Tennyson’s tragic muse: Who was the Lady of Shalott and how Victorian values shaped Camelot

‘The Lady of Shalott’ we are familiar with today is based on the 19th-century lyrical ballad by English poet, Alfred Tennyson. She belongs to a compilation of Arthurian legends that circulated around Europe, evolving over time. In 1485, Thomas Malory names her as ‘princess Elaine of Astolat (Ascalot) daughter of King Pellinore’, in his popular book ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’. A previous 13th century short story from Italy, calls her the ‘Donna di Scalotta’. (‘Novellino: The hundred ancient tales’ / 82nd tale)

In both early publications, the lady dies for love; either from grief caused by Lancelot’s rejection of her (15th century), or by her own hand, unwilling to live following the death of her lover, Sir Miles of the Laundes (13th century). Tennyson’s popular poem however (1833), offers more depth to her character and eventual demise.

He writes: “She lives with little joy or fear”, secluded in a tower, outside the city of Camelot, bearing a dreadful curse; she must weave at her loom, only viewing the outside world through a mirror, while being unaware of what will happen if she breaks the charm. She’s often heard singing from her tower.

Tennyson portrays her as content in her daily toil, “she still delights to weave the mirror’s magic sights”, until she witnesses two newlyweds and declares to be “half sick of shadows”. This has been interpreted as inferring to the artist as an outsider, doomed to endlessly watch without joining in, endlessly working at his craft.

Another interpretation involves romantic temptation, or the desire to join Camelot’s society, but my own understanding of the poem, relies on the inescapability of her curse. Its origins are mysterious and could symbolize fate, regardless of one’s actions (the will of the divine). Alternatively, she seals her own fate, by convincing herself of the curse’s validity, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lancelot (who’s first heard and then seen), is described in great detail as she watches him through her looking glass. He embodies love, honor, and status. While she admires his appearance, it isn’t until she hears him singing carefree, that she steps to the window to gaze upon him. His humility proves irresistible to her. The curse takes hold when she looks upon Camelot, causing her mirror to instantly crack.

Feeling her death approaching, she leaves her tower to board a shallow boat she comes across. Likened to a bold seer “with a steady stony glance”, she’s aware of her future as she stares at the city downstream. Dressed in white, she lays down in the boat and begins to sing while the river’s current carries her to Camelot. Though people hear her song, she is dead by the time she arrives at the first house. All they have is a note she carries on her, with which Tennyson decides to end the 20 stanza poem.

‘The web was woven curiously,

The charm is broken utterly,

Draw near and fear not,-this is I,

The Lady of Shalott’

She wants to be remembered and beckons the people to finally know her. The “wellfed wits” of Camelot were more puzzled than the rest, a nudge by Tennyson that those blessed with good fortune, rarely understand the desperate actions of the less ‘lucky’. Although the lady of Shalott seems to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, owning “a crown of pearls” and a “velvet bed”, neither wealth nor power could change her destiny. Lancelot isn’t mentioned again.

In 1842, Tennyson revised the poem to more favorably depict the upper classes and changed the ending slightly, resulting in a total of 19 stanzas. This made the ballad more acceptable to the Victorian and Christian morals of his era. Silence and piety replace the bustling crowd of strangers that gathers around her in the first version (1833), in which an unidentified character reads the lady’s final note. In the (1842) re-writing, there is no note.

Camelot’s knights and royalty somberly acknowledge her passing and Tennyson gives Lancelot the last words, acknowledging the lady’s beauty and praying for “God in his mercy [to] lend her grace”. Little does Lancelot know, that he played a part in her demise.

Both versions, have the lady of Shalott writing her name on the bow of the boat she boards. Accepted by countless cultures as a vessel that carries the soul to the underworld, the lady’s ‘crossing’ into death, is ultimately a choice made by her own hand. The action suggests an acceptance of her fate, also serving as a marker to be remembered after death.

In conclusion, when it comes to analyzing poetry and folklore, there’s more to be unveiled about the culture experiencing the story, than the story itself.

Like memory, it evolves over time, which is why written accounts are so important. Our interpretations of what their creators meant to produce, can only be imaginative guesses. Until the story evolves again…

To name a few painters who’ve been inspired by the lady’s story, in turn reviving interest in her tragic tale:

Howard D.Pyle-64 colour lithographs / John William Waterhouse / William Holman Hunt / Dante Gabriel Rossetti / William Maw Egley / George Edward Robertson / Sophie Gengembre Anderson / Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale / John Melhuish Strudwick / John Atkinson Grimshaw / Arthur Hughes / Walter Crane / Jeffrey Barson / Edward Reginald Frampton / Elizabeth Siddal / Alex Kadi….

Here’s a link to a long list of artists and their paintings/prints on the subject:

https://www.angelfire.com/me2/camelot/shalottArt6.html

(I’m not affiliated with ‘angel fire’, this link is for educational purposes)

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