JUNE 17, 2009 9:52PM

"The Lady of Shalott" (Alfred Tennyson)

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— Maintaining the Peace —


“The Lady of Shalott” (Alfred Tennyson)


By Patrick McEvoy-Halston

May 2005


Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” is the sort of work Victorians might have turned to for reassurance.  It provides the reader with a soothing, predictable space/world, wherein, for the most part, s/he is well prepared to encounter and process the New.  There is disequilibrium in the poem:  Lancelot is described as such an unusual, affecting sight that his appearance shocks the Lady of Shalott (hereafter, “Lady”) into activating the curse.  However, the Lady’s subsequent activity nullifyies his emblazoned entrance, leaving us with an appropriate pairing—a gentle knight, and a newly becalmed realm.

            The first stanza reassures us that throughout the poem, throughout the world it evokes, we will find ourselves well grounded in the familiar, the already known.  We know that both “side[s]” (1) of the river have the same expansive “fields of barley and of rye” (2).  Visual and auditory echoes of this pronouncement are found in the stanza’s first line:  “river” is enclosed by “either” on one side, and by “lie” on the other.  Throughout we find words within the same line which seem visually and/or audibly related to one another.  Sometimes the same word is repeated—“four” in line fifteen, for example.  Sometimes we get overt, obvious assonance and/or alliteration—e.g., “surly village churls” (52).  And sometimes we get visual rhymes—e.g., “weaveth steadily” (43).  The result is that we do not simply progress forward as we read and, in effect, jettison the words already encountered in the line.  Rather, there is a sense that we are encouraged to read forward as we progress across a line, and backward as we near its completion.  That is, we are provided with some sense of the stable, eternal “medieval” present while we move our way through the plot.     

            The same sense of familiarity provided by seeing/hearing resemblances between words on single lines, is also encouraged by re-encountering the same words throughout the poem.  Nouns are frequently repeated, but so too many adjectives, including “little,” “broad,” and “bearded.”  The repetition of these words again works to reinforce our sense of the poem’s stability and regularity, maintained most obviously by the repetition of the refrain “The Lady of Shalott,” which terminates virtually all of the poem’s stanzas.  There may be something very soothing, too, in discovering as we read antonyms of many previously encountered words.  Without having seen the word “under” (102) before encountering the word “Over” (16), without having encountered “In” (29) before encountering “Out (114), we might have lost some of the ease the poem provides by its seeming to offer us a comprehensive spatial survey of its world.          

Since we are told both what is “up and down” and what is “left and right” (137), after being told of the “stormy east wind” (118) that emerges with the activation of the curse, we might at some level be unsettled to learn that we never hear of what lies westward.  But we would be looking in the wrong direction, so to speak, if we looked to the stanzas which delineate the Lady’s subsequent transformation for the poem’s discordant element.  Instead, we must look to Lancelot.  And how can we not?  Unlike the poem’s “two” “knights” (61) and Camelot’s “four [. . .] towers” (15)—that is, unlike other “objects” in the poem associated with medieval order and even numbers—Sir Lancelot is “One” (94) singular, irregular knight.  The odd number “one” is especially discordant in this poem, since it is the single number of the four we encounter— “one,” “two,” “three,” “four”—not echoed in its rhyme scheme (which consists of couplets, triplets, and quatrains.)       

            Sir Lancelot is described in a manner due a monarch.  He is associated with the “sun” (163):  he and/or his equipment is described as “flamed” (76) and “blazoned” (87).  His equipment is also likened to “stars” (84), that is, to equally endowed individual objects in the night-sky.  But he himself is imagined as a “meteor” (98), that is, to a singular object whose appearance in the night-sky cannot but command attention away from all else.  The packed stresses of “broad clear brow” (100), “war-horse trode” (101), and “coal-black curls” (104), complement the meteor simile by making him seem energized, deliberate:  the opposite of easeful.  Unlike all other “objects” the Lady espies in her mirror, he alone is given sustained attention—the rest are given but one or two accompanying adjectives.   Sustained, too, is the sequence of “b” words used to describe him, such as “bow-shot” (73), “brazen” (76), and “blazoned” (87), which again emphasizes our understanding of him as pronounced and dangerous. 

            The extensive description of Lancelot’s passage is followed by an equally extensive description of the Lady’s entrance into Camelot.  And we note just how much the imagery involved in the Lady’s passage down the river counters that associated with Lancelot.  He is associated with a sun which “blazed” (76); she with “pale yellow woods” (119).  He is likened, by means of a simile, to a “meteor, trailing light” (98); she floats “down the river’s dim expanse” (127).  His helmet is likened to a “flame” (94); her white clothing, to “snow” (136).  In a sense, the Lady’s passage can be thought of as providing us with a “down” to his “up,” or with a “left” to his “right”—that is, with his natural complement.  Lancelot and the Lady are made to seem similar opposites.   Together, they are the harmony afforded when opposites unite.

            The Lady’s entrance into Camelot spooks “All the knights at Camelot” (167), but Lancelot calms them down.  No longer a man constituted by tightly packed energy, he instead seems easeful.  This transformation is effected rhythmically, as he is no longer the man whose “war horse trode” (/ / /) but one who “mused a little space” (168) (/ ˘  /  Ë˜ /).  We also note that “God” and “grace” (170)—both stressed words—are used to bookend the poem’s second to last line:  The poem terminates as it began, with peace throughout the land.  


Work Cited

Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott.” The Broadview Anthology of             Victorian Poetry and Poetic Theory. Eds. Thomas Collins and Vivienne Rundle.  Peterborough, Broadview Press, 1999. 162-65. Print.

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Handsomely done. A fine set of insights here, enough to inspire my own questions: How do these symmetries break the symmetry? Do they? "The mirror crack'd ..."

Does Tennyson balance things in their unbalance, or destroy the symmetry with the mirror that does not mirror?

I am lost, I am lost ...
Actually, if there is pierced symmetry in this poem, it's in this bit:

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.

Vigorous and assertive. The rest of the poem might even feel like riding the momentum accrued from this assertive "push." "Mirror crack'd" just doesn't feel like a sufficient baracade, to quit all that assertion.

Wrote this little essay 4 years ago. Fun to go back and see if I agree with its argument (which for the most part I do). Thanks for encouraging the return, Gary.
Thanks for making the return; long time since I'd sat down with Tennyson ...

Many subtleties here, often masked by the more famous lines. Is there a "mirror" to the "mirror crack'd" line? (Serious, not rhetorical question.)

"Three paces" -- two balanced around the one, the one as you noted being reserved for Lancelot.
You know, there may just be . . . :

Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance --
With a glassy countenance
This will always be about dating (and marrying) a woman to me. This was my coming out poem.
"With a glassy countenance"

That bears some thought -- that "glassy" stare is equivalent to the vapid, blank gape. The mirror crack'd -- the moment of epiphany on the far side of blank acceptance. I wish I were a more careful consumer of poetry, but you're doing me some good here. But my next project is still Milton's Paradise.
Very interesting. Was it in part owing to the half-sick of shadows bit?
And "seeing all his own mischance" is reflection, a mirror.
"Was it in part owing to the half-sick of shadows bit?"

Nah, like everyone else I just thought the "better to reign in Hell" bit was cool. And it stands out as a crack in my own mirror -- a gaping, glassy vacancy in my education I thought I'd fill.
My apologies, Gary--that question was for hyblaean- Julie.
In part. The whole poem spoke to me. The being safe and comfortable where I was, but living in a fantasy world not really connecting. The missing of something, but not really knowing how much I was missing until the right situation/timing/person came along. The mirror being how I was supposed to be 'straight, middle class, preferably married to a doctor with a professional job of my own' cracking - not allowing the going back to shadows, but having to move forward through a more reality into a death- rebirth.

To me (at its heart) it's a poem about obsession, but that isn't how I saw it at the time I discovered it, so I've never really had that feel from it.
This is a beautiful study regarding one of my favorite poems. Yes, I also loved how Loreena McKennet put it to music. Thank you for this.
Thanks Renaissance Lady. I'm certainly hoping to help make all more lovely. Read some of your posts at Gary's place, and was thinking about some of the conversations you two were having.

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