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Poem Analysis: Lady of Shalott

Modern critics[citation needed] consider “The Lady of Shalott” to be representative of the dilemma that faces artists, writers, andmusicians: to create work about and celebrate the world, or to enjoy the world by simply living in it. Feminist critics[citation needed] see the poem as concerned with issues of women’s sexuality and their place in the Victorian world. The fact that the poem works through such complex and polyvalent symbolism indicates an important difference between Tennyson’s work and his Arthurian source material. [original research? While Tennyson’s sources tended to work through allegory, Tennyson himself did not. Critics such as Hatfield[citation needed] have suggested that The Lady of Shalott is a representation of how Tennyson viewed society; the distance at which other people are in the lady’s eyes is symbolic of the distance he feels from society. The fact that she only sees them through a window pane s significant of the way in which Shalott and Tennyson see the world”in a filtered sense. This distance is therefore linked to the artistic licence Tennyson often wrote about.

Part l: The poem begins with a description of a river and a road that pass through long fields of barley and rye before reaching the town of Camelot. The people of the town travel along the road and look toward an island called Shalott, which lies further down the river. The island of Shalott contains several plants and flowers, including lilies, aspens, and willows. On the island, a woman known as the Lady of Shalott is imprisoned within a building made f “four gray walls and four gray towers. Both “heavy barges” and light open boats sail along the edge of the river to Camelot.

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But has anyone seen or heard of the ladywho lives on the island in the river? Only the reapers who harvest the barley hear the echo of her singing. At night, the tired reaper listens to her singing and whispers that he hears her: “‘Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott. ” Part II: The Lady of Shalott weaves a magic, colorful web. She has heard a voice whisper that a curse will befall her if she looks down to Camelot, and she does not know what this curse would be. Thus, she concentrates solely on her weaving, never lifting her eyes. However, as she weaves, a mirror hangs before her.

In the mirror, she sees “shadows of the world,” including the highway road, which also passes through the fields, the eddies in the river, and the peasants of the town. Occasionally, she also sees a group of damsels, an abbot (church official), a young shepherd, or a page dressed in crimson. She sometimes sights a pair of knights riding by, though she has no loyal knight of her own to court her. Nonetheless, she enjoys her solitary weaving, though she expresses frustration with the world f shadows when she glimpses a funeral procession or a pair of newlyweds in the mirror.

Part Ill: A knight in brass armor (“brazen greaves”) comes riding through the fields of barley beside Shalott; the sun shines on his armor and makes it sparkle. As he rides, the gems on his horse’s bridle glitter like a constellation of stars, and the bells on the bridle ring. The knight hangs a bugle from his sash, and his armor makes ringing noises as he gallops alongside the remote island of Shalott. In the “blue, unclouded weather,” the jewels on the knight’s saddle shine, making him look like a meteor in the purple sky. His forehead glows in the sunlight, and his black curly hair flows out from under his helmet.

As he passes by the river, his image flashes into the Lady of Shalott’s mirror and he sings out “tirra lirra. ” Upon seeing and hearing this knight, the Lady stops weaving her web and abandons her loom. The web flies out from the loom, and the mirror cracks, and the Lady announces the arrival of her doom: “The curse is come upon me. ” Both “heavy barges” and light open boats sail along the edge of the river to Camelot. But has anyone seen or heard of the ladywho lives on the island in the river? Only the reapers who harvest the barley hear the echo of her singing.

At night, the tired reaper listens to her singing and whispers that he hears her: “‘Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott. ” Part II: The Lady of Shalott weaves a magic, colorful web. She has heard a voice whisper that a curse will befall her if she looks down to Camelot, and she does not know what this curse would be. Thus, she concentrates solely on her weaving, never lifting her eyes. However, as she weaves, a mirror hangs before her. In the mirror, she sees “shadows of the world,” including the highway road, which also passes through the fields, he eddies in the river, and the peasants of the town.

Occasionally, she also sees a group of damsels, an abbot (church official), a young shepherd, or a page dressed in crimson. She sometimes sights a pair of knights riding by, though she has no loyal knight of her own to court her. Nonetheless, she enjoys her solitary weaving, though she expresses frustration with the world of shadows when she glimpses a funeral procession or a pair of newlyweds in the mirror. Part Ill: A knight in brass armor (“brazen greaves”) comes riding through the fields of barley beside Shalott; the sun shines on his armor and makes it sparkle.

As he rides, the gems on his horse’s bridle glitter like a constellation of stars, and the bells on the bridle ring. The knight hangs a bugle from his sash, and his armor makes ringing noises as he gallops alongside the remote island of Shalott. In the “blue, unclouded weather,” the jewels on the knight’s saddle shine, making him look like a meteor in the purple sky. His forehead glows in the sunlight, and his black curly hair flows out from under his helmet. As he passes by the river, his image flashes into the Lady of Shalott’s mirror and he sings out “tirra lirra. Upon seeing and earing this knight, the Lady stops weaving her web and abandons her loom. The web flies out from the loom, and the mirror cracks, and the Lady announces the arrival of her doom: ‘The curse is come upon me. ” Part IV: As the sky breaks out in rain and storm, the Lady ofShalottdescends from her tower and finds a boat. She writes the words “The Lady of Shalott” around the boat’s bow and looks downstream to Camelot like a prophet foreseeing his own misfortunes. In the evening, she lies down in the boat, and the stream carries her to Camelot.

The Lady of Shalott wears a snowy white robe and sings her last song as she sails own to Camelot. She sings until her blood freezes, her eyes darken, and she dies. When her boat sails silently into Camelot, all the knights, lords, and ladies of Camelot emerge from their halls to behold the sight. They read her name on the bow and “cross… themselves for fear. ” Only the great knight Lancelot is bold enough to push aside the crowd, look closely at the dead maiden, and remark “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace. Form The poem is divided into four numbered parts with discrete, isometric (equally- long) stanzas. The first two parts contain four stanzas each, while the last two parts contain five. Each of the four parts ends at the moment when description yields to directly quoted speech: this speech first takes the form of the reaper’s whispering identification, then of the Lady’s half-sick lament, then of the Ladys pronouncement of her doom, and finally, of Lancelot’s blessing. Each stanza contains nine lines with the rhyme scheme AAAABCCCB. The “B” always stands for “Camelot” in the fifth line and for “Shalott” in the ninth.

The “A” and “C’ lines are always in tetrameter, while the “B” lines are in trimeter. In addition, the syntax is line-bound: most phrases do not extend past the length of a single line. Commentary Originally written in 1832, this poem was later revised, and published in its final form in 1842. Tennyson claimed that he had based it on an old Italian romance, though the poem also bears much similarity to the story of the Maid of Astolat in MalorysMorte d’Arthur. As in Malory’s account, Tennyson’s lyric includes references to the Arthurian legend; moreover, “Shalott” seems quite close to Malory’s “Astolat. Much of the poem’s charm stems from its sense of mystery nd elusiveness; of course, these aspects also complicate the task ofanalysis. That said, most scholars understand “The Lady ofShalott” to be about the conflict between art and life. The Lady, who weaves her magic web and sings her song in a remote tower, can be seen to represent the contemplative artist isolated from the bustle and activity of daily life. The moment she sets her art aside to gaze down on the real world, a curse befalls her and she meets her tragic death.

The poem thus captures the conflict between an artist’s desire for social involvement and his/her doubts about whether such a commitment is viable for someone edicated to art. The poem may also express a more personal dilemma for Tennyson as a specific artist: while he felt an obligation to seek subject matter outside the world of his own mind and his own immediate experiences”to comment on politics, history, or a more general humanity”he also feared that this expansion into broader territories might destroy his poetrys magic.

Part and Part IV of this poem deal with the Lady of Shalott as she appears to the outside world, whereas Part II and Part Ill describe the world from the Lady’s perspective. In Part l, Tennyson portrays the Lady as secluded from the rest of he world by both water and the height of her tower. We are not told how she spends her time or what she thinks about; thus we, too, like everyone in the poem, are denied access to the interiority of her world.

Interestingly, the only people who know that she exists are those whose occupations are most diametrically opposite her own: the reapers who toil in physical labor rather than by sitting and crafting works of beauty. Part II describes the Ladys experience of imprisonment from her own perspective. We learn that her alienation results from a mysterious curse: she is not allowed to look out on Camelot, so all her nowledge of the world must come from the reflections and shadows in her mirror. (It was common for weavers to use mirrors to see the progress of their tapestries from the side that would eventually be displayed to the viewer. Tennyson notes that often she sees a funeral or a wedding, a disjunction that suggests the interchangeability, and hence the conflation, of love and death for the Lady: indeed, when she later falls in love with Lancelot, she will simultaneously bring upon her own death. Whereas Part II makes reference to all the different types of people that the Lady sees through her mirror, including he knights who “come riding two and two” (line 61 ), Part Ill focuses on one particular knight who captures the Lady’s attention: Sir Lancelot.

This dazzling knight is the hero of the King Arthur stories, famous for his illicit affair with the beautiful Queen Guinevere. He is described in an array of colors: he is a “red- cross knight”; his shield “sparkled on the yellow field”; he wears a “silver bugle”; he passes through “blue unclouded weather” and the “purple night,” and he has “coal-black curls. ” He is also adorned in a “gemmy bridle” and other bejeweled garments, which sparkle in the light.

Yet in spite of the rich visual details that Tennyson provides, it is the sound and not the sight of Lancelot that causes the Lady of Shalott to transgress her set boundaries: only when she hears him sing lirra” does she leave her web and seal her doom. The intensification of theLadYs experiences in this part of the poem is marked by the shift from the static, descriptive present tense of Parts I and II to the dynamic, active past of Parts Ill and ‘V. In Part IV, all the lush color of the previous section gives way to “pale yellow’ and “darkened” eyes, and the brilliance of the sunlight is replaced by a “low sky raining.

The moment the Ladysets her art aside to look upon Lancelot, she is seized with death. The end of her artistic isolation thus leads to the end of creativity: “Out flew her web and floated wide” (line 114). She also loses her mirror, which had been her only access to the outside world: “The mirror cracked from side to side” (line 115). Her turn to the outside world thus leaves her bereft both of her art object and of the instrument of her craft”and of her very life. Yet perhaps the greatest curse of all is that although she surrenders herself to the sight of Lancelot, she dies completely unappreciated by him.

The poem ends with the tragic triviality of Lancelot’s response to her tremendous passion: all he has to say about her is that “she has a lovely face” (line 169). Having abandoned her artistry, the Lady of Shalott becomes herself an art object; no longer can she offer her creativity, but merely a “dead-pale” beauty (line 157). Tennyson’s poetic output covers a breadth difficult to comprehend in a single system of thematics: his various works treat issues of political and historical concern, as well as scientific matters, classical mythology, and deeply personal thoughts and feelings.

Tennyson is both a poet of penetrating introspection and a poet of the people; he plumbs the depths of his own consciousness while also giving voice to the national consciousness of Victorian society. As a child, Tennyson was influenced profoundly by the poetry of Byron and Scott, and his earliest poems reflect the lyric intensity and meditative expressiveness of his Romantic forebears. These early poems demonstrate his ability to link external scenery to interior states of mind. However, unlike the Romantics, whose nature poems present a scene that raises an emotional or psychological problem,

Tennyson uses nature as a psychological category. In “Mariana,” for example, he uses Keatsian descriptions of the natural world to describe a woman’s state of mind; he conveys via his natural setting the consciousness of a woman waiting vainly for her lover, and her increasing hopelessness. Not only is Tennyson a poet of the natural and psychological landscape, he also attends frequently to the past, and historical events. “The Lady of Shalott” and the poems within Idylls of the King take place in medieval England and capture a world of knights in shining armor and their damsels in distress.

In addition to treating the history of his ation, Tennyson also explores the mythological past, as articulated in classical works of Homer, Virgil, and Dante. His “Ulysses” and “The Lotos-Eaters”draw upon actual incidents in Homer’s Odyssey . Likewise, his ode “To Virgil” abounds with allusions to incidents in the great poet’s Aeneid , especially the fall of Troy. Tennyson thus looked both to historical and mythological pasts as repositories for his poetry. Tennyson’s personal past, too, figures prominently in his work.

The sudden death of his closest friend Arthur Henry Hallam when Tennyson was just 24 dealt a great emotional blow to the young poet, who spent the next ten years riting over a hundred poems dedicated to his departed friend, later collected and published as “In Memoriam” in 1850. This lengthy work describes Tennyson’s memories of the time he spent with Hallam, including their Cambridge days, when Hallam would read poetry aloud to his friends: thus Tennyson writes, “O bliss, when all in circle drawn / About him, heart and ear were fed / To hear him, as he lay and read / The Tuscan poets on the lawn! Tennyson grapples with the tremendous grief he feels after the loss of such a dear friend, concluding famously that ” Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at ll. ” “In Memoriam” also reflects Tennyson’s struggle with the Victorians’ growing awareness of another sort of past: the vast expanse of geological time and evolutionary history. The new discoveries in biology, astronomy, and geology implied a view of humanity that much distressed many Victorians, including Tennyson.

In Maud, for example, he describes the stars as “cold fires, yet with power to burn and brand/ His nothingness into man”; unlike the Romantics, he possessed a painful awareness of the brutality and indifference of “Nature red in tooth and claw. ” Although Tennyson associated evolution with progress, he lso worried that the notion seemed to contradict the Biblical story of creation and long-held assumptions about man’s place in the world.

Nonetheless, in “In Memoriam,” he insists that we must keep our faith despite the latest discoveries of science: he writes, “Strong Son of God, immortal Love / Whom we, that have not seen they face, / By faith, and faith alone, embrace / Believing where we cannot prove. ” At the end of the poem, he concludes that God’s eternal plan includes purposive biological development; thus he reassures his Victorian readers that the new science does not mean the end of the old faith. Tennyson also spoke to his Victorian contemporaries about issues of urgent social and political concern.

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