It is fair enough to acknowledge Carl Plasa’s sharp point that Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” is “a text whose operations are profoundly equivocal.”[1. Carl Plasa, “Cracked from Side to Side: Sexual Politics in ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ <ital>Victorian Poetry</ital> 30.3-4 (1992): 247-63.] Freudian (psycho sexual), Jungian (archetypal), socioeconomic, phenomenological, feminist – all are fair approaches to the bogglesome questions that the poem presents, and, of course, as we’ve learned during the evolution of literary theory, such different approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but are, rather, facets of a single thought-jewel. Though Tennyson has long been one of my favorite poets, “The Lady,” was never one I gave much thought to, (I’ve previously essayed on “Tears, Idle Tears”) and I return to him now (gladly enough) after some 25 years, having to acknowledge a significant development in the way I “see” texts in general and “The Lady of Shalott” in particular. With years of more reading and having absorbed more “culture,” this poem has many more resonances and insight bursts than I’d formerly appreciated. In reading “The Lady of Shalott” this time, for instance, the Lady’s world of shadows recalls Plato’s allegory of the caves, where reality of true being is merely a shadow play on the wall before humans chained to their rigid positions. I think, too, of the Edenic Curse, Eve throwing it all away as a result of innocently giving into wayward temptation; I think of Wagner, his mythological Ring Cycle, the moment when Siegfried awakens to consciousness as the result of hearing birdsong, just as the Lady awakens to her own consciousness at the sound of Lancelot’s transposed lark’s cry (and, the inversion, Siegfried going to the rescue of a Shalott-like figure on a kind of island that is rung with fire); and, there is the reverberation of Narcissus and Echo, and, back to Wagner again, the question of Tristan and Iseult.
And, of course, in LitCrit’s latest incarnation, there is reader response theory to consider, the relation of the text to the reader, and of the reader to the reader and of text to text. Paradoxically, in relation to “The Lady of Shalott” this approach makes the Lady not only ‘profoundly equivocal’ but perhaps jungly with overgrowth and perhaps impenetrable. Consider, first, the physics of the eye itself, which already inverts what it sees for the brain, and the mirror that already reverses what is seen, so that spatial orientation is already a challenge to master, long before it’s all turned into a circus by the lion-taming of critical analysis and the trapeze work of acrobatic dialectics, gaze reflecting gaze. Add in the divisions of the self, the endless mystery of self in relation to selves.
And, finally, the task of understanding is certainly not made easier (or, perhaps, it is!) by Tennyson’s need to produce two distinct and significantly different versions of his narrative poem.
Given such daunting (and, in my case at least, somewhat hallucinogenic) givens, maybe it’s best to start with a structural and methodological consideration of the poem itself and the poet’s technique, which may or may not be clue-ful in understanding this amazing poem. First, there is the form and structure to consider: Tennyson gives us four parts, which are essentially four stages of narrative development; each part consists of nine-line stanzas, with four stanzas in part 1 and 2 (setting and introduction of principal characters), five stanzas in Part 3 (climax), and seven stanzas in the original Part 4 (denouement)[2. In the 1842 version Tennyson edits out a stanza, resulting in only six.]; the stanzas alternate between iambic tetrameter and trochaic tetrameter lines; the rhyme scheme for each stanza is <b>aaaabcccb</b>; there are very few complex rhymes (usually mono-syllabic and simple vocabulary), although there is considerable additional internal rhyming as well; plenty of soothing soft consonance and evocative alliteration; and, there is often syntactical clause-cloaking woven into the lines before a subject and predicate appear.
The development embodied in the four parts is fairly straightforward in each version. In both the 1833 and 1842 versions we provided a Part 1 that introduces the idyllic (“greensheathed daffodily,” “sunbeam-showers”), virtually animistic (“willows whiten, aspens shiver”), and the paganistic “fairy Lady of Shalott.” in Part 2, we learn of the Lady’s apparent fate to weave a colourful narrative tapestry of life, as seen through an obscuring mirror, and with an implicit curse should she choose to stop. Importantly, Part 2 ends with the Lady observing newlyweds (“about to consummate”) and lamenting her fateful malaise for the first time. Part 3 introduces a jaunty Lancelot riding alone on a road and downstream along the river toward Camelot. Crucially, this part ends with Lancelot tootling “tirra lira,” which turns out to be epiphanal music to the ears of our Lady 4 describes the Lady’s casting inside the loom and tapestry and, essentially, going in pursuit of Lancelot, a peculiar, sexual-mystical journey that leads to her demise. And here, in the lust lines, we find the most startling difference between the versions, with the Lady having the final mystical words in the 1832 rendition and Lancelot closing it out in the later version with his far briefer and seemingly more cryptic words.
The alternating metrics of the stanzas, the rhyme scheme, as well as the tetrametric abridgment of the lines (pentameter would slow its performance down ever so slightly), the sounds and images, the simple vocabulary that avoids static or stalling, even the minimal human utterances that would require readerly dialectical engagement, all suggests a driving, meandering and mesmerizing river-like flow that connects the island of Shalott physically and figuratively to Camelot between Shalott and Camelot is the ever-changing, never-ending river, which the two realms share. This is a very effective technique and, for me, a wonderful musical composition to perform in the head. This is, of course, not all that could be said about the construction and technique of the poem, but it is enough for now, representing a kind of adumbration of the narrative’s play.
It’s more important here to examine the poem’s themes, motifs and intentions, and how these differ in each version, than it is to fall in love with the sound of Tennyson’s entrancing, but almost-distracting music. The great contemporary Victorian cultural scholar Peter Gay once said, with erudite precision.
Perceptive historians have noted more than once that Queen Victoria
was not a Victorian, in the same sense. Freud was not a Freudian.
They are not responsible for the myths that have woven around their
names.[3. Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud: Education of the Senses, Oxford, 1984, p.4.]
Such myth-making out of the ashes of reality is, of course, a constant problem for the very reasons that “The Lady of Shalott” illustrates, for, after all, which, in any one gaze, is the myth and which the reality (do you see a vase or a face?)? But the point here is simply that, at least as far as this Tennyson poem goes, the poet is, like Victoria, not a Victorian. First, this is true because Tennyson’s first version of the poem pre-dates Victoria’s ascension to the throne in 1837, although his later version of the poem seems to be in reaction to that ascendancy and its implications. But, first, before fleshing out how this lyrical leopard changed its spots, it’s worth briefly considering the seemingly dominant critical response to the first version.
I own that I have been stunned by the contemporaneous portraitures of “The Lady of Shalott,” many of which, such as those by John William Waterhouse, William Holman Hunt and Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal, et al., emphasize clearly middle class women and their looms, which certainly connotate middle class domestication, as well as the rise of the great industrial mills of Mammon. Or else they depict Romantic over-boat images of a longing Lady, evoking dreamy expectations downstream, and the like. Such artistic idealizations tell you something (I’m not sure what) about the readers and receivership of Tennyson’s work and their mythologizing tendencies. I have been equally taken aback by what seems to me an equally facile critical positing of the poem as a fundamental representation of the paradox between the necessary co-existence of the free-minded artist and societal order. Plasa puts it succinctly when he writes,
Far from being mutually exclusive, what Tennyson’s poem conversely
demonstrates is that art and life, the aesthetic and the political, are fully
interwoven the involvement in the social world which is symbolically
the destination of the Lady in the poem is, from the first, a condition at
which the poem has already arrived. [4. Plasa, p.248.]
There are these facets, of course, but such visions have not earned the right to dominate the critical space in which this ‘profoundly equivocal’ poem flits in and out of, like a simile that smiles and likes. I like what Erik Gray says in relation to the notion of artistic “free will” as it applies to this poem. He writes,
The Lady of Shalott” depicts art as almost a parody of this ideal.
The Lady submits her will, not to a “transcendent aw, “but to a
curse. She demonstrates admirable willpower in breaking the
inertia of her original state, but exerts if toward a consciously
imperfect aim. [5. Erik Gray, “Getting it Wrong in ‘The Lady of Shalott,’” Victorian Poetry 47.1 (2009) 45-59.]
But while I believe Gray’s analysis is an important on the rather Romantic application of free will in this instance. I would still question whether “free will” even applies to the workings of this poem, or, if it does, whether it is, indeed, animated toward a transcendent figuration rather, as I would argue, toward a decadent but liberating process.
For what explodes around me like mental mortar shells are rather concerns and questions. I see the aforementioned structural texture of the poem – its short lines, linguistic simplicity, weaving syntax, winding rhythms – creating a hermetically sealed organic whole. This is further reiterated by the fact that the only names mentioned in the poem are Shalott, Camelot and Lancelot, with binding rhyme endings: – ott, -ot, and -ot. Shalott and Camelot and notes, with a pagan “faerie” Lady associated with one and the legend of Arthur and his chivalry code associated with the other. But not just places, but idealized realms. Idealized, but, as it turns out, not eternal. And in this poem Lancelot comes between both realms and, intentionally or not, ends up destroying both aspects of the Romantic – the Shalott that reaches back into the ancient and animistic past, and the Camelot that reaches forward into a future that will include Galahad and the Grail and the rise of orderly Christendom. After all, the Lady is clearly seduced by Lancelot’s tootling and Lancelot has has or will (we don’t know what historical stage of Camelot we’re dealing with here) seduce the queen of Camelot.
What’s more, it’s interesting to note and consider that Shalott flows downstream to Camelot, already as a kind of mysterious giver of life value (water). It’s worth noting, too, that the reapers have the only other human voices in the poem(s) and that they use their words to both acknowledge the existence of the Lady to affirm her natural primeval context. It is also worth noting that the reapers work from morn to night tending to barley- the manna of the day, providing food, alcoholic beverage, and medicine. The reapers (and Camelot commoners). Therefore, have no fear of the Lady’s mysterious ways and wind songs. Contrast this to the fear that pours out of the burghers and knights and assorted “well-fed wits” of the inner circle of Camelot, who “crossed themselves for fear” and who clearly do not recognize and cannot affirm her contextual power. All of them except, of course, Lancelot.
I am further puzzled by Tennyson’s version endings where, in the original, he gives the final eloquence words to the Lady and, in the other, such oblique words to the knight. What does it mean for one version to affirm what amounts to, in one important respect, an act of feminist liberation – the “this is I” of 1832, a condition that did not exist just several lines earlier, when she was seemingly fated to be, like a prototypical Emily Dickinson telling “all the Truth but telling it aslant, “ or some latter day Sylvia Plath not freed by the Truth, and not happy about its telling? Instead, in 1842, we get an almost dismissive “she;s got a pretty face.” But maybe the answer here is in Tennyson’s own words to his son, Hallam, who records his father’s concerns about the “Victorian” condition of England and, by imperial inference, the world. Regarding the state of chivalry (and Tennyson’s beloved Idealism), Hallam’s father says,
When I see society vicious and the poor starving in great cities,
I feel that it is a mighty wave of evil passing over the world. You
must not be surprised at anything that comes to pass in the net
fifty years. All ages are ages of transition, but this is an awful
moment of transition. [6. Hallam Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, Leipzig, 1899, pp. 119-120. ]
Thus, we see Tennyson absorbed by the question of change, of the organic whole that encompassed by the pagan and chivalric realms under stresses that is also instructive, in continuing his conversation with Hallam, what he sees happening to the feminine Ideal as well:
Especially do I want people to recognize that women of our
western hemisphere represent the highest type of women,
greatly owing to the respect and honor paid to them by men,
but that the moment the honor and respect are diminished,
the high type of woman will vanish. [7. ibid.]
So, clearly for Tennyson, the days of chivalry, which informed manners and the social order are in the poet’s rear view mirror and a scantily-clad Carmen with the clacking castanets is hitch-hiking up ahead.
Tennyson’s ‘weaving and unwinding’ of his text and contexts actually served to reinforce a view of the poem I had been chewing on and which made sense to me. When I read the second version of the poem, I see a kind of seduction fantasy taking place, ironically along the lines of how Freud was describing hysterical neurotic women in the late 1890’s. First, I don’t see it as irrelevant that the Camelot the Lady sees does not include a mention of Arthur or Guinevere, the realm’s wife and Lancelot’s mistress. This is exactly what happens in seduction fantasies. Secondly, the Lady first utters “I am half-sick of shadows” following her camera obscura vision of two newlyweds messing about in the riverside shadows: again sexual fantasy terrain. Next Lancelot goes by on the road along the river, an act probably repeated in the past, given his Arthurian role. Tennyson provides a very attractive image seemingly designed to tempt the Lady’s gaze.
A red-cross knight forever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott. (P3, S1, L 78-80)
And this is followed by all that gleaming, jingling, merry, jeweled saddle, well-hung horn, muscular steed, all that steady rhythm, and sexual images like, “The helmet and helmet feather”/Burn’d like one burning flame together” followed almost immediately by “starry clusters…bearded….trailing light…” so that when Lancelot finally utters his magical spell-breaking, curse-ensuing, “tirra lira” – well, a girl can only take so much.
And what of Lancelot’s simple utterance, tirra lira (“tirra lirra, tirra lira” in the original)? Apparently, it derives from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, and is spoken by the rogue Autolycus, who uses it to describe the sound of a lark, presumably ascending. And what of the name, Autolycus, which translates to “the wolf itself”? And what of the lyric, especially repeated twice in succession in the earlier version, a musical interlude which has a decidedly cunnilingual aspiration to its tongue-giving mechanics?
This utterance ties Lancelot to Autolycus. But is not Lancelot already ‘the rogue’ itself, threatening the integrity and order of Camelot with his selfish, wolfish sexual consumption of the queen? (Is not Lancelot’s conquest the very vanishment of the high type of woman Tennyson prophesied above?) Would not Shalott have seen, in her endless weaving, Lancelot’s catastrophic transgression with the queen? So, already quivering in fantasy, is it any wonder the Lady dropped everything, what with lust looming, and went in pursuit of her idyllic idol”? She drops the web (hymen), “the mirror cracked from side to side,” because she’s given up her virginity. Shalott hops in the shallop and slides down the river that is, like her woven narration, endless and ever-changing, and pursues her man until the light of day goes out. Then she lies down in her casket boat, having inscribed it, like a tombstone, with “THE LADY OF SHALOTT,” all the while, all through Part 4, she lets out a slow, low moan that is part “carol,” partly “mournful, holy.” One might say she died alright, but in the ironical style of a fallen Shakespearean character. It is no wonder to this reader that assorted celibate knights and all the “well-fed wits” were horrified such feminine free verse. And then along comes the one knight who is unafraid, the wolf, the cad, the murderer (Gareth and Gaheris?), the psychopathic Lancelot, who may very well have heard that moan somewhere before, and who merely says essentially, ‘just another pretty face,’ and half-heartedly pays lip service to God’s merciful grace, knowing all along that grace is only conferred upon sinners and not usually required for dead pretty faces in flowing white dresses. Of course, in fairness to the blessed knight, the Lady may have been some kind of transfiguration of Guinevere, who famously ran away in shame, following Arthur’s death, and famously swore that Lancelot would never look upon her face, while alive, again, but ends up residing over her death rites, beholding her face again.
Naturally, I have only scratched the surface of what Tennyson’s intentions might have been in vising and re-vising this poem. I tend at present to lean toward Carl Plasa’s experience of the poem as sexually-political, and is a more mainstream sociological read- marriage and the role of women, etc – than my somewhat more extreme Leda-consents-to-the-swan take on the poem. However, I expect I’ll be examining many more facets of this gem before my reading career is finished.
Gay, Peter. The Bourgeois Experience:Victoria to Freud: Vol. 1 Education of the Senses. Oxford University Press. 1984.
Gray, Erik. “Getting It Wrong in ‘The Lady of Shalott,’” Victorian Poetry 47.1. 2009
Malory, Thomas. La Morte de Arthur. Project Gutenberg. Accessed at http://www.samizdat.gc.ca/arts/lit/malory/morte darthur1.pdf
Plasa, Carl. “Cracked from Side to Side”: Sexual Politics in “The Lady of Shalott,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 30. No. ¾. Centennial of Alfred Lord Tennyson: 1809-1892 (Autumn/Winter, 1992)
Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott,” 1833 and 1842 editions combined. The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Http://mseffie.com/assignments/shalott/shalcomb.html
Tennyson, Hallam. Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir. Leipzig. 1899.