Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott
What used to be a simple home is now a sacred sanctuary, a refuge from all the filth of the world, a place to trap and stifle beauty, adventure, and passion. What used to be a simple woman is now an angel, a pure and domestic celestial being. I live in an era where women are considered most beautiful when isolated, helpless, and even dead; where a lady with passion is scarier than a bitter hag; where feminine is now a synonym for pure, selfless, and submissive; where sexism has put on the fancy dress of romance. And Alfred, Lord Tennyson is a man of his era, grabbing romantic sexism by the hand and enchantingly twirling her around the dance floor.
Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott has created a great tension within me, within my mind and heart. He plays into the public’s hands, trapping a beauty in a high tower and keeping her there with the threat of a curse:
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colors gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She know not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
A little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
Not only is she trapped and isolated, but also this lady sits weaving, apparently cheerful and content. Protected, pure, even angelic she sings her melodies and weaves and weaves. A beautiful woman weaving in her faraway room, only seeing the world through shadows and reflections: Tennyson pitifully feeds off of stifling social expectations, weaved deep into our culture (with frail Snow White laying helplessly poisoned in a glass case and with dear Repunzel combing her long hair in a high fortress…in a land far, far away). In other words, at the beginning of Tennyson’s poem, the Lady of Shalott is a lively yet compliant Miss Temple, which is ideal for a society—and for their poet—that wishes to isolate such a woman from its filth, fearful she’ll become snooty like Blanche or, even worse, absolutely vulgar like monstrous Bertha.
Yet, the risk of letting a lady venture into society—with its threats of corruption and brutality—seems far less threatening than the risk of Lady of Shalott feeling like my honest Jane, before she ventured out:
I went to my window, opened it, and looked out…My eye passed all other objects to rest on those most remote, the blue peaks. It was those I longed to surmount; all within their boundary of rock seemed prison-ground, exile limits…I had had no communication by letter, or message with the outer world…and now I felt that it was not enough. I tired of the routine of eight years in one afternoon. I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer… (87)
These thoughts of Jane’s could easily belong to the Lady of Shalott as well, and Tennyson gave me a glimmer of hope when he let Lady Shalott utter a similar prayer—“I am half sick of shadows”—but he soon smothers these sparks, taking the life of Lady Shalott. ...