Of all the poems that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, one poem that struck me particularly was The Lady of Shalott. After reading this poem, I definitely knew that it was something that I wanted to go back on and analyze closer, see if I could pull out any new or more complex themes that I had overlooked from my first reading of the poem. One thing that I thought of was the word and concept of submission. How, in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, did he evoke submission? I am one of many who was very puzzled by the last part of this poem, in regards to what it is that Lancelot had to say about the dead body of The Lady of Shalott. In this post, I strive to make the claim that Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott is a poem that promotes women to be submissive.
It is important to give historical context to the time period in which Tennyson was writing in. Tennyson’s works were within the Victorian Age, which was a time of economic growth due to the industrial revolution, but literature was also very much defined by the “Victorian temper” of moral responsibility. It is also intriguing to note that The Lady of Shalott is a revisit to the Renaissance period, with its themes of knights, towers, and magic. This revisiting to the Renaissance period in the midst of the Victorian period is intriguing because I believe that both periods deal a whole lot with submissions in their literature due to the theme of chivalry in the Renaissance and then the “Victorian Temper” in the Victorian period.
In the second stanza of the poem we find Tennyson describing the place in which the Lady of Shalott lives in. “Willows whiten, aspens quiver,/ Little breezes dusk and shiver/ Through the wave that runs forever/ By the island in the river/ flowing down to Camelot./ Four gray walls, and four gray towers/ Overlook a space of flowers,/ And the silent isle imbowers/ The Lady of Shalott./” (Tennyson 1161). Here we see Tennyson build up the environment that surrounds the Lady of Shalott, describing the “willows whiten” and talks about the “little breezes dusk and shiver”. I believe Tennyson is really contrasting the beauty of the scenery in these lines because of how different the environment around the Lady of Shalott is because she only surrounded by “four gray walls, and four gray towers,”. I also want to look at Tennyson’s word choice of “forever” in the line “Through the wave that runs forever/ By the island in the river/ Flowing down to Camelot./”. I believe that because of Tennyson’s specific word choice of describing the river as running “forever”, he really is emphasizing the imprisonment of the Lady of Shalott, he even states that the river runs freely “down to Camelot”, which is the one place she cannot go, thus evoking this feeling of raw desire and jealously by the Lady of Shalott.
The Lady of Shalott’s profession in her imprisoned state is a very convenient one, in regards to historical context. Tennyson writes “There she weaves by night and day/ A magic web with colors gay./ She has heard a whisper say,/ A curse is on her if she stay/ To look down to Camelot./ She knows not what the curse may be,/ And so she weaveth steadily,/ And little other care hath she,/ The Lady of Shalott./” (Tennyson 1162). Weaving has both roots in the Middle Ages, the era in which Tennyson chose to set this poem in and it also was re-vitalized during the Victorian era due to industrial revolution and the booming success of the establishment of mills/factories. In this stanza, Tennyson wonderfully paints the tone of fear that the Lady of Shalott has of this “curse”. One of the most ironic lines in this whole poem is “She knows not what the curse may be,/ And so she weaveth steadily,/” (Tennyson 1162). Tennyson states here that the Lady of Shalott not aware of what would or could happen if she left the tower, but rather illustrates that if she were to leave the tower, it would mean she has left her “job” of weaving. This is interesting because many of the women who worked in the mills and factories during the Victorian era, worked simply because it meant employment and many of the women refused to leave their job because they did not know what would happen to them without their employment. It is essential to remember that working conditions for these women were horrendous and although many hated their work, many had no other choice but to stay. In my opinion, the line “she has heard a whisper say,/ A curse is on her if she stay/ to look down to Camelot./” is Tennyson stating that women who look away from the societal values of submission, submission to labor for instance in this stanza, they will then be “cursed” or held in extreme judgment by high society.
In the eventful conclusion of Tennyson’s poem he writes the final stanza of “Who is this? and what is here?/ and in the lighted palace near/ Died the sound of royal cheer;/ And they crossed themselves for fear,/ All the knights at Camelot:/ But Lancelot mused a little space; He said, “she has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott.” (Tennyson 1166). I think that the initial questioning of all the people who discover the dead body of the Lady of Shalott was very intentional by Tennyson because society will refuse to take ownership of any death or tragedy that occurred due to the values they it holds. Many women had died due to working in the mills and it was very common for the foremen of the mills to decline responsibility. Now Lancelot’s first and last interaction with the Lady of Shalott is very intriguing. Lancelot is the only one who approaches the dead body, which is ironic because if you follow my logic of taking ownership, Lancelot does exactly that by being the one to walk up to the body and that is ironic because it WAS Lancelot’s fault that the Lady of Shalott died because it was him that “she left the web, she left the loom,/ she made paces through the room,/”.
This is an engraving illustrated by Dante Gabriel of the final stanza in the poem The Lady of Shalott.
“GCSE Bitesize: Working Conditions in Factories.” BBC, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/history/shp/britishsociety/livingworkingconditionsrev1.shtml
Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature The Victorian Age. E, W.W. Norton, 2012.
“England Textile Occupations Silk, Cotton, Weaving (National Institute).” England Textile Occupations Silk, Cotton, Weaving (National Institute) Genealogy – FamilySearch Wiki, http://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Textile_Occupations_Silk,_Cotton,_Weaving_(National_Institute).
Rossetti , Dante Gabriel. The Lady of Shalott. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1857, Victoria and Albert Museum E.1284-1912, Prints & Drawings Study Room, level C, case EW, shelf 143.