Sunday, April 27, 2008

Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott"

Tennyson's poem, “The Lady of Shalott” is a brilliant piece of populist writing, displaying vibrant language and beautiful musicality. Part of its power, and continued readability comes from Tennyson's sense of what to leave out of the story.

Unlike “The Palace of Art,” which throws in every detail and then some, as well as the kitchen sink, “The Lady of Shalott” moves with the allure and excitement of a fairy tale, albeit one with a tragic ending. Consider its first verse:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road run by
To many-towered Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

The reader knows right away this is a fantasy – if not by the evocation of mythic Camelot, through Tennyson's “once upon a time”-like scene setting: the river, the elemental grains that “clothe the wold and meet the sky,” the road through the field where travelers “[gaze] where the lilies blow” at the Isle of Shalott. More importantly, Tennyson hesitates to heap adjective upon adjective, leaving it to the reader to imagine the minutiae of the scene and contributing to the poem's universality. Compare this to the first eight lines of “The Palace of Art”:

I built my soul a lordly pleasure-house,
Wherein at ease for aye to dwell.
I said, “O Soul, make merry and carouse,
Dear soul, for all is well.”

A huge crag-platform, smooth as burnished brass
I chose. The rangèd ramparts bright
From level meadow-bases of deep grass
Suddenly scaled the light.

Even though its four line stanzas are more compact, Tennyson's language – and eventual relentless cataloging – clogs and chokes the poem: “crag-platform,” “burnished brass,” and “deep grass” are not the worse offenders, but a far cry from the minimalist lines that begin and run throughout “Shalott.”

The tone of the language is also completely different. Whereas “Shalott” is conversational, “Palace” is grandiloquent and mannered. The approach in each instance is stylistically sound, and provides both poems with their own distinct personality, but the breathing room in “Shalott” imbues it with an urgency that the other poem lacks. For example,

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.

Does the Lady sleep? Where does her magic emanate from? What colors? Whose whisper? Why a curse? Why is she forbidden from viewing Camelot? The power here is not so much in the answers – which we as readers do not, and never will know – as in the implicit questions.

Tennyson's portrait in language of “The Lady of Shalott” is that much more vivid in its opaqueness; in fact, we never get any description of how the Lady looks, aside from being “robed in snowy white,” and Lancelot's comment, “She has a lovely face.” Lovely in what way? What color are her eyes, her hair? Is she pale or dark skinned? The reader fills this in, creating their own vision of The Lady. This is part of Tennyson's mastery in relating the story of the poem. By keeping his language clean and simple, Tennyson makes his poem appreciable to everyone, including the knights, burghers, lords and dames; abbots, shepherds, pages and reapers who populate it. That's no different today, where some poetry requires footnotes, and/or Byzantine knowledge to fully comprehend the Poet's Message, obfuscated as it is in tangles of rarefied and bloated language.

over-Its entirety could be dissected, and a series of questions posed from reading between the lines of the text, but “The Lady of Shalott” is not a poem that lends itself to pomo intellectualizing, surging forward instead on the weight of its emotions. It is those emotions – loneliness and want of love – that provide the core of the poem's power. Who has never been lonely, or unloved? We identify with the Lady's feelings because we have all felt them, and Tennyson elicits these character traits without resorting to bluntly spelling it out for the reader. On the other hand, emotion is on hold in “The Palace of Art,” whose protagonist only hints at feelings in its final four lines:

"Yet pull not down my palace towers, that are
So lightly, beautifully built:
Perchance I may return with others there
When I have purged my guilt."

Guilt is a more intellectual emotion than loneliness or lovelessness, and predicated on action or reaction; “The Lady of Shalott” may dwell in a world of shadows, but she is more in touch with herself, and her feelings, than the sybaritic voice of “The Palace of Art.” Her selflessness is intrinsically more appealing than selfishness, and lends her pathos, even as an enigma.

There are a few explicit questions in the poem:

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?


Who is this? And what is here?

Lines uttered by onlookers as the Lady floats, dead, along the river to Camelot. Tennyson knows it is better to let them linger than to diminish them with concrete answers. It also strengthens the mythic qualities of the poem, and in turn its heroine, to leave them unanswered. The rules are the same, whether the questions are spoken, or implied: the inherent power of “The Lady of Shalott” lies in its omissions. Rather than wallop readers with the wholesale image-mongering technique of “The Palace of Art,” this quieter and more elusive poem gets under the skin and remains there, a poignant and mysterious masterpiece of understatement.

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