15 April 2002
Copyright 2002 Karen Dillon. All rights reserved.
"Who Is This?
And What Is This Here?"
The Evolution of Tennyson's Lady of Shalott
And Her Presence in the Artistic Imagination
Something special exists in Alfred Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott to capture the imagination of Victorian artists and writers and inspire such a surge of interest in the Lady’s story. Tennyson’s motifs appear throughout many Victorian novels, and the image of the Lady of Shalott in her death barge was a prevalent subject for the Pre-Raphaelite painters. What is all this "Lady of Shalott business," in D.H. Lawrence’s words, that has captivated readers and artists alike (Women in Love, 35)? It could be that The Lady of Shalott is "as near perfect as the work of mortals ever gets to be, in structure, in details, and in the evocation of sight, sound, and feeling" (Marshall 60). The beauty of Tennyson’s imagery, the magic and mystery of the Lady’s world, the undeniable heartbreak of her story, and the vague understanding of The Lady of Shalott’s evolution are what remain so captivating and incite a constant current of Shalott business. The mystery of Tennyson’s poem exists in the mystical life that looms inside the "four gray walls, and four gray towers," and likewise in the mystery of the identity of this "fairy Lady of Shalott" (15, 35-6)*. Tennyson himself did not create the character, but rather borrowed her story from Arthurian legend. However, most scholars remain vague on his source, while others simply get it wrong. It is important to know from where Tennyson derived his inspiration because this dually affects one’s interpretation of The Lady of Shalott, and illuminates the complex evolution of the Lady’s Arthurian character. The purpose of this study is to explicate this Shalott business from many different aspects: who the Lady of Shalott is, from whence precisely came her character, what Tennyson made of her, how she represents Tennyson’s Victorian society, and how she has been portrayed in art. This is a complete study of the Lady of Shalott’s character in the hope that she will no more be "half sick of shadows" over the confusion about who she is and from whence she came.
Arthurian narratives derive from a mixture of history, legend, lore, and magic. Over the centuries they have been told and re-told, gaining and losing parts until each new teller creates his or her own tale distinguishable from its original sources. The Arthurian legends are ultimately of Celtic origin, and were most likely carried to Brittany, in the north of France, by Celtic settlers and refugees from post-Roman Britain. Once in France, the tales spread throughout the land, reaching German, Italian, and English ears by way of the troubadours and the highly cosmopolitan courts of Marie de Champagne and her mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, during the 12th century.
The earliest writers of Arthurian tales were Geoffrey of Monmouth, who made legend into a kind of pseudo-history intermixed with a bit of magic, and Chrétien de Troyes, who penned his Arthurian romances at the request of Queen Eleanor. Later, and heavily influenced by these authors, were other famous Arthurian tales known as the Vulgate Cycle. The Vulgate Cycle consists of the five French prose romances: the History of the Grail, Merlin, Lancelot, the Quest of the Holy Grail, and the Mort Artu. Of the English Arthurian tradition, which includes Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, and the Alliterative Morte Arthure, is perhaps the most famous Arthurian text, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory, in writing the most authoritative English version of Arthurian legend, drew on a variety of sources, including the Vulgate Cycle and the English "Mortes."
Although Malory borrowed from previous sources and often translated directly from the French, he used sources "different in aim, tone, genre, and even language and dialect," handling them with the "independence of spirit of an author with a mind of his own" (McCarthy 140). Malory was not the only one to borrow from the French tradition. The German tradition continued the process begun by the French. It investigated the value of chivalry, courtliness, and reacted to specific works from the French tradition. Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Gottfired von Strassburg were three known German authors among the many anonymous who worked with previous Arthurian material (Ashe 97). The Scandinavian and Dutch traditions translated many French Arthurian texts, but the Spanish and Portuguese translated especially from the French Vulgate Cycle (Ashe 111). It is this tradition of complex textual interchange and imitation that makes it difficult to clearly trace a single Arthurian legend, let alone a single character like the Lady of Shalott.
Each new teller of Arthurian legends brings them to life anew with distinguishing styles, new adventures, and modified or new characters, and no author since Malory has done so with such lyricism and grace as Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The most influential English Arthurian author besides Malory, Tennyson played the key role in reviving the Arthurian legends in the 19th century. In an era overwhelmed by industrialization, urbanization, and declining moral values, Victorian society needed an alternative to its social reality, and Tennyson provided that escape with a journey back to the myths of King Arthur. Tennyson gave England its first Arthurian epic with The Idylls of the King, a work published in series from 1859 to 1885. Although The Idylls of the King remains one of Tennyson’s most famous and influential works, it is his first Arthurian poem, The Lady of Shalott, which is arguably his most innovative and influential contribution to Arthurian legend.
Published first in 1832 (see Appendix A) in the collection Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, and later revised in 1842, The Lady of Shalott was both a critical and commercial success. Today it appears in almost all anthologies that include Tennyson’s work. The Lady of Shalott depicts a woman in isolation who is forced to experience the world through shadows appearing in her mirror. If she leaves her tower or turns from the duty of weaving "the mirror’s magic sights," a curse will come upon her and she will die (65). As she watches knights riding to Camelot, the Lady of Shalott realizes that she has "no loyal knight and true," but the vision of the beautiful and proud Lancelot pushes her to the spontaneous decision to leave the room (62). The turning point of the poem is the moment the Lady of Shalott looks directly out the window at Lancelot in the outer world of Camelot. From the moment she "left the web, she left the loom, / She made three paces through the room, / She saw the waterlily bloom, / She saw the helmet and the plume, / She looked down to Camelot," her fate was decided (109-113). As soon as she leaves her room, "Out flew the web….The mirror cracked from side to side," and the Lady of Shalott cries "The curse is come upon me" (114-116). The Lady of Shalott finds a boat, lays down, and sings her last song as she succumbs to the curse while floating down to Camelot.
Tennyson significantly changed the original version of The Lady of Shalott, but his reasons for the 1842 revisions were strictly technical, and were instigated by meticulous scholarly criticism of the 1832 poem. Tennyson’s peers criticized his excessive use of compound words and his style of writing them together without a hyphen. They also criticized his too frequent use of the accented ending -ed (Shannon 40). Tennyson simply omitted words like "yellowleavèd" and "greensheathèd" from the 1832 version, and words like "overtrailed" and silversailed" were changed to "trail’d" and "silken-sail’d," replacing the –ed with an apostrophe. Tennyson was also criticized for a lack of precision regarding his diction. One critic mentioned the incorrect reference of the placement of the Lady’s name on the boat in the 1832 version. If the Lady of Shalott had written her name "below the stern" of the boat, then it could not have been seen by the people at Camelot when her boat arrived at the wharf because the stern is the tail of the boat, and the image would have been backwards. In the 1842 revision, Tennyson corrected himself and placed the Lady’s name "around the prow" of the boat to introduce the Lady’s arrival (Shannon 41).
Other revisions Tennyson made to the poem in 1842 were subtle, involving mostly changes in description and the arrangement of small details. Regarding content, Tennyson’s revisions involved the description of the Lady’s dress and the final speaker in the poem. The last stanza in the original version was judged as "a lame and impotent conclusion" by one critic, and so Tennyson substituted an alternate ending which retains the mythical edge of the poem (Shannon 44). In the original version, it is the Lady of Shalott herself who has the final word. A letter accompanies her body in the barge and is read aloud by an unidentified speaker, reading, "The web was woven curiously, / The charm is broken utterly, / Draw near and fear not- this is I, / The Lady of Shalott" (178-181). In the alternate ending, Lancelot speaks the final words, saying, "She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The Lady of Shalott" (169-171). By allowing Lancelot to speak on the Lady’s death and making the Lady herself silent, Tennyson preserves the mystery and tragedy of her death by ending her story with such an impersonal and simple summation. By preserving the mystery, however, Tennyson takes all power from the Lady of Shalott by taking away her own voice. The Lady of Shalott’s letter in the original version expounds on the circumstances of her life and death, mentioning the tapestry and the curse. However, Tennyson allows Lancelot to sum up the lady’s life and death with a casual remark on her beauty, reducing her to an ideal feminine form.
Although most of Tennyson’s revisions were technically motivated, they had an atmospheric effect. Tennyson wanted to use thought instead of imagery for a simpler expression, so he divested the Lady of her garments in the 1842 version to simplify his imagery to show rather than tell. By simplifying the Lady’s dress, Tennyson reduces all her finery to a snowy white gown and seems to "broaden the focus of the poem by removing attention from the lady to her environment" (Kincaid 31). In the 1842 version, it is no longer important that a she wears a "cloudwhite crown of pearl," or that "A pearlgarland winds her head: / She leaneth on a velvet bed, / Full royally apparellèd" (128,33-35). The Lady’s innocence and mysticism shine much brighter when she is "Lying, robed in snowy white / That loosely flew to left and right- / The leaves upon her falling light" (136-138). In his memoir, Hallam Tennyson agrees with the renewed simplicity of his father’s revisions, writing that the Lady of Shalott is "stripped of all her finery…and certainly in the simple white robe which she now wears, her beauty shows to much greater advantage" (191). Tennyson’s revisions invested The Lady of Shalott in a much deeper and purer interest. The Lady’s humanity is better expressed with less imagery and drapery, and more emphasis on her moral and spiritual traits. The internal becomes more important than the external.
The Lady of Shalott seems uncharacteristic of Tennyson in relation to his great Arthurian epic, the Idylls of the King, because it contradicts that work’s attitudes towards Arthur, Lancelot, the morality of the court, and the role of women in Arthur’s court. The Idyll "Lancelot and Elaine" emphasizes Tennyson’s reverence for Arthur and Lancelot, and chastises women like Guinevere and Elaine, casting them as sinful women who bring dissension to Arthur’s court. Although "Lancelot and Elaine" and The Lady of Shalott share obvious similarities in the framework of their stories—a young lady falls in love with Lancelot, she dies trying to attain that love, and her body floats to Camelot on a small barge, dying a mysterious death—The Lady of Shalott is assuredly a different story in its purpose and themes. The Lady of Shalott never mentions Arthur or Guinevere, and Lancelot’s role is purely superficial. Camelot and its inhabitants are important only in their relationship to the Lady of Shalott.
Whereas The Lady of Shalott is a single episode independent of any other literary associations, the Idylls represents Tennyson’s version of the stories told in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. With Malory as his source, Tennyson found an "idealization of King Arthur which remained undimmed all his life" (Pinion 12). Tennyson had first encountered Malory as a boy in his father’s library, which contained "the first modern reprint of the Morte d’Arthur" (C. Tennyson 32). Tennyson himself confirmed this by saying, "The vision of Arthur as I have drawn him came upon me when, little more than a boy, I first lighted upon Malory" (Alden 116). When Tennyson turned to medieval influences in his career he again looked to Malory for inspiration. After the death of his closest friend Arthur Hallam, Tennyson wrote the poem "Morte d’Arthur" in 1833-4 as a tribute to his friend. Beginning with this poem, which would later be incorporated as the last installment of the Idylls of the King, Tennyson wanted to create a "comprehensive treatment of the legends of King Arthur," and so he "read and re-read Malory...until there was not an episode of the old myths and lays with which he was not familiar" (296). The first four Idylls were published in 1859 as "Enid," "Vivien," "Lancelot and Elaine," and "Gunivere." The second half of the Idylls was published in 1869 as "The Coming of Arthur," "The Holy Grail," "Palleas and Ettarre," and "The Passing of Arthur." Tennyson added two more Idylls, and the entire work was published together in sequence in 1891.
Tennyson’s Idylls restored Arthur to the central figure of a major work, and stressed sexual morality and the sanctity of marriage. The Idylls condemns illicit love such as Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s, seeing it as the downfall of Arthur’s court. Malory allows many factors to contribute to the destruction of Arthur’s court, but Tennyson emphasized the single moral sin of Lancelot’s and Guinvere’s adulterous love. The Lady of Shalott does not deal with the moral issues that the Idylls do. The Lady of Shalott, although Arthurian in nature, is a topical poem reflecting on the creative individual’s relationship to society, the role of the woman in Victorian society, and the adherence to duty over diversion.
Although the framework of the Lady of Shalott’s story bears a strong resemblance to that of Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat in the Idyll "Lancelot and Elaine," The Lady of Shalott deals with the Lady as an individual, and without the relationship to Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur’s court. It is no coincidence that the two stories are similar, for although they come from different sources, those sources eventually trace back to the same origin. Tennyson borrowed his character of Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat from the story of Elaine le Blank, the Fair Maid of Astolat, from book 18 of Malory. Although Tennyson adds his own perspective and unique details, the elements of the story come strictly from Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory, in turn, derived this particular episode from the French Mort Artu. In fact, Malory’s version is a direct paraphrase from the French, with only minor textual differences.
The Elaines in Malory and the old French are both virginal, innocent, and madly in love with Lancelot. In both stories, Lancelot flees Arthur’s court after another fight with Guinevere, and he comes to the home of the Baron of Astolat, (Escalot in the Mort Artu) where he is beheld by Elaine, "and as the book saith, she cast such a love unto Sir Launcelot that she could never withdraw her love…" (Malory 390). Lancelot wears Elaine’s red sleeve to the tournament at Winchester where he fights incognito under the guise of Elaine’s token. There is a slight difference in the text as to whose idea it was for Lancelot to wear the red sleeve. In the Mort Artu, Elaine asks Lancelot to wear her token, but he hesitates initially, knowing it will anger the Queen if she finds out. However, he later accepts the token in honor of the kindness and beauty of Elaine. Malory’s Lancelot accepts the token because he knows he can use it as a disguise at the tournament. Elaine prophesies her own death in both versions and also warns Lancelot that she will die for his love, but Lancelot will accept none of the blame. In the French text, Lancelot says to Elaine, "It was madness to long after me in such a manner," while in Malory he says, "me repenteth that she loveth me as she doth; I was never the causer of it…I am right heavy of her distress, for she is a full fair maiden, good, gentle, and well taught" (46, 412). When Elaine dies, her body floats down to Camelot on a bed of riches and gold, and with a letter blaming Lancelot for her death accompanying her body. Malory’s letter reads, "Most noble knight, Sir Launcelot...I was your lover, that men called the Fair Maiden of Astolat; therefore unto all ladies I make my moan, yet pray for my soul and bury me at least…" (415). The letter in the French text similarly blames Lancelot, saying, "I have come to my end for loving faithfully" (61).
Malory’s and the French Mort Artu’s versions of Elaine of Astolat/Escalot have evident parallels to Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. Since Tennyson explicitly used Malory as his source for his other great Arthurian work, The Idylls, it is logical to assume that he would have used Malory as his source for The Lady of Shalott as well. However, there are other versions of the Elaine story besides Malory’s to which Tennyson could have looked. For example, the English Stanzaic Morte Arthur, which is also based on the French Mort Artu, has a similar episode. Indeed, it is one of these lesser known versions of the Elaine of Escalot story that Tennyson actually used as his source for The Lady of Shalott.
Tennyson’s source for The Lady of Shalott was a little-known Italian version of the story, a novella which tells the tale of the Donna di Scalotta and how she died for love of Launcelot of the Lake. The story is from the "famous collection commonly known as the Cento Novelle Antiche made towards the end of the 13th century" (Chambers 227). In these One Hundred Ancient Tales, the novella on the Donna di Scalotta is identified as novella LXXXI or LXXXII depending on the edition, and it retells the story of Elaine of Escalot from the Mort Artu (Garnder 93). Although the Arthurian legends are not prominent in Italian literature—the Cento contains only four Arthurian tales out of 100—the importance of the Cento, also known as Il Novellino, to Italy and to those whose work it influenced remains a significant factor in tracing the evolution of its Arthurian characters.
The tales of King Arthur swept into Italy, as they did in other European countries, mainly through the French oral tradition of the 12th century. Italian Arthurian literature has its foundation in traveling minstrels and Provençal troubadours, but also in the historical fiction of Geoffrey of Monmouth. The 13th century saw the emergence of courtly love poets in Italy, and with them came the first written Italian Arthurian tales (Gardner 3). Scholars of early Italian literature concur that the Cento Novelle Antiche is the first collection of prose fiction in Italy preceding Boccaccio’s Decameron, and it is considered to be one of the earliest foundations for the Italian novel. The Cento Novelle Antiche is a collection of stories from different sources retold in a simple and compact style.
No autograph of the Cento Novelle Antiche exists. There are several story collections that contain significant portions of these tales, but only two redactions contain exactly one hundred stories, thus forming the complete Cento. The first of these, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, prepared by Giulio Cammillo Del Minio in 1523, is a manuscript. The second version, called Editio Princeps because it was the first printed version, was prepared by Carlo Gualteruzzi in 1525. All subsequent works containing the 100 tales follow the form and ordering of Gualteruzzi’s Editio Princeps of the Cento Novelle Antiche ; thus the Editio Princeps is considered to be the most accurate rendering of the original Il Novellino (Consoli ix).
In the 1804 Milan edition, entitled Raccolta di Nouvelle, the novella on the Donna di Scalotta is numbered LXXXI (see Appendix B). Thomas Roscoe, scholar and translator of early Italian literature, translated the novella from the Raccolta in his four-volume book Italian Novelists (see Appendix C) in which he also refers to the novella as LXXXI. Although the Raccolta di Nouvelle is nothing more than "a mere reprint of Gualteruzzi’s edition of the Cento," Philip Consoli’s 1999 edition of Gualteruzzi’s Editio Princeps refers to the same novella as LXXXII (Chambers 227). Even though the novella is identified differently as 81 or 82 depending on the edition, the story remains the same as it first appeared in the Cento Novelle Antiche.
The author(s) of these One Hundred Ancient Tales remains anonymous, but their production date has reached a general consensus. Consoli asserts that the Cento Novelle Antiche was written between 1281 and 1300. Roscoe attributes the tales to "an age anterior to that of Dante," placing them around or after the year 1250 (2). Roscoe goes even further, saying the author of the Cento Novelle Antiche could be Brunetto Latini, the master of Dante. According to Roscoe, Latini was a great admirer of the Arthurian tales and he owned a "beautiful copy of the romances of the Round Table" (4). No matter what individual assumptions are made, all scholars of the Cento Novelle Antiche agree that is was written in the latter half of the thirteenth century. This time frame is confirmed by Fazio degli Uberti, an admirer of the Arthurian legends who between 1350 and 1368 toured the historical sites of the Arthurian lands. Uberti, a contemporary of Boccaccio, wrote about his travels in his Dittamondo, "I saw the wasted, ruined Camelotto, and I was there where the maid of Corbenich and she of Scalotto were born" (Loomis 422). Uberti refers to Il Novellino’s character la Donna di Scalotta in his book published about 70 years after the production of the Cento Novelle Antiche. Since the Cento was such a landmark in early Italian literature and the translation of Uberti’s book remains near perfect from Scalotta to Scalotto, it can be assumed that Uberti was referring to the Donna di Scalotta’s story in Il Novellino.
The Italian novella LXXXI was identified as the source for The Lady of Shalott already in 1902 by Professor L.S. Potwin in the December issue of Modern Language Notes. However, much confusion concerning the matter still exists. The perplexing array of damsels—of Escalot, Astolat, Scalotta, Shalott—has led many scholars to combine them into one character and one source, causing scholars to make false assumptions. Elizabeth Jenkins, author of The Mystery of King Arthur, says of Tennyson’s second book of poetry that "one of them was based on Malory’s story of Elaine; he called it The Lady of Shalott. Malory himself called Astolat ‘Ascolat,’ and ‘Shalott’ seems to have been Tennyson’s softening of that form" (193). In this assumption of Tennyson’s source, Jenkins fails to distinguish between Malory’s two Elaines: Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles who is the mother of Galahad and the presenter of the grail, or Elaine le Blank, the Fair Maid of Astolat who guards Lancelot’s shield as he wears her red token at the tournament at Winchester and then dies from unrequited love. More importantly, Jenkins firmly states that Malory was Tennyson’s source for The Lady of Shalott, a likely mistake knowing that Tennyson did use Malory later for the Idylls. Even when Malory is not explicitly mentioned as a source, Le Morte d’Arthur looms large in the background, considering that Malory is the source from which most English-speaking readers drive their knowledge of Arthurian legends.
Other scholars, like Raymond Alden who wrote the book Alfred Tennyson, correctly identify the source as Italian, but still remain vague on its nature. Alden writes simply that Tennyson’s source was "taken from an Italian romance quite independent of the usual Arthurian sources" (116). Alden does not identify which Italian romance Tennyson supposedly used, nor does he recognize the distinction between "romance" and "novella," because the story on the Donna di Scalotta is a novella, not a romance. Jennifer Gribble, in the introduction to her book The Lady of Shalott in the Victorian Novel, goes further in identifying Tennyson’s Italian source. Gribble writes, "whether or not Tennyson had read of Malory’s ‘Lily Maid of Astolat’ before he wrote the poem, his medieval source, the romantic novella of the Donna di Scalotta, is yet another variant, telling how a damsel dies of love for Lancelot du Lac" (1). Gribble acknowledges both possible sources, but she makes a minute mistake that adds to the complexity of the The Lady of Shalott’s background. Gribble refers to Malory’s lady as the "Lily Maid of Astolat," but it was Tennyson, and not Malory, who used this title for the character, and Tennyson only in his Idyll "Lancelot and Elaine." Gribble even seems to imply that it does not even matter which version Tennyson used as his source. Gribble, like many scholars who mention Tennyson’s source, makes a small mistake, but it jumbles the specific facts and confuses the sources until it seemingly does not matter which author used what name or which detail came from what story. However, the small details are the most important because they are what distinguish one author’s version from another.
Regardless what critics assume about the source for The Lady of Shalott, Tennyson, in his own words, established that the Italian novella on the Donna di Scalotta was in fact his source. F.J. Furnivall, contemporary critic and personal friend of Tennyson, wrote to William Morris Rossetti on January 17, 1868, that Tennyson identified his source as an Italian novella. George Marshall quotes Tennyson’s words from Furnivall’s letter to Rossetti in his book A Tennyson Handbook. Tennyson said about the The Lady of Shalott, "I met the story first in some Italian nouvelle; but the web, mirror, island, etc., were my own. Indeed, I doubt whether I should ever have put it in that shape if I had been aware of the Maid of Astolat in Mort Arthur" (59). Both versions of The Lady of Shalott reveal key similarities with novella LXXXI on the Lady of Scalot and with Malory; however, the evidence suggests that Tennyson took the minimal framework of the Italian novella and created his own story independent of Malory. Although Tennyson read Malory as a boy, his fascination with Le Morte d’Arthur dates to a later period. Tennyson was familiar with Malory at the time he wrote The Lady of Shalott, but the specific episode in book 18 on Elaine of Astolat was not on his mind until almost 20 years later, when he wrote the Idyll "Lancelot and Elaine." Tennyson is quoted a second time denying that Malory’s Elaine character was his inspiration for The Lady of Shalott. Tennyson said, "The Lady of Shalott is evidently the Elaine of Morte d'Arthur, but I do not think that I had ever heard of the latter when I wrote the former," quoted in Hallam Tennyson’s memoir (117). Hallam Tennyson supports this statement quoted in his memoir when he says his father had read Malory as a boy and turned later to Malory for serious study in preparation for his upcoming Idylls of the King.
Tennyson could have easily read the Italian novella LXXXI because he was well versed in the language. Tennyson had been a student of Italian from an early age, "…at 14 translating Dante’s Ugolino" (Nicolson 63). Tennyson’s closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, could also have exposed him to the Italian novella. Before arriving at Trinity College in Cambridge where he would meet Tennyson, Arthur Hallam spent several months in Italy in 1827. He studied Italian art, literature, Dante, and became very efficient in the language (C. Tennyson 64). Hallam Tennyson mentions several times in his memoir that his father was exposed to early Italian literature through Arthur Hallam, saying, "Hallam had been in Italy with his parents and had drunk deep of the older Italian literature…" (H. Tennyson 45). Hallam Tennyson goes on to say that "when Arthur Hallam was with them, Dante, Petrarch, Tasso and Ariosto were the favourite poets: and it was he who taught my aunt Emily Italian…" (77). These same Italian authors that Tennyson studied are included in Roscoe's translation of the Italian Novelists as writers influenced by the Cento Novelle Antiche. It seems very likely that Tennyson could have come across novella LXXXI on the Donna di Scalotta in his study of early Italian literature, but it is equally possible that he read the story in the Raccolta di Novelle, published in Milan in 1804 during Tennyson’s time. Tennyson could have easily read the novella in the original Cento, in the Raccolta di Nouvelle, or in Roscoe’s translation of the Raccolta.
By comparing The Lady of Shalott and the Italian novella on the Donna di Scalotta, the key elements that Tennyson borrowed are illuminated by the specific details to which Tennyson adhered. Tennyson kept strictly to the lady’s name, softening Scalot into Shalott, and likewise referring to her with the title of Lady in his poem. Novella LXXXI is a short and minimalist story of the daughter of the "great Barbassoro" who "became passionately attached to Launcelot of the Lake; but so far from returning her love, he bestowed all his affections on the fair Queen Ginevra" (Roscoe 45). The Lady dies, a victim of her love, and she leaves instructions that "as soon as her soul had departed, her body should be transported on board a barge fitted up for the purpose, with a rich couch, and adorned with velvet stuffs, and precious stones and ornaments" (Roscoe 45). The same richness of the Donna di Scalotta’s barge also describes the Lady of Shalott’s barge. Tennyson describes his 1832 Lady of Shalott as "A pearlgarland winds her head: / She leanèth on a velvet bed, / Full royally apparelèd, / (33-35).
Two key details concerning both Ladies are that of a crown worn upon their heads and the specific use of the word zone—both details not found in Malory. The Donna di Scalotta, "thus arrayed in her proudest attire," wears a "bright golden crown upon her brows," while the Lady of Shalott has a "cloudwhite crown of pearl" with "one blinding diamond bright" (128,131). The adherence to the detail of the beautiful crown indicates that Tennyson wanted to retain the original elements of the Donna di Scalotta’s character. The specific use of the word zone indicates that Tennyson drew his details from the Italian novella as well. The term zone is somewhat archaic when used to denote a girdle, belt, or band. Roscoe uses the word zone in his translation of novella LXXXI, writing, "Beneath her silver zone was found a letter" (45). Tennyson also uses zone in the 1832 version of The Lady of Shalott while describing the arrival of the Lady’s body at Camelot. Tennyson writes, "All raimented in snowy white / That loosely flew, (her zone in sight, / Clasped with one blinding diamond bright)" (129-131). Although the Italian word cintura remains the same in different editions of novella LXXXI, Roscoe’s and Tennyson’s translations of cintura as zone indicate their adherence to the archaic use of the word. More recent translations of novella LXXXI, like Consoli’s 1999 translation, translate cintura directly as belt or girdle, forgoing the former use of the word as in the original Cento. Either Roscoe and Tennyson wanted to remain true to the original meaning of the word as used in the Cento, or the word zone was still in use in Victorian times as synonymous with belt or girdle.
In the Italian novella as well as in Tennyson’s poem, the Lady’s funeral barge arrives directly at Camelot on the sea, something not found in Malory. The novella says of the Lady’s funeral barge, "it was launched upon the open waves. Thus she was borne along by the winds, which conveyed her direct to Camalot, where the barge rested of itself upon the banks" (Roscoe 45-6). In The Lady of Shalott, the lady gets in the boat and "down the river’s dim expanse...She floated down to Camelot," where upon the wharf the citizens came to meet her body (128, 140). The Lady’s boat floating directly to Camelot is taken from the Mort Artu, where "a boat covered with very rich cloths of silk came to shore below the tower at Camelot" carrying Elaine of Escalot’s body (59). Malory’s version of the same scene is quite different. In Le Morte, Elaine of Astolat’s boat sails down the Thames to Westminster, where it is met by King Arthur and his court. Tennyson clearly did not take his episode from Malory.
It is not only interesting but necessary to know the source of The Lady of Shalott because this changes the way the poem is read and interpreted. Tennyson took the frame of the story set up by novella LXXXI, a story with little detail and even less background, and built upon it. The Italian novella had no associations and no obligations to other story lines, as Malory’s did. There is no tournament at Winchester in the Italian novella, and Lancelot does not give the Lady his shield for safekeeping. The novella does not even set up the circumstance of the meeting between the Donna di Scalotta and Lancelot. The only background the story provides is that "A daughter of the great Barbassoro became passionately attached to Launcelot of the Lake; but so far from returning her love, he bestowed all his affections on the fair Queen Ginevra" (Roscoe 45). The novella differs so much from Malory because the novella presents an independent episode. Malory arranges his material so that it culminates with the death of Arthur, and the downfall of the Round Table is for Malory caused by women and the contention they cause. The Elaine of Astolat episode fits in with the larger issues in Malory, but in the Italian novella, none of those issues are relevant. The story of the Donna di Scalotta stands alone without any previous or consequential textual associations. With the slightest set-up, Tennyson created his own story, adding the curse, the web, and the mirror, free to make his own interpretation of the story independent of Malory. It might seem odd that Tennyson did not want readers to associate the Lady of Shalott with Malory’s Elaine of Astolat, but in hindsight Tennyson was taking care to maintain the independence and originality of his poem. With novella LXXXI as his inspiration, Tennyson did not have to adhere to the implications of Malory’s story. Tennyson did not have to deal with the causes and effects of the red sleeve, the guarding of Lancelot’s shield, and Lancelot’s interaction with Elaine as in Malory. Malory suggests that Lancelot’s obsession with Guinevere leads him to ignore danger to others, whether the Round Table or Elaine of Astolat. Tennyson would not have wished Malory’s interpretation of Elaine and Lancelot’s story to impede upon his own because Malory does not blame or denounce that which Tennyson does.
In Malory, Lancelot selfishly uses Elaine for his own gain. Elaine asks Lancelot to wear her token at the tournament at Winchester because she is "so hot in her love" of him, and Lancelot knows it (390). Lancelot initially denies her request, saying, "If I grant you that, ye may say I do more for your love than ever I did for lady or damosel," but then he remembers he can use her token as a disguise at the jousts, and so he accepts. Lancelot magnanimously tells Elaine "never did I erst so much for no damosel," and so he leaves his shield for her to guard upon his return (390). Lancelot accepts the affections of Elaine for his own benefit and then teases her, allowing her love hope when he knows he will remain true to Guinevere.
Both Elaine and her father inform Lancelot that she will die if he does not stay and love her, but Lancelot pays no heed. Lancelot says to the Baron of Astolat, "me repenteth that she loveth me as she doth; I was never the causer of it, for I report me to your son I early ne late proffered her bounty nor fair behests" (412). Lancelot here is not being truthful, for he did the very thing he denies. Lancelot accepted Elaine’s token for the tournament and said that he had done more for her than any other damsel, thus leading her on until he finished his need of her. He knows the token is given out of love, but he accepts it only for selfish reasons. Lancelot bears much of the burden for Elaine’s death in Malory, a thing with which Tennyson would not agree. In Malory, Elaine of Astolat’s death causes Guinevere to take Lancelot back once she realizes her death was caused by her unrequited love for Lancelot, presenting a situation of open and guiltless adultery with which Tennyson did not agree.
Tennyson would not have liked the assignment of blame to Lancelot because he championed Lancelot as the best and noblest knight. In The Lady of Shalott, Lancelot is unaware of the Lady’s love for him. Tennyson tells us that all of Camelot is unaware of even her presence, writing, "But who hath seen her wave her hand? / Or at the casement seen her stand? / Or is she known in all the land, / The Lady of Shalott?" (124-7). The Lady of Shalott even writes her name on the prow of her boat so the people of Camelot will know her identity when she arrives at her death. Lancelot is wholly unaware of the Lady’s love and her existence, and so Tennyson makes sure he can bear no blame for her death.
Tennyson’s Elaine, the Lily Maid, in the Idylls has a much different persona than do the Elaines in Malory and the Mort Artu. Whereas previous sources depict Elaine as an innocent maid and even a victim of Lancelot, Tennyson cast her in a much more deliberate and self-destructive role. Tennyson’s version of Malory’s Elaine of Astolat depicts a guiltless Lancelot in the death of Elaine, making her a moral lesson to all women about the wrong kind of love. Tennyson goes so far as to take the guilt away from Lancelot for his adulterous affair with Guinevere, and puts it into abstract language. In the Idyll "Lancelot and Elaine," Lancelot struggles between the "great and guilty love he bare the Queen / In breath with the love he bare his lord" (162). This debate drives him into "wastes and solitudes / For agony, who was yet a living soul / Marr’d as he was, he seem’d the goodliest man..and noblest" (162). Tennyson condemns the sin of Lancelot and not Lancelot himself, freeing him from blame and rendering him still a good and noble knight.
In Tennyson’s Idylls it is Elaine’s idea that Lancelot wear her red sleeve as a disguise. Elaine says, "then in wearing mine / Needs must be lesser likelihood / That those who know you should know you," then Lancelot "turn’d / Her counsel up and down within his mind, / And found it true" (165). Elaine encourages Lancelot to wear her sleeve under false pretenses, for she wants him to wear it as token of his love. Tennyson reverses the roles in this incident, which in Malory places blame on Lancelot. Elaine is deliberately trying to gain affection from Lancelot, a quality which Tennyson heightens to illustrate his moral. When Elaine wants to ride and seek Lancelot when he has not yet returned from the tournament, her father says to her, "Being so willful you must go," but Elaine hears in her heart "Being so willful you must die" (176). Early in the story Tennyson hints that it is Elaine’s own will, and not the spite of Lancelot, that causes her death.
When Lancelot returns from the tournament, he thanks Elaine for keeping his shield and being so kind to him, then kisses her "as we kiss the child / That does the task assign’d" (178). Tennyson does not allow Lancelot to lead Elaine on in any way as he does in Malory, and he strongly reinforces Lancelot’s guilt-free conscience. Lancelot calls Elaine "friend and sister," and he loves her "with all love except the love / Of man and woman" (179). Without any encouragement from Lancelot, Elaine takes her own love too far. Since Elaine cannot gain his attention through her own love, she feels death is the only way. Frustrated, Elaine says to herself, "Vain, in vain: it cannot be. / He will not love me: how then? Must I die," prophesizing her own death (179) . Elaine’s obsession with Lancelot becomes clear in her desperate attempts to win him. She exclaims, "I have gone mad," and she will do anything to remain by Lancelot’s side, saying, "I care not to be wife, / But to be with you thro’ the world" (181). Lancelot must be the voice of reason, telling Elaine that her love is false. Lancelot advises her that "this is not love: but love’s first flash in youth," and that she will some day find a knight who will "endow you with broad land and territory / So that would make you happy;" but Elaine will hear no reason, stating, "Of all this will I nothing" (181).
Tennyson would have Elaine destroy herself and be the sole causer of her own death, seeing it as her only redemption. Elaine makes the clear choice to die when she says, "Now shall I have my will..And no man there will dare to mock at me; / And there the great Sir Lancelot muse at me; / And all the gentle court will welcome me" (184). Elaine prepares her death and arrives at Camelot with a note accompanying her body, a letter which serves as Tennyson’s lesson to other ladies. The letter reads, "And therefore my true love has been my death/ And therefore to our Lady Guinevere, / And to all other ladies, I make my moan" (190). Elaine’s final words warn Guinevere of the consequences of her adulterous relationship with Lancelot, but through Elaine, Tennyson warns all women not to love too passionately, or in the wrong way. Tennyson portrays Elaine’s love for Lancelot as iniquitous and completely of her own doing. Lancelot defends himself after hearing Elaine’s letter, saying, "I swear by truth and knighthood that I gave / No cause, not willingly, for such a love" and was "plain and blunt" to "break her passion" (191).
Tennyson’s portrayal of Guinevere in the Idylls is consistent with his attitude toward adulterous love in general. Tennyson depicts Guinevere in the same negative light as he does Elaine, casting the "sinful Queen" as the temptress who draws Lancelot "to his doom" (270). Tennyson’s Guinevere is whiny and jealous, reacting with a juvenile anger when she hears news of Lancelot that she does not like. Upon learning of the beauty of the lily maid of Astolat and her supposed relationship with Lancelot, Guinevere "with lips severely placid.../ And with her feet unseen / Crush’d the wild passion out against the floor / And she hated all who pledged (175). Tennyson does not hesitate to blame the entire downfall of Arthur’s court on a woman, telling the reader that it is the Queen’s false love that undoes the work of the Round Table.
Tennyson makes Guinevere accept all the blame for her adulterous affair with Lancelot, saying, "Mine is the shame, for I was wife, and thou / Unwedded" (263). Guinevere not only bears the blame herself, but she bears it as a woman. Tennyson says, "…this is all woman’s grief, / That she is woman, whose disloyal life / Hath wrought confusion in the Table Round / Which good King Arthur founded," and "She like a new disease, unknown to men, / Creeps…among the crowd, / Makes wicked lightnings of her eyes, and saps / the fealty of our friends" (266, 275). Guinevere repents the rest of her days behind nunnery-walls, fully repenting and idolizing King Arthur. Guinevere says, "Gone thro’ my sin to slay and be slain!...And blessed be the King, who hath forgiven / My wickedness to him, and left me hope / That in mine own heart I can live down sin / And be his mate hereafter in the heavens" (277-278).
As seen through the Idylls, The Lady of Shalott would have been a different poem entirely if Tennyson had used Malory as his source. The adultery, the religious devotion, and the complex plot associations and implications from Malory would have overshadowed the Lady of Shalott, as Tennyson said himself. The Italian novella allowed Tennyson to elaborate his own motifs, and it contained the mystery with which Tennyson infused his poem. The lack of background information concerning the Donna di Scalotta’s tragic story gave Tennyson the imaginative seed from which he created the Lady of Shalott’s story. A sense of mysticism encases both ladies, but it is that unidentified mysterious quality which defines Tennyson’s poem. The Lady of Shalott has been interpreted in several different ways. She has been viewed as representative of the artist and his relationship to society, and as the artist who must remain in isolation in order to be true to his art. She has been interpreted negatively by feminist critics who see her as a figure of the crazed female who cannot live without the love of a man. She has been viewed topically as representative of the Victorian woman and her dutiful role in the home, and she has also been viewed as a young woman awakening to her own sexuality and realizing the void of reality in her life.
Although the interpretations are many, the figure of The Lady of Shalott is most often read autobiographically as Tennyson the poet, addressing the problem of the artist and his relationship to society. Representing the artist whose art would be destroyed if he were to live amongst society, Tennyson created other figures enshrouded by magic or mysticism who are lured from their isolation into an uncaring world and then destroyed. Figures similar to the condition of the Lady of Shalott appear in the poems Mariana and The Kraken, both from Poems, Chiefly Lyrical. Mariana, the title character in the poem of the same name is in much the same situation as the Lady of Shalott. Like the physically isolating tower of Shalott, Mariana waits on a "lonely moated grange" for Angelo, the lover who has deserted her (32). Mariana has no hope of her lover’s return or of a change in her situation, a dreariness reinforced by her repeated utterance "my life is dreary / he cometh not… / I am aweary, aweary, / I would that I were dead" (45-48). Unlike the Lady of Shalott, Mariana does not change her status by leaving her physical setting, but rather remains in isolation, forever waiting in a dismal and monotonous existence.
The Kraken is a mythical beast who lives in a world of "uninvaded sleep," where "faintest sunlights flee / About his shadowy sides" (3-5). The beast’s world will end when it encounters the outer world, and he will awaken from sleep only to death. The Kraken has lain for ages, but when he is disturbed by the world above, he "shall rise and on the surface die" (15). In The Lady of Shalott, Mariana, and The Kraken, Tennyson illustrates a sense of dutiful devotion to one’s role, and the monotonous and self-involved life of the artist. The artist and his art cannot remain pure when tainted or seduced by outer distraction because the quality of the art is then compromised, causing the artist’s world to deteriorate in contact with the outside world. The Lady of Shalott is often read in such a manner as the artist’s world juxtaposed with society, as the Lady is to Camelot. Critics tend to de-genderize the Lady of Shalott, making her represent the artist, which is typically a male role. The image of the genius or creative individual in isolation is a Romantic idea, but it is also a male image. Therefore, the interpretation of the Lady must extend beyond the role of artist and into the role of woman. Instead of looking at the Lady of Shalott in the role of the artist, a fresher understanding comes by looking at her as a young woman cut off from personal human experience.
Feminist critics rank The Lady of Shalott among other nineteenth century representations of female insanity as a result of devotion to a man. Feminists accuse Tennyson of glorifying the woman who sacrifices herself because of the lack of attention of the adored male, thus driving her mad. The Lady of Shalott, then, would represent the desperate, erotic longing for a man (Bram 37). Tennyson takes all power from the Lady of Shalott, making her subservient to her weaving duty, the curse, and to the image of Lancelot, causing feminists to see her as a woman overpowered and reduced by a man. Although the Lancelot of novella LXXXI is unavailable because of his attachment to Guinevere, neither the reader nor the Lady of Shalott know the circumstances of Lancelot’s situation in The Lady of Shalott. The Italian novella clearly states how the Donna di Scalotta dies for love of Lancelot, but there is no mention of any unrequited love in The Lady of Shalott. Unlike the Donna di Scalotta, the Lady of Shalott’s longing is not specific to Lancelot. He is merely the catalyst through which her increasing longing manifests itself. The feminist arguments about the madness of the Lady of Shalott fit more with the Idylls’ Elaine, the Lily Maid than the Lady of Shalott. Tennyson’s Elaine truly was a martyr because she devoted herself to Lancelot and honored him without his encouragement or approval. Elaine even pronounces her own madness on page 181 of her Idyll.
It is not for love of Lancelot that the Lady of Shalott risks death. The Lady of Shalott desires to experience human emotion, and for that she would risk everything. Passion is the emotion alien to the Lady of Shalott. Tennyson says in the 1832 version of The Lady of Shalott that the Lady "lives with little joy or fear" (47). She knows nothing of human contact, love, or sexuality, and she desires to feel those things. The Lady’s epiphany concerning her void of feeling occurs when she sees "two young lovers lately wed," and she proclaims, " ‘I am half sick of shadows’ " (70-71). This is the turning point of the poem, when her will awakens and she breaks free from her static existence. In this heightened state of awareness, the Lady of Shalott is easily overcome by the glorious vision of Lancelot, and it pushes her over the edge to consciously defy the curse. Tennyson himself said that "The new born love for something, for someone in the wide world from which she has been so long secluded, takes her out of the region of shadows into that of realities" (H. Tennyson 117). The Lady of Shalott is not crazy for the love of a male, he merely embodies the passion for which the Lady gives up her life
In his book about the 1857 Moxon edition of Tennyosn’s poems, George Layard says that the Lady of Shalott is "a woman yearning for what she cannot tell, impatient of what she hardly knows, less than half-conscious of the possibilities of her womanhood" (3). The Lady of Shalott is a woman who knows nothing about her feminine role in society, her own sexuality, or how she is perceived as a woman. The lady "still delights / to weave the mirror’s magic sights," because "little other care hath she," until eventually she breaks down (64-65, 44). Her contentment is gradually diminished due to visions of handsome knights and lovers—a world of experience beyond her solitude. The Lady of Shalott has known nothing else but her weaving and her own daily existence. The Lady of Shalott is an observer, and not a participant. Her knowledge of the world comes from the scenes of Camelot she sees reflected in the mirror; the Lady knows nothing from personal experience. When the Lady proclaims, "I am half sick of shadows," her accumulated frustration manifests itself so strongly as to drive her out of her room and into the reality of the world she has only observed. She is sick of living in shadow and of knowing human contact only through the shadow of reality.
In the room, the lady has a sense of herself, but in her sexual awakening, she realizes the sense of her held by men. By observing the citizens of Camelot, she realizes that she "hath no loyal knight and true," and that she should (62). The Lady of Shalott is not a lady to a man, and so she has no identity outside her own existence in the tower. She sees the young lovers, realizes that she has no loyal knight, and loses confidence in her world because she is supposed to have a male counterpart and she does not. The Lady of Shalott feels a loss of self because she is not coupled and has no man with which to relate herself. Her awakening sexual power destroys her creativity, when the web flies from the loom. Some interpret The Lady of Shalott as a tale of sexual morality. The woman abandons her duty of weaving at the sight of Lancelot and must pay the consequences. She forsakes her passive role for an active one, looking directly at him through the window, and her punishment is death. It is her role as a woman to weave and not to partake, as it is her Christian duty not to be tempted by earthly sin.
Jennifer Gribble asserts in the introduction of her book The Lady of Shalott in the Victorian Novel that the Lady of Shalott and the many variants of the story, including the Donna di Scalotta and the many Elaines, recount a tale of "legendary dimension for what are recognizably contemporary concerns," meaning of the Victorian society or the condition of the Victorian lady (1). Victorian critics found strong symbols in Tennyson’s poem, like the web, the imprisonment, the weaving, the mirror, and the curse, which echoed the nineteenth century’s strive for a mythical treatment of the novel. Unlike the epic hero who is one with society and its traditions, the Victorian hero or heroine is cognizant only of being a separate entity of society, seeing it as a prison rather than a home.
The Lady of Shalott serves as an allegory to the Victorian novel as an isolated figure. Victorian attitude reflected the outside society threatened by social problems caused by urban and industrial revolutions. The home became a protector of values, a sanctum, and it was revered. The woman is the center of the home, and so she becomes an enshrined woman and the saver of souls. The Lady of Shalott, therefore, is the perfect Victorian woman. She is "virginal, embowered, spiritual and mysterious, dedicated to her womanly tasks" (Nelson 7). Nineteenth century idealization of the lady can be traced to the elements of medieval courtly love where the lady is adored and reigns supreme to all good knights. The reverence of the lady is also traced to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, which invokes a sense of perfection in female form. However, elevating the moral superiority of the woman can have a negative effect, because the Lady of Shalott has been domesticated. Victorian society’s high regard for domestic life and for the woman’s place in the parlor sequestered the woman to know only parlor life, as a lady knows only life at court. The woman is emblematic of goodness. She is the retainer of morality and has a keen insight into sensibilities, and her enclosure safeguards those qualities (Gribble 10). But in keeping the woman locked away, she must ultimately suffer the usual ennui, an Emma Bovary-like distaste for her mundane social existence which causes her to take drastic measures to change her situation, even if death be the end.
Not only does the Lady of Shalott represent the ideal Victorian lady, but she also echoes the "self-enclosed protagonist of the Victorian novel" (Gribble 5). Victorian protagonists cannot venture beyond the limits of the conscious self or the walled enclosure inflicted by society. The Victorian lady gazes in the mirror or out the window seeking some reflection or enlightening interpretation of her mysterious imprisonment, but has only her thoughts for comfort (5). In The Lady of Shalott, there is a violation of the threshold or boundary, and the Lady dies as a result of trying to surpass her physical and conscious frontiers. In the Victorian novel, the room is the quintessential piece of feminine symbolism, protecting the Lady from the harsh, male outside world. It is likewise represented by the drawing room, the parlor, an island, a tower, a prison, a garden, the caged bird, or any other type of feminine enclosure. The mirror represents the glimpse into the self or the search for the self reflected by the outside world. The Lady of Shalott’s mirror reflects shadows of the world outside that she must dutifully weave into her tapestry, and because of that she knows only a twice-removed reality. Therefore, the web is a direct reflection of the mirror’s indirect reality. The mirror suggests a self-consciousness of the Lady herself and of her work in relation to the outside world. The mirror shatters when the Lady seeks direct confrontation with the outside world, forgoing filtered reality for direct experience out the window. The Lady of Shalott forgoes her world to experience the other, so to say that society destroys the artist’s world and art implies that the artist resists the meeting of both worlds. This is not so in the Lady of Shalott’s case because she chose to leave her world to experience the other, even though it meant death. The curse, then, exists in her duty not to look out the window. It cuts her off by "class or by sex or by sensibility from the very world in which significance must be discovered" (Gribble 39). The curse prolongs her from the immutable condition of mortality. She is destroyed because her imaginary or prescribed world does not correspond with the "real" world when she leaves her tower. In the Lady of Shalott’s desire to look out her window, we see the futility of momentary gratification.
Artists of the Victorian era took these motifs of Tennyson’s poem—the emblematic lady, the enclosed room, the mirror, the dutiful weaving, the curse—and transformed them into a literary art. No group of artists chose to illustrate The Lady of Shalott more than the Pre-Raphaelites. The short-lived but highly influential movement of Pre-Raphaelitism occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century in Mid-Victorian Britain between 1848-1875. The Pre-Raphaelites made their first public appearance on March 24, 1849 by signing their works with the initials PRB at a Royal Academy exhibit in London. Although they did not emerge publicly until 1849, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed earlier in September of 1848. Disillusioned by the social conditions of their Victorian Society and reacting against the Neo-Classicist art of the time, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to return to the beauty and ideals of the medieval world. The Pre-Raphaelite name comes from the founders’ admiration of artists like Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck and other predecessors of Raphael and the Italian Renaissance (c.1500). The founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood studied art at the Royal Academy Schools in London, and they formed their society in defiance of the Academy’s teachings. The Pre-Raphaelites wanted to reform British painting by turning back to Christian values, while holding on to the exotic beauty of the contemporary Romantic movement. They wanted to create a moral art.
The founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed a self-conscious school in which they could paint freely with their ideals under the guise of the PRB, but still display their work publicly. The Pre-Raphaelite creed was to express genuine ideas, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues, to study and express nature, to continue the direct, serious, and heartfelt in previous art, and to exclude the selfish and conventional (Herrmann 237). Contemporary art critic and historian John Ruskin’s monumental book Modern Painters profoundly influenced the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Ruskin’s book was a manifesto of contemporary art and the necessity of being true to nature. From this idea, the Pre-Raphaelites elevated the importance of landscape by painting a more natural, realistic setting, often en plein-air (open air). The Pre-Raphaelites refused to idealize their subjects as they had been taught, and instead of enhancing their subjects, they wanted to return to the simplicity and honesty of early Christian art with its vivid colors and flat surfaces. Symbolism was perhaps the key element of Pre-Raphaelite art, allowing artists to allegorize their subjects and create many levels of meaning. Artists used Christian, cultural, botanical, and beastly symbols to add complexity to their simple ideals.
The seven founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were: painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter and craftsmen John Everett Millais, painter William Holman Hunt, sculptor Thomas Woolner, painter James Collinson, painter and art critic Frederic George Stephens, and art critic and historian William Michael Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel. Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood lasted only from 1848-1853, the influence of Pre-Raphaelitsm lasted much longer. The society of self-conscious Pre-Raphaelite painters stretched far beyond the initial brotherhood to later artists like Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, Ford Maddox Brown, John Ruskin, William Morris, John William Waterhouse, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Siddall, all following the style and ideals of their close Pre-Raphaelite friends.
Motivated by the Arthurian revival around them, the Pre-Raphaelites turned to Medieval and Arthurian subjects for their paintings, creating a true literary art. Edward Moxon gave the Pre-Raphaelites the opportunity to combine visual art and literature with the 1857 illustrated edition of Tennyson’s poetry. Tennyson’s close friends Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and Thomas Woolner illustrated the Moxon edition of Tennyson’s poetry. Edward Moxon showed that in the illustration of a book, the drawings are as important as the text. The Moxon edition of Tennyson’s poetry showed artists the pictorial possibilities of literature, especially The Lady of Shalott. Malory and the Idylls were popular subjects among the Pre-Raphaelites, but none was more prevalent than The Lady of Shalott. With its moody atmosphere and striking images, The Lady of Shalott was a favorite subject with the Pre-Raphaelites not only because of their close relationship with Tennyson, but because the poem held layer upon layer of mystery and interpretation. Each artist interpreted the poem in his own way using Tennyson’s poetic imagery and analogues. For many interpreters, the poem illustrates Victorian attitudes towards women or the individual’s and artist’s relationship to society. The Lady of Shalott is so fascinating because she is separated from any social context. Tennyson does not explain why she is in the tower, nor do we know what her position is among the eclectically populated countryside. The society of Camelot includes burghers, reapers, pages, knights, lords, and dames, but the Lady of Shalott is unknown to all of them. To the citizens of Camelot, she is the "fairy lady" of Shalott. Even when she arrives directly at Camelot, the social and political center of their world, the Lady remains unknown even in death.
The Lady of Shalott was artistically popular because of its multi-faceted message of romantic yearning and creative isolation, set off by vivid imagery and a mystic landscape. Pre-Raphaelite interpretations of The Lady of Shalott reveal Victorian attitudes toward love and the woman. The publication of the Idyll "Lancelot and Elaine" in 1859 renewed artistic interest in The Lady of Shalott because of the similar stories. Elaine’s funeral journey to Camelot was the most popular image for depictions of the Idyll, and although numerous paintings were done of her, the number does nothing to rival the countless representations of The Lady of Shalott. The five most popular depictions of the Lady of Shalott are: the embowered Lady by the window looking for love, the moment she sees Lancelot, the Lady leaving her island, the Lady in her boat approaching death, and her body floating to Camelot.
The Lady of Shalott emphasizes the "spiritual nobility and the melancholy" of love, unrequited love, the unattainable lover, the woman dying for love, the fallen woman who gives up everything, and the beautiful dead woman (Nelson 6). It is from these images that the Pre-Raphaelites formed their own interpretations using the mysterious atmosphere and romantic, isolated setting of Tennyson’s text. Although there are no specific religious elements in The Lady of Shalott, the Pre-Raphaelites almost always used religious symbolism in their depictions of her. With no information on the Lady herself and the absence of background about the curse and the reason for her being in the tower, the Pre-Raphaelites took the mysterious aura of Tennyson’s two worlds—the colorful countryside and the fixed existence inside the tower—and presented pictorial interpretations of the Lady of Shalott’s contemplative, static existence inside the room, and the active, passionate world outside of Camelot.
Sidney Harold Meteyard titled his 1913 painting of The Lady Shalott "I am Half Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott (see Figure A). Meteyard’s painting expresses the sensuality of the Lady’s newly awakened sexual desire when she sees the image of "two young lovers lately wed" in her mirror (70). The Lady’s figure reclining on satin pillows, the mirror with the image of the two lovers, and the tapestry cramp the space in the painting. Blue hues electrify the room and reflect the "mirror blue" of the text (60). The image of Lancelot on horseback riding "between the barley sheaves" to Camelot is embroidered on the tapestry, enhancing the Lady’s realization of the void in her life juxtaposed to the love she sees outside her world (74). The richness of the Lady’s room does little to hide the obvious void in her life. Her head is rolled to the side and relaxed, and her eyes are closed in erotica at the awareness of her own sexuality. The bold outline of the Lady’s breasts radiating through her rich gown reveals to the reader that the Lady of Shalott is indeed a sensual being.
Like Meteyard, Arthur Hughes worked self-consciously in the style of the
Pre-Raphaelites and painted several versions of The Lady of Shalott, his most famous being the 1858 rendition. Hughes’ The Lady of Shalott (see Figure B) served as a precursor to other similar interpretations, including John William Waterhouse’s famously haunting adaptation. Hughes remained faithful to Tennyson’s physical description, depicting the scene where "the river eddy whirls, / And there the surly village-churls, / And there the red-cloaks of market girls / Pass onward from Shalott" (51-54). Hughes shows the Lady of Shalott lying "robed in snowy white," surrounded by waterlillies, a testament to the Lady’s purity (136). As a part of the natural and realistic landscape, the group of young market girls standing on the bank flinch and retreat at the sight of the Lady of Shalott’s body. A swan swims next to the Lady’s boat, symbolizing music. The swan represents the Lady’s dying swan song, as Tennyson described, "And as the boat-head wound along / The willowy hills and fields among, / They heard her singing her last song, / The Lady of Shalott. / Heard a carol, mournful, holy, / Chanted loudly, chanted lowly" (141-6). The swan associates the Lady with her last mournful song, but the weeping willows and wheat sheaths confirm the aura of death.
In accordance with Hughes’ painting, Waterhouse’s 1888 painting The Lady of Shalott (see Figure C) testifies to the Lady’s martyrdom and purity by presenting the union of death and beauty. Waterhouse, like Hughes, was a later Pre-Raphaelite who was able to combine the expressive mood of The Lady of Shalott with a telling and somewhat impressionistic atmosphere. Waterhouse presents a moody, autumnal landscape matching Hughes’ painting and Tennyson’s description. The "long fields of barley and of rye, / That clothe the wold and meet the sky" are set against the "pale yellow woods," and near the steps to the Lady’s tower are the waterlillies that "blow / Round an island there below, / The island of Shalott" (2-3, 119,7-9). This painting was Waterhouse’s first attempt at plein-air painting, and being outdoors certainly gave Waterhouse the realism and naturalism that he needed. Waterhouse depicts the Lady of Shalott holding the chain of her boat, ready to embark on her journey toward Camelot. Waterhouse illustrates the lines, "And down the river’s dim expanse / Like some bold seer in a trance, / Seeing all his own mischance— / With a glassy countenance / Did she look to Camelot. / And at the closing of the day / She loosed the chain, and down she lay; / The broad stream bore her far away; / The Lady of Shalott" (127-135). Waterhouse shows the Lady sitting up in the boat, her tapestry draped across the side, and her name written ‘round the prow. She is sitting up at the moment of her death, not lying down as the poem describes, but sitting up the viewer can see the look of absolute melancholy on the Lady’s face. The chain the Lady holds symbolizes her attachment to the island and to her previous life. Although she looses the chain to depart on her voyage, the Lady’s devotion is still evident. The white gown and the crucifix on the prow of the boat symbolize her purity and faith, for she lives by the curse and attends to her duty even though she "knows not what the curse may be" (42). The crucifix and the candles set the funeral tone of her journey. Only one candle remains lit, letting the viewer know that the Lady’s life, too, will soon be extinguished. Waterhouse returned to The Lady of Shalott twice in his career in 1894 and 1915, but never so hauntingly as he did in his first interpretation.
One of the members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhhood and a personal friend of Tennyson’s, William Holman Hunt began his infatuation with The Lady of Shalott as one of the illustrators of the 1857 Moxon edition. Hunt worked on sketch after sketch of The Lady of Shalott from 1850 to 1905, the most famous rendition being his final Lady of Shalott in 1905 (see Figure D). Hunt paints the Lady’s room in complete disarray as the curse and the "stormy east wind" rush through the room (118). Interpreting the poem as an expression of the poet’s fears that the world would destroy art and artist alike, Hunt reversed this interpretation, taking the poem as symbolic of the artist’s responsibility to his art and the danger of a lack of commitment, which would bring a dreadful punishment. Hunt’s painting is overwhelmed with symbolism and allegory. The poem for Hunt was an allegory of the consequences of turning away from duty and giving in to worldly temptations. Hunt wanted to show that it was the sights in the mirror that proved too much temptation for the Lady. She sees the river-eddy, the surly village churls, the red cloaks of the market girls, damsels clad, the abbot, a curly shepard lad, a paige, knights riding by, the young lovers lately wed, culminating in Lancelot’s knightly image, all gradually weakening her will. Hunt illustrates the lines "And moving through a mirror clear / that hangs before her all the year, / Shadows of the world appear" to show the role of the outside world in the destruction of the Lady (46-48). In order to illustrate the moral downfall of the Lady of Shalott, Hunt creates an iconographical masterpiece, using the contents of the room to illustrate his mythical and biblical allegory.
The contents of her room define Hunt’s Lady of Shalott. The Lady stands in the middle of her loom in a serpentine stance, her hair flying wildly above her as the tapestry flies out of the web. The doves of peace resting on top of the loom have been disturbed, and the Lady herself is tangled in the unraveled weaving. The loom itself is more of a weaving frame in a circular shape, recalling the Holy Grail. The images of Lancelot kissing his fingers and offering the Grail to Arthur are embroidered into the tapestry. The figures of Charity, Justice, and Truth are present in the upper right corner of the painting, serving as judgment references for the Lady of Shalott. On the silver lamp are owls on top of sphinxes, symbolizing wisdom triumphing over mystery, but the lesson is too late. The Lady of Shalott has already succumbed to temptation and the light has been extinguished.
The room appears to be sacred ground, symbolized by the abandoned shoes in the lower right corner. Hunt borrows the image of cast off shoes from Flemish and Dutch art, which used vacant shoes to represent holy ground. The background of the painting is a wall of allegorical tapestries on two giant panels which frame an opening to the "real" sky. The panels depict two scenes from mythology and the Bible: Hercules picking golden apples in the garden of Hespeordes, and the Virgin Mary praying over the Christ child. One panel is an allegory of sin and the other of duty. Hercules slays a snake to get in to the garden of Hespeordes, representing victory over sin. The halo looming over his head likens him to Christ. The panel with the Virgin Mary is a representation of valor and humility, reminding the Lady of her adherence to duty. Although there is never a mention of religion or any creed in the The Lady of Shalott, Christianity is almost always a part of Pre-Raphaelites’ interpretations of the poem, due to their adherence to a moral art and to Christian values. Hunt saw God as the one great reality to which the Lady of Shalott should look. He depicts the failure of the human soul (the Lady of Shalott) to its accepted responsibility (her weaving), and reminds her that redemption comes through faith and humility (Madonna panel), and courage (Hercules panel).
Tennyson felt that Hunt had taken too much liberty with his poem because Hunt had allegorized The Lady of Shalott according to his own interpretation. After seeing Hunt’s preparatory sketches of the Lady, Tennyson said to him, "My dear Hunt, I never said that the young woman’s hair was flying all over the shop" (Nicolson 176). Hunt responded that he wished to "convey the idea of the threatened fatality by reversing the ordinary peace of the room and of the lady herself; [so] that while she recognized that the moment of the catastrophe had come, the spectator might also understand it" (Warner 97). Hunt’s final painting of The Lady of Shalott, although not in perfect accordance with the poem, embodies all that the Pre-Raphaelites wanted in their art.
Hunt was not the only Pre-Raphaelite artist to make his or her own personal interpretation of The Lady of Shalott. The religious element in Pre-Raphaelite interpretation is sometimes an autobiographical touch of the artist, and like Hunt who interpreted The Lady of Shalott with a strong Christian element, Elizabeth Siddal also Christianized the poem. Siddal’s personal life was as interesting and tragic as that of the Lady of Shalott, and before ending her own life, Siddal sought solace through spiritual fulfillment. Although she was mainly the model for many of the Pre-Raphaelites and the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Siddal was also an artist. Siddal’s 1853 drawing The Lady of Shalott (see Figure E) is special for several reasons. It was one of the first illustrations of the poem, it is the only rendition of The Lady of Shalott showing the correct weaving technique, and it is an interpretation of an enigmatic woman by a woman (Cheney 66).
In her drawing of The Lady of Shalott, Siddal presents the moment the Lady chooses to look out the window at Lancelot, also the moment the curse is invoked. Although Siddal’s Lady is seated at her loom, she nonetheless depicts the pivotal lines, "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 looked down to Camelot" (109-113). The viewer knows that Siddal is depicting the turning point in the poem when the Lady looks out into the exterior world, for although the she is seated at her loom, it is Lancelot reflected in the mirror and the Lady’s weaving has come apart because of the curse. Siddal portrays the Lady of Shalott as a worker seated at the loom in the midst of her task, and not as some type of princess, as in many male painters’ versions. Siddal separates the interior world of the woman from the outer world of the man as fitting with Victorian society.
Siddal, like the other Pre-Raphaelites, represented the Lady in symbolic rather than narrative terms. With the heavy use of symbolism, artists represented deeper levels of meaning that a simple narrative style could not. The relief of the cat on the leg of the Lady’s chair represents the cruel and magical element of the curse and the Lady’s fate. The cat also represents the domesticity of the Lady at her womanly task, and the self-indulgent nature of her isolated world. A bird perches on top of the loom in preparation for flight. It represents the soul’s need for freedom, but also the Lady’s momentary break from the curse as she looks out the window—a freedom she finds only in death. The crucifix attached to the cupboard is an obvious symbol of religious faith, but more importantly of self-sacrifice. Choosing between salvation and damnation, the Lady of Shalott must sacrifice herself to gain freedom from the curse and from her monotonous existence.
The Lady of Shalott is a victim beholden to some unknown power, a victim of the sight of Lancelot, and a victim as a woman caught between the reality of the world outside and the shadows of her own distorted world. The Lady sacrifices herself because she is "half sick of shadows" and she longs for the chance to join the real world and to know love like that of those she has seen in her mirror (70). However, the Lady of Shalott’s self-sacrifice for her own freedom does not seem to fit with the Christian symbolism of the crucifix because her sacrifice accomplished nothing. The people at Camelot remain ignorant of her life and death, accept for her name, and Lancelot has no idea of his own role in the final consequence of her sacrifice. The mystery of the Lady of Shalott’s life endures through her death, and her martyrdom seems to be in vain. From a feminist perspective, Siddal presents the Lady’s sacrifice as a message about male domination and the pointlessness of a woman’s sacrifice in such a male dominated society. Feminists agree with this interpretation, seeing Tennyson’s poem as a woman abandoning her duty because of temptation, or a woman going half mad for lack of male love and attention.
Siddal’s drawing is a triumph for feminist viewers because it portrays a woman as she defies whatever mysterious force controls her. Siddal’s Lady of Shalott deliberately looks out, and is not just passively looked upon. The Lady of Shalott frees herself from the curse because she consciously defies the power that holds her. She resists and breaks the curse, but in doing so, she must succumb to it. The Lady of Shalott takes final control over her destiny. She knows death will be the consequence, for she writes her name ‘round the prow of her boat so that the people of Camelot will know her identity, but death is not as important as her freedom. In Siddal’s drawing, the Lady’s role shifts from "passive victim to active heroine" as she reclaims her own destiny (Prettejohn 227).
From the beginnings of her character in the 13th century to the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites, The Lady of Shalott has preserved the mystery of her past and the enigma of her existence while critics and artists alike have expounded upon and interpreted the motifs added by Tennyson. The Lady of Shalott seems to be neither of the world nor in the world, as her life in the tower knows no previous existence, nor did it survive in the world outside the island of Shalott. The Lady of Shalott is confined to a solipsistic existence. She knows only the surety of her own existence, for the world outside is just an image for her to weave as a twice-removed reality. Her past is a mystery, and her future will continue to be a static life until the Lady breaks the spell. Her life and her concern are pre-occupied with the self because she has not been allowed to cultivate any social relationships. Like the artist who cannot balance commercial success with his artistic ideal, the Lady of Shalott cannot preserve her own life if confronted with the outside world. The harmony and communication between the two are cursed. The Lady of Shalott represents the ego. To her, the world exists only so that she may observe it and dutifully continue her weaving, but unlike the ego who sees the world only in relation to the self, the Lady of Shalott does not live this way by choice. She is an unwilling participant in her own pre-designated life who abandons her assigned duty in order to know the world beyond her limited experience. She looks out of the window and forsakes her embowered life in search of the human experience she has been denied, but she is not allowed to join in this world. The Lady of Shalott tried to escape her ascribed social status and step out of her known boundaries. She turned away from her role, and her punishment was death.
The Lady of Shalott is analogous to Whitman’s 29th bather*. She longs to exist in the world as freely as any man could. She longs to cast off her physical and metaphorical restrictions—cast off the high necked blouse and the corset, forget her weaving and the curse, to let down her hair, to escape the mold of woman, lover, lady—and be free to frolic uninhibited on the beach with the rest of the world. According to the Victorian ideal, the noblest experience is to accept the risk and responsibility of the overwhelming love of a destined lover, whether in life or death (Landow 12). For the Lady of Shalott, Lancelot represents the destiny that will bring her out of the shadows and into the light of reality, but unfortunately, that destiny will never be realized. Triumphantly, the Lady of Shalott might rejoice that in the end she has eluded a patriarchal assignment of any fixed meaning. She has retained her mystery despite innumerable attempts to tie her down with some permanent significance, and perhaps she will forever capture the imagination and elude the mind with her enigmatic persona.
Works Cited and Consulted
Alden, Raymond MacDonald. Alfred Tennyson. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1917.
Barringer, Tim. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. New Haven: Yale University, 1998.
Bram, Dijkstra. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Turn of the Century Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Chambers, D. Laurance. "Tennysoniana." Modern Language Notes December 1903: 221-233.
Cheney, Liana de Girolami, ed. Pre-Raphaelitism and Medievalism in the Arts. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992.
Field, P.J.C. Malory: Texts and Sources. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1998.
Gardner, Edmund Garratt. The Arthurian Legend in Italian Literature. New York: Octagon Books, 1971.
Gribble, Jennifer. The Lady of Shalott in the Victorian Novel. London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1983.
Gualteruzzi, Carlo. Novellino: The Novellino, or 100 Ancient Tales. An Edition Translated Based on the 1525 Gualteruzzi Editio Princeps. Ed. Philip Consoli. New York: Garland Publisher, 1997.
Herrmann, Luke. Nineteenth Century British Painting. London: Giles de la Mare, 2000.
Jenkins, Elizabeth. The Mystery of King Arthur. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, Inc., 1975.
Landow, George P, ed. Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and Its Contexts: An Exhibition. Providence: Brown University Department of Art, 1985.
Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love. Viking Compass Edition. New York: Viking Press, 1960.
Layard, George Somes. Tennyson and his Pre-Raphaelite Illustrators: A Book About a Book. London: Elliot Stock, 1894.
Loomis, Roger Sherman. Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur Volume I and II. Janet Cowen, Ed. London: Penguin Books, 1969.
Mancoff, Debra N. The Arthurian Revival in Victorian Art. New York: Garland Publishings, 1982.
Marshall, George O. A Tennyson Handbook. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1963.
McCarthy, Terence. An Introduction to Malory. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1988.
Nicolson, Harold. Tennyson: Aspects of his Life Character and Poetry. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1930.
Pinion, F.B. A Tennyson Companion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.
Potwin, L.S. "The Source of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott." Modern Language Notes December 1902: 237-239.
Prettjohn, Elizabeth. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Roscoe, Thomas. The Italian Novelists Vol. I. London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1836.
Shannon, Edgar Finley Jr. Tennyson and the Reviewers. Caimbridge: Harvard University Press, 1952.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. The Idylls of the King. London: MacMillan and Company, Limited, 1952.
Tennyson, Charles. Alfred Tennyson, by His Grandson, Charles Tennyson. United States: Archon Books, 1968.
Tennyson, Hallam. Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir. New York: The MacMillan Co., 1905.
Vinaver, Eugéne. Malory. London: Clarendon Press, 1970.
Warner, Malcolm. The Victorians: British Painting 1837-1901. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.
Wheeler, Bonnie, and Tolhurst, Fiona, eds. On Arthurian Women: Essays in Memory of Maureen Fries. Dallas, TX: Scriptorium Press, 2001.