Tennyson's Lady of Shalott

by John Batchelor

W alking through a barley field near our house in Kidlington on a hot afternoon I was reminded of these lines:

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers 'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.'

Alfred Tennyson, 1809-1892, became Poet Laureate and the most celebrated poet of his day after the publication of In Memoriam A.H.H. in 1850. With its intensely realized sense of place and its powerful concentrated verse this long elegy for his young Cambridge friend Arthur Hallam, who had died suddenly in 1833, caught the attention of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But long before this, the young Tennyson had written a series of visionary poems, medieval in feeling and deriving in part from the stories of the Knights of the Round Table. In one of the most memorable of these, The Lady of Shalott, he evokes a summer scene of peaceful heat, an unremarkable rural landscape and then a fairytale medieval tower in which the Lady lives under a curse. The curse keeps her weaving a tapestry, and constantly watching the development of her tapestry in a mirror (she is weaving from the reverse side of the tapestry). Part of the curse is that if she looks directly out of the window with the naked eye she will suffer dreadful consequences.

The Lady of Shalott

Illustrated above, The Lady of Shalott, painting (Circa 1890) by William Holman Hunt, inspired by Tennyson's poem, depicts The Lady of Shalott confined to a tower on an island near Camelot, cursed not to leave the tower nor to look out of its windows. She weaves a tapestry, viewing the outside world only through reflections in a mirror behind her. The painting depicts the pivotal scene in the third part of the poem: the Lady spies "bold Sir Launcelot" in her mirror. The sight of the handsome knight and the sound of him singing draws her away from her loom to the window, yarn still clinging around her knees, bringing down the curse upon her as "the mirror crack'd from side to side". She leaves the tower to take a boat across the river, but meets her death before she reaches Camelot.

The mirror in which she sees her tapestry also reflects the scene from her window. The poor lady weaves industriously, occasionally diverted by tantalizing glimpses of real life reflected in her mirror: troops of bold young knights or motley lively crowds of visitors to a market. Then comes the fatal day when bold Sir Lancelot himself appears in her mirror. He is a striking and magnificent figure:

His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
'Tirra lirra,' by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

It is all too much for the poor Lady. She abandons her loom and looks directly out of her window at this enthralling sight, with catastrophic results:

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

The unfortunate Lady leaves her tower, finds a boat which she adopts as her floating coffin, and drifts in it down towards Camelot, singing as she dies. 'All the knights at Camelot' hear her death song and come out in awe and wonder ('they crossed themselves for fear'). Unaware that she has in effect died for love of him Lancelot himself blesses her, adding, in his detached way, 'She has a lovely face.' We can assume that he then forgets her and goes back to his own full, active, satisfying life.

As a story or fable this poem makes little sense but as a vision or dream it is compelling. I think at its centre is the notion that the making of art, be it tapestry, poetry or music, is dependent on inscrutable and mysterious conditions. To drag it out into plain sight is to destroy it. Indeed, the longer it remains hidden, secret, and a matter of expectation rather than achievement, the longer it exerts power.

Tennyson was very young when he wrote this poem, and his circumstances were precarious. His clergyman father, the oldest son of a successful Lincolnshire lawyer and land agent, had been forced to become a clergyman. In the early nineteenth century this was a standard way for the gentry to dispose of younger sons, but Tennyson's father had effectively been disinherited in favour of his younger brother. The poor man despaired, and in 1830 he died of drink. Alfred Tennyson found himself having to look after his widowed mother and his many younger siblings. I think the Lady in the Tower, doomed to be destroyed by any encounter with the real world, reflects the young Tennyson's feelings about the destruction of his family's security and the fact that he is trapped and imprisoned by the family's poverty.

In feeling, at least, this poem compares with 'The Kraken' in which a fabulous sea-monster emerges from the deep, displays himself to the astonished world, and then dies:

Beneath the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth.

He sleeps until roused by 'the latter fire', which I take to be the end of the universe, and

Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Once he had emerged from his figurative tower and from the abysmal sea Tennyson as Poet Laureate continued to write on medieval themes, and his huge narrative poem, Idylls of the King, reworked the stories of King Arthur, the feuding among his knights and his disastrous marriage to Queen Guinevere, creating a decorative romance which fed the Victorians' appetite for the mythologized history of their own country — and their Emipire — for some 50 years. But it began with a penniless parson's son creating an imaginative safe place for himself in Camelot.

SEE ALSO by John Batchelor:
• The Tipping Point
• Tennyson's Lady of Shalott
• Alice in Lockdown
• Summer's Gardens and The Poets
• Poetry and Crisis: Edward Thomas
• Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and the Current Pandemic

Formerly a Fellow of New College, Oxford, John Batchelor is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Newcastle. His books include biographies of Mervyn Peake (1974), Joseph Conrad (1995), John Ruskin (2000), Ruskin's close friend Lady Trevelyan (2006), and Alfred Tennyson (2012). His other works have included critical studies of H G Wells (1985) and Virginia Woolf (1992).

John is a resident of the village of Kidlington, Oxfordshire, and his new book on Rudyard Kipling called 'How the Just so Stories were Made' was published by Yale University Press in May 2021.

To order John's book, click on the book cover below.
– May 2021 — John's New Book –

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