Sunday, March 05, 2006
A Brush With "The Lady of Shallot"
By Tushar Jain
The poem 'The Lady of Shalott' by Tennyson is thought to be loosely based on Elaine, the fair maid who was in love with Sir Lancelot of Arthurian legend, as portrayed in Sir Thomas Mallory’s 'Morte D'Arthur'. Lancelot, alas, only had eyes for Queen Guinevere, so Elaine locked herself in a tower on the island of Shalott and died of a broken heart. Tennyson's tragic version of the 'Lady of Shalott has been the inspiration for these great works of art. The artists are all members of, or were inspired by, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Lady of Shalott is a magical being who lives alone on an island upstream from King Arthur's Camelot. Her business is to look at the world outside her castle window in a mirror, and to weave what she sees into a tapestry. She is forbidden by the magic to look at the outside world directly. The farmers who live near her island hear her singing and know who she is, but never see her.
The Lady sees ordinary people, loving couples, and knights in pairs reflected in her mirror. One day, she sees the reflection of Sir Lancelot riding alone. Although she knows that it is forbidden, she looks out the window at him. The mirror shatters, the tapestry flies off on the wind, and the Lady feels the power of her curse. An autumn storm suddenly arises. The lady leaves her castle, finds a boat, writes her name on it, gets into the boat, sets it adrift, and sings her death song as she drifts down the river to Camelot. The locals find the boat and the body, realize who she is, and are saddened. Lancelot prays that God will have mercy on her soul. This is one of Tennyson's most popular poems. The Pre-Raphaelites liked to illustrate it.
Relationship between artist and society
The artist is presented as a reclusive identity, bearing merely an idea of the ‘world’ and ‘society’, sequestered in a very cloistered relationship with oneself and one’s creative index that is perhaps a reflection or an artist’s indirect link with reality. Tennyson’s abstractness is perhaps aimed at a presumptive conviction of an artist’s livelihood… by illustrating an isolated female conjuring upon a web in a castle bound by a curse and viewing life through a mirror, and still remaining aloof from all human association and communion, Tennyson is trying to alight upon a highly eccentric and elitist fashion of an artistic temperament. We can presume that the poem might be aimed as a nonfigurative satire or a figurative panegyric. The thematic values of ‘the lady of Shallot’, though, remain indelibly the same, and many allusive interpretations can be extorted of the text.
Now, when Tennyson uses the allegory of the lady weaving a web to represent life, the intention is perhaps to celebrate the artistic conundrums or the artist’s harsh and unique perception of life that to the common eye is web-like or in other words, confusing, intricate, enigmatic and intriguing. Tennyson endeavors to apprise or explicate the reader of the elaborate insight of an artist that enables him to cast life in a personal and subjective metaphor.
Secondly, when Tennyson projects the fact that the lady of Shallot is cursed to her undying isolation, then the subject matter drifts to the argument expostulating that the ability of an artist though liberates him, it simultaneously ensnares him in the process of a gross and aggressive internalization, and the talent thus shifts to the symbolic curse that begets the artist to be damnably integral, individualist and a needlessly private character. It is an inadvertent testament to the saying that skill renders a man illimitable freedom as long as he remains within the fence.
Thirdly, the castle is a representative of an artist’s baffling solitude. An artist, according to Tennyson, marginalizes his existence to access those of others. The reason to an artist’s seclusion is inexplicable, but we can guess that it is never deliberate, instead as the poem establishes, the consequences of action based on any genuine free will can be vitally ominous and dire. The artist is shown as a desperate, piteous and hopeless character, and we can adjudge that there are glaring peripheral hints of Tennyson’s admiration and conspicuous empathy for the artist in the theme of the poem.
Fourthly and lastly, the greatest emblem or insignia that the poem has to offer towards a fundamental assay, an attempted formation of the artist’s archetypal icon is the lady’s constant attempt of viewing the changing world through in the mirror. This is a very thorough, exhaustive and coherent crack at demystifying or enlightening the reader of the predicaments of an artistic life when the artist is reduced to perceiving the world through a rigid medium, through a device that reflects the exteriors of men and the implicit inflexibility of their emotions, and thus the artist perceives of their depths and sensitivity obliquely.
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Poetry and Writing