The Lady of Shalott: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson was first published in 1833, in a volume entitled Poems Chiefly Lyrical. Many additions and alterations were made subsequently before the poem assumed its present form, and was published in 1842. Andrew Lang makes a useful comparison of the two versions. It is the first of Tennyson's poems dealing with the legend of Arthur. It was followed by Sir Lancelot and Guinevere. Sir Galahad and Morte de Arthur. The story of Arthur greatly fascinated Tennyson's imagination and these poems are a prelude to the great work, Idylls of the King. An Italian romance upon the Donna di Scalotta is said to have suggested this poem. In his Lancelot and Elaine, Tennyson adopts another version of the tale of The Lady of Shalott. In that poem, the web that the lady weaves is intended as a covering for Lancelot's shield which had been left in her charge, and it is her unrequited love for Lancelot that causes her death. The poem is pure fantasy, entirely the result of the poet's imagination working on a legend which fascinated him at.

The story of Arthur greatly fascinated Tennyson's imagination and these poems are a prelude to the great work, Idylls of the King. An Italian romance upon the Donna di Scalotta is said to have suggested this poem. In his Lancelot and Elaine, Tennyson adopts another version of the tale of The Lady of Shalott. In that poem, the web that the lady weaves is intended as a covering for Lancelot's shield which had been left in her charge, and it is her unrequited love for Lancelot that causes her death. The poem is pure fantasy, entirely the result of the poet's imagination working on a legend which fascinated him at.
The Lady of Shalott

CRITICAL SUMMARY

      The poem contains four parts. In Part I, the poet describes the situation of the island of Shalott. It is situated in a river which flows down to the many-towered city of Camelot. On the island lives the Lady of Shalott. Nobody has seen her waving her hand or standing at the window. Only reapers, reaping early have heard the song of the Lady of Shalott.

      In Part II, the lady is shown as weaving a magic web day and night. If she stops weaving and looks at Camelot, a curse is sure to fall on her. So she weaves constantly. There hangs a mirror before her. She sees the shadows of the world appearing in that mirror. Knights ride two and two. The lady takes delight in weaving the mirror's magic sights. The lady sees many — a funeral procession for instance or two young lovers lately married. The lady is half sick of these shadows, and yearns for reality.

      In Part III, Sir Lancelot rides down to Camelot. His bridle bells ring merrily. A silver bugle hangs by his side. His armour flashes in the light. The leather of his saddle shines clearly. His brow sparkles in the sunlight. His face is reflected clearly in the mirror. He sings 'Tirra lirra' as he rides by the river. At the sight of him, the lady leaves the loom. She moves three paces across the room. She sees the feather of his helmet in the mirror. The magic is gone. The mirror is broken into pieces. The curse falls on the lady.

      In the last part, the Lady of Shalott leaves the tower. She finds a boat floating beneath a willow. She writes: "The Lady of Shalott" on the prow. She looked towards Camelot. At the close of the day, she frees the boat and lies down in it. The stream carries her down the river. As the boat goes down the river, people can hear the last song of the lady. She chants the song in high and low tone and slowly her blood is frozen. She dies singing. By garden-wall and gallery, she floats down pale and gleaming. Citizens come to the bank of the river and read her name on the boat. At Camelot people express their curiosity about the lady. The knights at the banquet cross themselves for fear. But Lancelot thinks a bit and remarks upon her beauty and prays that God may bless her soul.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS AND APPRECIATION

Medieval Ballad

      The Lady of Shalott has overtones of medievalism, as medievalism was conceived by the nineteenth century. The lady under the mysterious curse is like Coleridge's Christabel, or a figure in a pre-Raphaelite picture. Tennyson gave, as an interpretation of the story: The new-born love for something, for someone in the world from which she has been so long secluded takes her out of the region of shadows into that of reality. The language has the simplicity of the medieval ballad-makers and there are frequent repetitions, in the manner of ballad-makers. She is awakened as the Princess in the Day-Dream, awakened, but not to happiness; her love is hopeless and she comes out of the shadows only to die. It is love that brings the soul to life, but it may kill the body at the same time.

Symbolical Tale in Pictures

      Like Mariana, this poem is strongly pictorial. It is a symbolic tale of a lady condemned by a mysterious curse to weave ceaselessly a magic tapestry. The poem itself has something of the effect of a tapestry, notably in the description of the passers-by in Part II, but it is far from being a piece of sentimental medievalism. Part I shows us the island castle of Shalott, inhabited by the mysterious lady, and the road to Camelot, image of the external world of action. In Part II, we move to the lady herself, weaving compulsively under the strange curse, seeing external reality only through the mirror she uses for her weaving, and seeing it as a pageant in which she has no part. In Part III, which takes place in harvest time, the magnificent Sir Lancelot, lover of Queen Guinevere, appears, riding to Camelot, and singing as he goes. The lady leaves her tapestry and looks down to Camelot, and the curse is fulfilled. In Part IV (autumn), the dying lady floats down the river to Camelot, singing her last song.

      The stanzas continually contrast the active and external Camelot with the contemplative and withdrawn Shalott, except in Part III, where 'Lancelot' replaces 'Camelot' in stanza nine, and 'Shalott' in twelve. The four parts alternate between the external world and the world of the lady. There is also a division between the contemplative present tenses of Parts I and II, and the active past tenses of Parts III and IV, pre-figured by the first preterites in the poem in the last stanza of II; 'went', "came', 'said'.

      Tennyson here seeks to clothe an old legend in mystery and magic. There are four distinct pictures: the sunlit harvest fields over which the plaintive song of the Lady floats to the listening reapers; the Lady herself weaving into her magic web, the shadows of the world as they appear in her mirror; the coming of Sir Lancelot, and the Lady's defiance of the curse that would fall upon her if she once looked down to Camelot; the death of the Lady in the midst of her song.

      Each picture is a pre-Raphaelite painting, exquisite in detail, profuse in imagery, and glowing in colour. Here we see most clearly the effectiveness and abundance of Tennyson's artifice. The vocabulary is rich with the word-painting in which he delights, onomatopoeia and vowel music are cunningly inter-linked with the rhythmical changes, consonantal alliteration occurs frequently. Throughout, the mood of Nature harmonizes with the mood of man.

      Tennyson has himself explained the symbolism of the poem. 'The new-born love for something, for some one in the wide world from which she had been so long secluded, takes her out of the legion of shadows into that of realities'. But the interpretation, though it may help to give a unity to the several parts of the poem, tends to shatter the romance. It is a song of shadows.

No Allegory, Says Stopford Brooke

      However, Stopford Brooke says that the poem was never intended to have any special meaning. Tennyson was playing with his own imagination when he wrote it. He saw the island and the girl in the tower, and then the loom and the web and the mirror crept into the tower, and then he saw the pictures in the mirror, and was pleased to describe them, and then he thought of the curse, and then of Lancelot, and then of death. The poem grew without intention, like a flower which had not been on earth before. Yet out of all the fancy arose one touch of reality. What a secluded maid sees are but pictures, but the hour comes when she says, I am half sick of shadows. To know that the pictures of the mind are shadows is to be wild to seek reality. Then if love comes, hopeless love, all the world of phantasy breaks up and the actual kills:

Out flew the web and floated wide,
The mirror cracked from side to side,
The curse is come upon me, cried
The Lady of Shalott.

      If there be any meaning at all in this piece of gossamer fancy, that is it, and, like all Tennyson's meaning it is as simple as the day.

Pre-Raphaelitism

      The poem may be taken as an illustration of what is called Pre-Raphaelitism in poetry. "The pre-Raphaelites in the sister art of painting were those who attempted to convey with perfect fidelity what they saw nature. They waged war against the conventionalities of art and their watchword was 'sincerity'. It is easy to see how an exact fidelity of nature would come to involve a wealth of detail and 'wealth of colour in' nature-painting; and how the term might in this sense be applied to poems such as The Lady of Shalott. Its Pre-Raphaelitism consists in the extreme minuteness of its descriptions, which is anxious to omit no detail, however trifling, and its gorgeous colouring."

Ethical Significance

      The poem serves as a medium, through which the poet conveys his favourite doctrine, which is more clearly expressed in his In Memoriam —

I hold it true, whatever befall,
I feel it, when I sorrow most,
'Tis better to have loved and lost,
Than never to have loved at all.

      The human heart, though it is ever conscious of the futility of desire and knows full well that the path of love is beset with gains and pitfalls, can never rest satisfied with vague dreams and fanciful ideals. It must have something real, something tangible, for which it must ultimately lose itself. Man must "lose himself in order to find himself." The Lady of Shalott is conscious of the fact that misfortune will fall upon her if she will move from her dreams and enchantment to the realities of life, ever attended with pain and suffering. Yet, she cannot resist the call of nature and suppress the yearnings of her heart. She feels that the highest bliss of human life is to be attained by love and sacrifice in the actual world of existence and not by shutting oneself in the realm of fancy and dreams. Love, however futile it may prove to be, brings out what is highest and noblest in human nature; the lesson it gives is worth the greatest sacrifice of life. The soul must awaken to the actualities of life and must suffer the course involved in mortal passions, so that it may attain its highest life of sacrifice.

Role of Lancelot

      Lancelot appears twice in The Lady of Shalott. His first dramatic appearance, and its effect on the Lady, is described at length in Part III, and at the end of the poem it is he who prays for her when she is dead. The Lady seems to represent the withdrawn spirit of the artist, who is destroyed if he meets the world directly on its own terms. This is why she weaves alone in her island tower, a symbol of her isolation. She must not stop, or look down the river to Camelot, which symbolises the life of the world. Her only sight of life is in her mirror in which 'Shadows of the world appear.

      Lancelot, on the other hand, is a male principle, representing action. He is the greatest knight of Camelot, and he is also the guilty lover of Queen Guinevere. When he appears, it is at the time of harvest and fruition, from which the Lady is apart. (Since he is unmarried and his love for the Queen is adulterous, it could be said that he too stands apart from these processes, however splendid his appearance and prowess.) 'A bow-shot from her bower-eaves — He rode between the barley-sheaves'; bow-shot, the physical action, works against the sheltered and sheltering feminine bower. The strong b sounds at the beginning mark Lancelot's sudden entry into the Lady's world. The stanzas which describe him are full of light and sound: the sun flames on his greaves; his shield sparkles: his bridle and thick-jewelled saddle-leather glitter and shine; his helmet, helmet-feather, and brow burn and glow; he sings as he goes, and his bridle-bells and armour ring. Light, sound, and the mastery of the warrior and horseman break in upon the still world of the Lady, and she leaves her web, and looks down to Camelot.

      At the end of the poem, Lancelot seems like another man. The Lady's death has seemingly changed the world, and is now part of the approaching winter season. Camelot is hushed, and so is Lancelot, musing quietly on her death. It seems to be the first time he has seen her; nothing in the poem suggests that he saw her look down from her tower. He is different from the others who come out to look at the strange boat, with the dead Lady on it, not only because he is the greatest knight of them all, but because of what he knows of guilt and human weakness. It seems that Lancelot is no longer the magnificent figure of Part III, who irresistibly drew the Lady to look from her tower, and leave her tapestry. He is human now in another sense, i.e., in his understanding, and charity. There is a moving inconsequence in what he says: 'She has a lovely face: God in his mercy lend her grace'. The apparent illogicality of this is very human, as is the resolution of it all in prayer.

Full of Delicate Music

      The poem is noted for its delicate music and lovely pictures. There is a change of atmosphere and music through the several parts of the poem. In the first two parts, the atmosphere is hazy and indistinct, and the music, long and sweet. The third part is full of light and colour and brilliance, and the music here is lovely and vigorous. The fourth part is darkish and pensive and the melody is slow, sad and dirge-Iike. There is artistic use of alliteration as in Tour gray walls, and four gray towns," and in, "Only reapers, reaping early". At other times there is skilful manipulation of liquid consonants 'l', 'm', 'n', etc., as in the following line;

"Hung in the golden galaxy,
the bridal bells rang merrily"

LINE BY LINE PARAPHRASE

      L. 19-23. By the margin.....Camelot. In The Lady of Shalott, Tennyson describes the river. The river is full of traffic. In it might be seen heavy boats full of all sorts of goods. These are being dragged on by horses, which move laboriously on the bank. The banks are completely covered with willow trees. There are also many light boats in the river, with their sails made of silk, moving smoothly and lightly towards Camelot.

      L. 47-41. There she weaves.....Camelot. In a lonely tower the Lady of Shalott sits weaving a magic web by day and by night. She has no other work, no other care, for a curse is to befall her if she looks through the window down to Camelot. The Lady of Shalott is forbidden to look upon Camelot, which stands for the world of men and the centre of their activities. By looking upon Camelot she may be unconsciously drawn to human beings leading a worldly life, and her ideal world of fancy and dream may be rudely shocked when it comes in contact with the stern world of reality. This clash of the real with the fanciful shall bring the greatest calamity in her life.

      L. 62-63. She Bath.....Shalott. These words echo the secret longing of the Lady of Shalott, a longing of which she is hardly conscious. This want, this need for human love, asserts itself at a dramatic moment and her whole nature is thawed. Though she keeps aloof from the society of men, a desire to love and to be loved is not altogether unfelt by her. In the days of chivalry every lady in high life used to have her lover, a very faithful knight who would always love her and would remain obedient to that lady.

      L. 69-72. Or when.....Shalott. The sight of the happy lovers enjoying each other's love breaks the dreams of the Lady of Shalott and opens up to her a vista of love. It takes her out of the region of shadows into that of realities. There is nothing more real on earth than love, and the sight of it makes her realize the unreality of her secluded life, and long for someone whom she may love and who may love her in return. After this she can no longer dally with dreams and fancies. The desire to love and to be loved overpowers her.

      In this stanza, Tennyson brings in two pictures of the funeral procession, and the pair of young lovers, only to suggest the idea that life is fleeting and life without love is void and insipid. The Lady of Shalott is greatly perturbed by these two visions and she laments "she is half weary of her life in the midst of shadows and fancies." Hutton finds in these lines a distinct note of the poet's adieu to a life of fancy and idealism and his determination to come back to the life of facts and realities. He realizes for the first time that a life of activities is far better than a life of thought and idle imagination.

      L. 96-99 As often.....Shalott. Here we have a comparison between the gorgeous appearance of Sir Lancelot and a flashing meteor on a dark night. The bright rays of the sun falling upon the shining surface of the great knight's helmet-feather and also his saddle — all bedecked with jewels — made them exceedingly bright. The knight, in his sparkling armour, looked like a comet with its tail of light over the Island of Shalott. Just as the sky, studded with innumerable stars, is illumined by the sudden flash of a meteor with a long tail of light, so the whole scene was dazzled and illuminated by the passing of Sir Lancelot in his shining armour.

      The aptness of the comparison and the magnificent colour effects are to be noted. The comparison of Sir Lancelot with a meteor suggests the idea of the disaster that will overtake the Lady of Shalott.

      L. 127-131. And down.....Camelot. Just as a man, endowed with wisdom and prophetic vision, sees the shadows of his coming misfortunes, but never loses his heart, so also the Lady of Shalott. though she knew fully well that Camelot was the source of all the disasters that would befall her, kept gazing, as though in a trance, upon the city. The Lady with her pale face and weird look appeared like a prophet in a trance. Like a seer who sees in a trance all the evils that are destined inevitably to befall him, she moves as if in a trance. Her face is the face of one who sees a vision of approaching doom that nothing can avert. The seer is 'bold' in as much as he dares to gaze steadfastly upon a vision of doom.

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