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Why Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott Has to Die

Why Tennyson’s Lady Of Shalott Has To Die

The legend of the Lady of Shalott, which is of such recurring interest and fascination to Victorian writers and painters, would seem therefore to be an instance of the type of myth that must be an attempt to symbolize something essential in human experience, a truth in the profoundest sense because, as Voegelin says, “A myth can never be ‘untrue’ because it would not exist unless it had its experiential basis in the movements of the soul which it symbolizes” (184). It is the question of what that experience may be, specifically, in this case, as Tennyson presents it in his poem of 1833 (which he revised in 1842), The Lady of Shalott, that shall be the focus of this essay.

Although, as we shall see, Tennyson, as he develops his own mythographical interpretation of the legend, seems, perhaps paradoxically, to be both moving towards and away from an illumination and differentiation of the experiential archetype. A further aim of this essay will be to explore the nature of this paradox.

The “world” of the poem is framed within the boundaries represented by the island of Shalott and Camelot (the “world beyond” these is no more than incidental – people come out of it and go back into it as if out of “nowhere”). The “silent isle” and all that it “imbowers” in its “Four gray walls and four gray towers,” principally the Lady herself, would thus seem to suggest the inwardness and passivity of the private sphere – for the Victorians the “female domain” – whereas “many-tower’d Camelot” situated on the route of commerce where “the heavy barges trail’d” and the “shallop flitteth” would seem to suggest the public sphere – the world of action and men. Nevertheless these routes of commerce are also the routes that connect the island to Camelot: the river and the road, these avenues of communication, and therefore language, both link and keep separate these two spheres and thus suggest something essentially problematic in this relationship; and Tennyson will illustrate and explore this problem throughout his poem.

Lancelot is en-route to Camelot and the Lady of Shalott needs must, it seems, desire to follow after him. To what extent she was “half sick of shadows” before she sees the passing Lancelot is unclear, but what is certain is that once she has seen this image of him he becomes the object of her desire. She has been weaving “by night and day / A magic web” knowing that if she stops “To look down to Camelot” she will invoke the “curse” although “She knows not what the curse may be,” now, however, she is compelled to leave her island-world behind her.

She cries, “The curse is come upon me,” acknowledging her fate and her apparent powerlessness to resist it, and in a suitably “stormy east-wind” finds a boat and “Like some bold seer in a trance, / Seeing all his own mischance” sets off with the foresight of impending tragedy on the river to Camelot. The curse is invoked, her death ensues as she sings “her last song”, and she floats dead into Camelot where all the knights “cross’d themselves for fear.” So, what exactly has happened here?

The Lady it seems feels “let down,” as it were, by her world and the things in it which, she believes, have become inadequate. Her “magic web,” like the “shadows of the world” she sees in her window-mirror are revealed as “mere” reflections; and what she now wants is the “thing-in-itself.” Lancelot appears to be that thing – that object of desire. She would have him, or at least what he represents, as she recognizes and wants recognized her desire in what, under more favorable circumstances one presumes, could result in a conjugal dehiscence desirable for both. But there is a problem here. It seems that ‘the world’ (of which Lancelot is a part) is no more “graspable” as an object than the reflection of it seen in her mirror (that this mirror seems also to be her window renders apparent the essential fracture between presentation/representation); whereas her web had at least the “advantage” of being self-referential, that is it did not have to reflect the world-as-such, only her own image of it, and therefore it need not be “falsified” by any contact with reality and it could remain “pure.” But this is a sterile purity: it is entropic, locked within itself, as she has been locked within her island. Lancelot seems to offer a chance of escape into reality; even as he functions like a question that she must seek the answer to.

Yet the Lady seems not to consider the possibility that, for her at least, Lancelot may be no more than the sum of the objects that display him, from his “blazon’d baldric” and “mighty silver bugle” to his ringing “armour.” What, she maybe should have asked, lay beneath or inside these “decorations and coverings”? Or would she have found the reality substanceless, as out of reach ultimately as the “bearded meteor” that symbolizes him? Provoking us to ask “What lies behind the mirror’s reflections once it is cracked? What is real behind the reflected world?” Or is the world itself just another type of reflection, a potentially unending concatenation of signifiers that only ever signify other signifiers ad infinitum – no more than the sum of its descriptive coverings and thus still just a covering: the (R)eal (in Lacan’s sense – see below) behind reality finally elusive?

So the Lady seems to be in a condition of aporia: She must ask the question that she cannot ask, just as she must mistake the object of her desire for her desire of desire itself, because, as Bruce Fink expresses Lacan’s view:

“Desire, strictly speaking, has no object. In its essence, desire is a constant search for something else, and there is no specifiable object that is capable of satisfying it. Desire is fundamentally caught up in the dialectical movement of one signifier to the next, and is diametrically opposed to fixation. It does not seek satisfaction, but rather its own continuance and furtherance: more desire, greater desire!” (90-91).

This would seem to be the nature of the curse; and it partly explains why her post-annihilation “gleaming shape” – gleaming, yes, but now nothing more than “shape,” “Silent” and signifying literally nothing – causes the knights to cross themselves for fear: Thanatos is revealed behind or beyond Eros perhaps, one is tempted to speculate, forcing them too to wonder just what is the substance beneath the symbols they cover themselves with. It is worth noting, nevertheless, how the 1833 version makes the erotic aspect of death explicit, describing the Lady at the moment of death as:

All raimented in snowy white

That loosely flew, (her zone in sight

Clasped with one blinding diamond bright,)

Her wide eyes fixed on Camelot . . .

This almost makes death sound like fun! The Tennyson of 1842, however, as we have seen, is in no mood, as he was in 1833, to let “The well-fed wits at Camelot” be instructed by the Lady, via “a parchment on her breast,” to “Draw near and fear not” (Tennyson’s italics).

Was there anything the Lady could have done to avert her fate, or was it inevitable? It would seem to require some modification of her actions, because, in fact, she does act even before her fatal decision to leave the island, which, it turns out, is her penultimate action. Her weaving of the “magic web” is, or has been hitherto, both an activity and the construction of a kind of symbolic language in which she “…delights/ To weave the mirror’s magic sights” thereby constituting her own reality out of “shadows.”  This is certainly, at least, a valid interpretation for herself; it need only remain sterile if it cannot be part of a fruitful dialogue with an other’s symbolic language and thus become partner in the creation of a “new” language which would then constitute a kind of negentropic generation, the product of a genuine dialectical exchange: mutually beneficial “commerce” (in which, of course, the knights’ symbols too become dynamically involved). The fact of her singing can be seen in the same way. If she could find a counter-melodist the result would not have to be atonal disharmony – harmony could result if the conditions were favorable.

Finally, the Lady seems to understand that language can be both uniquely one’s own and shared with others when, in her final act, she inscribes the prow of the boat with The Lady of Shalott; it is her last attempt at communication which need not devalue the communicator: one’s name or title remains one’s own in any circumstance. It is part of her tragedy that she is only known as herself when her name is read in Camelot after she is already dead.

So all potential “solutions” fail and the “curse” has “triumphed.” Again we are left to wonder if there was any way that this situation could have been avoided. The question leads us back to the “routes of commerce” between the “feminized” private sphere of the island and the “masculinized” public sphere of Camelot, and the apparent lack of communication between them, that is, the lack of a proper dynamic dialogue between male and female, which, I suggest, is Tennyson’s main concern in The Lady of Shalott.

That there is communication is indisputable; after all “They heard her singing her last song,” and we know that “round the prow they read her name,” but this has not resulted in any actual dialogue, only in acts of communication that are too circumscribed to enable an active dynamism: the act of listening to the act of singing; the act of reading to the act of writing. This is communication at one remove – remote – and thus it is destined to remain as sterile as the Lady’s reflected mirror-world or the language of the magic web seem to be, unless it leads to real dialogue. And this would be language constituting the Real in the act of linguistic exchange; then the Real, in Lacan’s sense (see below), need not be that which is beyond language, rather it is language: language in dynamic action.

Does Tennyson, one is tempted to speculate, know that men and women must engage in this dynamic linguistic communicative interaction with each other; and that the rigid Victorian separation of feminized private spheres and masculinized public spheres is finally entropic and ensures, at the least, an even speedier victory of Thanatos over Eros (after all the Lady and Lancelot are never permitted to come together in a productive union of any kind – no conjugality of desire here!)? Tennyson, I suggest, seems to be trying to reflect a sense that the mystery of the experience of the difference between men and women (like the mystery of the experience between the inevitable connection between life and death – however “unnecessary” we may wish this was) is not to be resolved by division into “separate spheres” but must proceed from an actual communication between real individuals, that would result in the full recognition of the ‘beauty’ of difference (gender difference as a quality, at least in human terms, of the summum bonum – see Appendix) and its potential for creation.

Thus the real tragedy of The Lady of Shalott is Lancelot’s recognition at the poem’s end:

But Lancelot sensed a little space;

He said, ‘She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy grant her grace,

The Lady of Shalott.

This is the tragic too-late recognition of what could have been: he sees her beauty, feels what has been lost, and Tennyson invokes our empathy ensuring that we too feel it. Despite the fact that, in a sense, Lancelot retains a form of control here: after all the Lady dies with her desire for him unsatisfied and therefore still intact and functioning and, presumably, Lancelot is aware of this and thus recognizes her desire for him and can live on with this recognition and perhaps even be sustained by the thought that it at least can never die. But this is surely a Pyrrhic victory, sterile at the best. Once the Lady is dead all communication is dead too. This is the antithesis of what a “route of commerce” should be; if one of the partners to a dialogue is dead there is no commerce, no trade, no dialogic exchange, and no dialectic. It is not only the Lady of Shalott who is in need of grace it seems.

Tennyson, then, has woven the mythographical fabric of his poem together in an illustration of the kind of dynamism that needs to exist between people (even as he has apparently been obliged to demonstrate how the nature of desire seems to prevent this realization) in the matrix of society – the tension of existence – if that society is to manifest a dynamism that exists outside of and beyond the boundaries of its art. And yet as we have seen, and this is what illustrates the nature of the paradox at the heart of desire, the Lady of Shalott cannot leave the sterile sequestration of her island without the encounter with Camelot resulting in death. Ultimately the dialogue between the Lady and Lancelot, the “silent isle” and “many-tower’d Camelot”, and thus man and woman, fails because they cannot find, in Eugene Webb’s words, a:

“. . . mythic language [that] has authority because it emerges into the psyche from the depths in which the soul is united with the living, ensouled cosmos – which is to say, from the point of experience at which man enters into participation in the luminosity and love that are the substance of reality itself” (125-126).

Such a mythic language would be negentropic. Webb explains:

“There are many mythic symbols, but where they express the concrete experience of involvement in the tension of existence, they cannot be in radical conflict, but cluster, supplement, and support one another” (Ibid).

The poet has shown, nevertheless, that what draws us together can become that which tears us apart, even as he attempts to differentiate the experiential archetype (in this case that gender is a mystery to us) into something potentially more positive, and at this point Tennyson is unable or unwilling to allow the Lady’s “experience” becomes “concrete.” It would seem that either there is something like Voegelin’s “movements of the soul” towards the Truth, the “substance of reality itself,” or this is ultimately, as Fink puts it, like:

“. . . Lacan’s real . . . without zones, subdivisions, localized highs and lows, or gaps and plenitudes: the real is a sort of unrent, undifferentiated fabric, woven in such a way as to be full everywhere, there being no space between the threads that are its “stuff”. It is a smooth seamless surface or space which applies as much to a child’s body as to the whole universe” (24).

A “fabric,” then, in which everything is rather like a nothing, an “impossibility” – not unlike the “fabric” of the Lady’s “magic web.”

Lancelot cannot (or will not – it makes little difference finally and Tennyson need not spell it out) reciprocate the Lady’s desire, only as this is an essentially patriarchal interpretation of the situation, survives it in what is, as I have suggested, a Pyrrhic victory. Yet Lancelot (like Tennyson himself, presumably) can, at least, retreat back into his symbols, even if he can have no real dialogue with an other; whereas the Lady must pay the ultimate price: it is she who must be sacrificed to prevent the knights finally having to confront their own fundamental inability to communicate, at least in this poem.

The Lady cannot be permitted to reconcile the dichotomy between her web of reflections and the ‘real’ world, and so she must die.



Fink, Bruce (1995) The Lacanian Subject – Between Language and Jouissance.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Voegelin, Eric (1999)  Order and History, Volume 3, Plato and Aristotle. Collected Volume 16, edited by Dante Germano.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Webb, Eugene (1981) Eric Voegelin, Philosopher of History. Seattle: University of  Washington Press.

Stephen H. ConlinStephen H. Conlin

Stephen H. Conlin

Steve Conlin is an independent scholar whose Master's thesis was on Hans-Georg Gadamer's "Truth and Method" from the University of Southhampton in England.

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