate and given up, ‘loosed the chain and down she lay’, further emphasises the reader’s pity for the lady since she has lost hope and is perhaps not even sane, but in a trance. Tennyson adds to the mystical and sorrowful build up to the lady’s death by reminding the reader of her innocence in the line, ‘Lying, robed in snowy white’. Whilst the reference to the whiteness could represent the draining of the lady’s itality, white is a colour of sacrifice, symbolising the fact that the lady sacrificed her life to see Lancelot, but it also creates an image of the lady as an angelic or heavenly figure. The reader will probably relate this to the theme of women in the Victorian society and come to the conclusion that, even in her death, the lady was delicate and pure as it was believed a lady should be.

The writer uses religious words, such as ‘carol’, to portray the lady as a saint-like martyr; however, the repetition of the word ‘chanted’ darkens the religious theme as a chant is often associated with dark magic. Furthermore, the lines, ‘Till her blood was frozen slowly, And her eyes were darken’d wholly’ add a layer of Gothicism to the religious theme, as Tennyson is using imagery to compare the lady to a shady, demonic creature. This has a powerful effect on the reader, especially a Victorian reader who would have been Christian and associated ‘creatures of the night’ with the devil, because this contrast with the reference to lilies in part one represents the ladys transition from the pure, innocent character to a sinister character, tainted by the evil of the outside world.

For this reason, many think hat the poem could be about religion, since the curse could represent the belief that people should not turn their backs on religion, as the lady looked out of the window, for the devil would punish the souls of blasphemers. On the other hand, the lady’s gothic death COUld fit with many different possible themes, as the tower could represent her innocence so, by leaving it she was corrupted; it could symbolise the idea of being cut off from society to the point that, when the lady attempted to join society, it killed her. Some believe that the lady represents artists: they can only truly create art by staying detached from the world and ts expectations; in this possible theme, it is thought that the lady attempted to join society but her dedication to her art, or weaving, killed her and she became nothing more than a piece of art herself.

The theme of sexism has been prominent throughout the poem, especially in part two, so here the reader may think that the death represents society shunning the lady for leaving the tower, or her metaphorical family home, to see the world. The fact that she left the tower after seeing Lancelot may also be linked to the theme of sexism because the lady sacrificed her life to join him, as Victorian women were supposed to be bsolutely faithful to their husbands. The tragedy in the final section of the poem is further emphasised by the lines, ‘The willovvy hills and fields among, They heard her singing her last song’. This final reference to willows provides one of the most tragic lines of the poem in relation to the on-going metaphor of the maternal guidance and protection which the willows implemented.

Constant figures in the poem, the willows guard the lady and shield her from passers-by, later lead her to a boat upon which she attempts to reach Camelot and finally, they witness her death. Tennyson’s haracterisation of the willows manipulates the reader into empathising with the relationship between the lady and the willows; many of the readers will have a parental figure in their lives or somebody who guides them and impacts their decisions in life. This could have been inspired by Tennyson’s close friend, Hallam who, before and after passing away had such a huge impact on Tennyson’s life that many of his poems were based around Hallam; even one of Tennyson’s children were named after his good friend. In this way, even after death a friend may influence one in many ways.

This is an important theme ecause, throughout the poem the reader and the lady have bonded in lack of satisfaction for the lady’s life, feelings of sorrow and loss, determination to continue to live in the tower and also to escape, longing for a better life and finally acceptance of her fate: during all of the pain which the lady shares with the reader, the one thing which is constant in her life is the willows. In this incredibly powerful line, the lady fails to reach her goal and make human contact, but even after her art, represented by the web, leaves and she seems alone since she doesn’t reach Lancelot before she dies, the willows act as a consolidation and nsure that she is not alone in her last moment: a final act of care for the lady. By the end of the poem, Tennyson has built a strong sense of empathy for the lady so Lancelot’s comment in the final verse may be perceived in either of two very different ways. ‘He said, “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace’.

Many will be left with a sense of disgust at the fact that the lady sacrificed her life for Lancelot, yet his only action was to comment on her appearance, symbolising the lack of appreciation for women in the Victorian society and they way in which they were recognised for their attractiveness and not their actions. Contrarily, whilst the poem was clearly never about love, Tennyson hints that Lancelot and the lady have a special connection, particularly since one glimpse of his helmet and plume was all it took to trigger the lady’s actions and activate the curse. Perhaps this is because the lady and Lancelot represent opposite things or maybe it is a suggesting that a husband and wife share an understanding on some level, despite their lack of understanding for each other in social expectations.

Whatever the interpretation, the reader cannot help but notice that the entire congregation fall quiet and are unnerved by the lady’s presence xcept for Lancelot who sees something more to the lady’s death. Realistically, the lady would not have looked especially attractive in her death, regardless of her beauty during life. She was ‘frozen’ and killed by the cold so, in spite of metaphors regarding her death, her skin would have been a pale blue, her lips a darker purple-blue and she would probably resemble a corpse. Whilst the knights, burghers, lords and dames are shocked by the dead lady, Lancelot looks past the fact that she is dead and sees that she was a naturally attractive woman before sensing her pain and asking God to have mercy on her soul.

Sexism in articular fits with this final metaphor, because Lancelot represents the man in Victorian society who secretly admires a strong woman and wishes for God to excuse her actions because he sees them, not as sinful but as justified and admirable. This is an interesting concept because, if Tennyson’s intentions were to bas the poem around sexism, he may have been this type of man: one who believes that women are equal to men or should not be condemning for fighting for their rights. Whilst it wouldn’t be socially normal, it would not be especially rare, since many famous male artists were known for their approval of feminism, ncluding Shakespeare.

No matter how one interprets the poem’s meaning and characters, the reader is left with a sense of confusion and unease because many aspects of the story contradict each other: the lady was determined to ‘grin and bear’ her situation, yet she could not help but crave escape; the lady died having failed to meet Lancelot, yet she was consoled by the ever-present willows; the lady was overshadowed and forgotten in Lancelot’s presence, yet in her death she had an impact, if not a great one, on Lancelot; Lancelot neither understood the lady’s situation nor attempted to aid it, yet he still had a better understanding of her han anybody else. The reader is overwhelmed with different possibilities of the meaning of the poem and different readers will believe it to be based around a wide variation of themes. However, this sense of chaos and confusion in the midst of the ladys life mirrors the way in which life does not run smoothly and Tennyson wanted the atmosphere to have an aspect of realism about it.

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