Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" and the Theme of Artist Isolationism
Riham Hagona and Adrienne Parrish
“She left the web, she left the loom.../She looked down to Camelot. /Out flew the web and floated wide;/The mirror cracked from side to side;/“The curse is come upon me,” cried/The Lady of Shalott"@Tennyson, Alfred. "The Lady of Shalott," ENG 633: 19th Century Literature and Culture II Course Reader, ed. Lorraine Janzen (Toronto: Ryerson University, 2011) 160-162.
Alfred Tennyson first wrote his poem "The Lady of Shalott" in 1833. Nearly a decade later, he revised the poem and removed one stanza, leaving the final work at nineteen stanzas in 1842. This exhibit will be dealing with the version published in 1842. This version was also used in the Moxon Tennyson special edition publication, which included accompanying illustrations by Pre- Raphaelite artists (released in 1857). One of the more famous illustrations found in this publication is a woodblock engraving (as pictured on the left) made by British painter and Pre-Raphaelitism founder, William Holman Hunt. Focusing particularly on the scene in the poem which describes the Lady’s moment and realization of her doom, this exhibit will reveal the allusions to artist isolationism made by Tennyson and Hunt through their respective works.
Hunt founded the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in 1848 along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millias. This original founding group was later expanded to a group of seven artists (including Rossetti’s brother). The Brotherhood was established in an effort to reform the artistic movements of the time and in turn reform the misfortunes of society. They claimed that art in itself was a transcendent experience and included intricate details and overpowering colors in their artwork. Many of their artistic compositions were paintings of medieval themes. This was inspired by their interest in medieval culture and artwork. Hunt originally created the woodblock engraving in 1857 to accompany the Moxon publication of the poem. His Pre-Raphaelite views are visible through the illustration’s use of pristine and precise detailing of the Lady of Shalott and her last moments. The Moxon Tennyson publication (which included several of Tennyson’s poems) contained illustrations which were all made by Pre-Raphaelite artists. A simple explanation for these artists’ fascination with Tennyson’s poems (specifically "The Lady of Shalott") is Tennyson’s own obsession with Arthurian and medieval literature and culture. @Sharyn R. Udall, "Between Dream and Shadow: William Holman Hunt's "Lady of Shalott"", Woman's Art Journal (Summer, 1990) 34-38, JSTOR,Woman's Art, Inc., 10 Feb 2011 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1358385>
Around the time Tennyson was writing "The Lady of Shalott", John Stuart Mill, a prominent British philosopher, published an essay on the creation of poetry. Mill’s essay titled, Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties 1833, essentially describes the purpose of poetry as the ability to persuade someone by moving their emotions. Mill also argues that poetry is often inspired by feelings, and can be created in the silence of one's own mediation. Poetry’s uniqueness is then revealed when compared to novel-writing, which is often inspired by and required to describe what Mill calls “outward things”.@The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume I - Autobiography and Literary Essays, ed. John M. Robson and Jack Stillinger, introduction by Lord Robbins (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981). Chapter: Mill then makes a case for creating poetry in isolation, and indirectly supports the claim that Tennyson‘s trapped maiden in his poem represents artists in a more general sense. The primary character in Tennyson’s poem, The Lady, is seen to weave her loom inside a locked tower viewing the outside world from a mirror. When she looks away from her mirror and out of her window to gaze on Sir Lancelot her artwork flies out of the window. This scene in Tennyson’s poem suggests that art can be created in isolation, much like the Lady’s web, even though both art forms are inspired by “outward things”; however the art can literally get away from the artist if too heavily influenced by outside factors. 1