Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott" was first published in the 1832 volume of Poems and later revised for Poems, 1842 (Mellown). “The Lady of Shalott” is a version of the ballad in a hybrid form with lyric and narrative integrated throughout. The poem consists of nineteen stanzas divided into four parts, which separate each section of the narrative. The poem tells the story of a woman with a curse placed upon her, who is trapped in a tower with a window that she cannot look directly out of, while her only view of the world is the image that is reflected through a mirror, which she weaves onto a tapestry. One day, while she is observing the outside world through the mirror, she sees a beautiful man who is singing, known as Lancelot, and she instantly falls in love with him. As she turns to look out the window, the tapestry falls and the mirror breaks, and she realizes that the curse is upon her. She leaves the tower and gets into a boat, which she carves her name into, and travels down the river towards Camelot; however, she dies before she reaches the town and Lancelot.

Arthurian Myth:

The Victorians embraced Arthurian myth, as they saw the medieval era as a simpler time, and used it as a way of escaping from the industrial era surrounding them (Udall 34). “The Lady of Shalott” was Tennyson’s first recount of Arthurian myth, with the use of the Italian romance, Donna di Scalotta, as his main source for the poem (Mellown). The names in the poem are of Celtic origin, as “Shalott” comes from “Astolat,” which is said to come from the Welsh name, Alclut, known as the name of the rock of Dumbarton, by the River Clyde near Glasgow (Brown 410). “Camelot” comes from the Welsh name “Camlan,” which is the location of the last battle Arthur fought against Mordred in the myth (410). In the poem, the Lady of Shalott is based on the character Elaine, from Donna di Scalotta, who is known as the maid of Astolat (Mellown). In Tennyson’s novella Idylls of the King (1859-74), he narrates the story of Elaine; however, the only similarities between the novella and the poem are that “Camelot is made the end of the funeral voyage, and is on the sea-shore” (Potwin 238). As pointed out by L. S. Potwin, the novella has more resemblance to the 1832 version of the poem, as it mentions the crown and girdle, as well as the contents of the letter, while the 1842 version does not mention any of these aspects (238). However, Potwin also makes evident that both versions of the poem neglect to mention King Arthur and the Queen, and certain situations, such as the Lady’s death and the journey to Camelot, appear quite different in the novella from the poem (238). There is also no mention of the mirror, the weaving, the curse, the song, the river and/or the island in the novella, although they appear in bother versions of the poem. James R. Kincaid argues that Tennyson’s changes to the poem remove the aspects of rhetorical irony in the original version and redirect our attention from the Lady to her environment in the 1842 version (Kincaid).

Victorian Culture:

In 1832, the first Reform Bill was passed and there were “fierce debates about the relation and responsibility of classes” (Landow). “The Lady of Shalott” reflects the political turmoil of the time and the “artist's problematic relation to his society,” which Tennyson does by using a mythic narrative to “preserve aesthetic distance while making statements about [his] own age” (Landow). Tennyson’s commentary on the era is represented through the Lady of Shalott as a symbol of the artist; while she is trapped in the tower and her experience of human life is depicted through a mirror she recreates an inverted version of the outside world onto a tapestry (Landow). When Lancelot passes by her tower, and she activates the curse by turning to look at him, she becomes victim to her own mortality, which represents society’s need to destroy the artist (Landow).

“The Lady of Shalott” also reflects the issues of female identity in contemporary Victorian society, as social and gendered expectations placed women as belonging within the domestic interior, while men belonged in the active exterior (Mariotti). The Lady in the poem is – at first – symbolic of the ideal woman, as she is “virginal, embowered, spiritual and mysterious, dedicated to her womanly tasks,” while she is trapped within the interior of the tower (Mariotti). The identity of the woman is rather unknown, as there is little description of her character; however, we are provided with a great amount of detail describing the male character, Lancelot. Later in the poem, the Lady threatens the system of male and female realms – the idea of separate spheres of gendered activity – when she turns towards the window and looks out at Lancelot, wishing to join him in the male exterior. She claims her identity and individuality when she writes her name on the boat; however, her rebellion against these social norms and expectations results in her death.

Pre-Raphaelite Art:

“The Lady of Shalott” inspired many Pre-Raphaelite painters who chose to depict various versions of the Lady. The Pre-Raphaelite painters used medieval themes in their work and believed in an integration of art and literature, which “emphasiz[ed] the reality of both signifier and signified” (Udall 34). Tennyson’s 1857 edition of Poems, edited by Moxon, included illustrations by three of the most celebrated Pre-Raphaelite artists of the nineteenth century, including: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt (34). Hunt created his first memorable illustration for this volume, known as Lady of Shalott, which was his first depiction of this subject, and became one that he continued to work with in a series over the course of four decades (34). With the newly understood pictorial potential of “The Lady of Shalott,” after the 1857 edition, the Lady became an interesting subject to many other Pre-Raphaelite artists as well (Nelson). Artists including John William Waterhouse, Sidney Harold Meteyard, Arthur Hughes, and John Atkinson Grimshaw, created their own interpretations of the Lady of Shalott.


Works Cited:

Brown, Anna Robertson. "Tennyson's 'Lady of Shalott'." (1892, Jan 01). Poet Lore, 4: 410. ProQuest. Retrieved from Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

Kincaid, James R. “The Lady of Shalott.” The Victorian Web., 28 March. 2001. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Landow, George P. “Tennyson’s Poetic Project.” The Victorian Web., 20 Feb. 2010. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Mariotti, Meg. “The Lady of Shalott: Pre-Raphaelite Attitudes Toward Woman in Society.” The Victorian Web., 21 December. 2004. Web. 28 Jan. 2015

Mellown, Muriel. "The Lady of Shalott: Overview." Reference Guide to English Literature. Ed. D. L. Kirkpatrick. 2nd ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Nelson, Elizabeth. “The Lady of Shalott.” The Victorian Web., 30 Nov. 2004. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.

Potwin, L. S. "The Source of Tennyson's the Lady of Shalott." Modern Language Notes 17.8 (1902): 238. Web. 5 Feb. 2015.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. "The Lady of Shalott." The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth Century Verse & Prose. Ed. Rudrum, Alan, et al. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 2000. Print. 162-65.

Udall, Sharyn R. "Between Dream and Shadow: William Holman Hunt's "Lady of Shalott"." Woman's Art Journal 11.1 (1990): 34. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.