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Iconic Destiny and “The Lady of Shalott”: Living in a World of Images

  • William R. McKelvy

…plus d’informations

  • William R. McKelvy
    Washington University in Saint Louis

Corps de l’article

The enduring, iconic status of the Lady of Shalott has been reconfirmed by her presence on the covers of the two comprehensive anthologies that dominate the market for the teaching of English in higher education. William Holman Hunt's "The Lady of Shalott" (fig. 1) appears on the cover of The Victorian Age in the Norton Anthology of English Literature that is now divided into six volumes (8th ed., 2005), while John William Waterhouse's "Destiny" (fig. 2) serves as the cover art for the second installment of the two-volume version of the Longman Anthology of British Literature (3rd ed., 2006). Tennyson's creation, admittedly, does not explicitly appear on the Longman anthology, but what ought to be our inability to keep “The Lady of Shalott” out of mind when we see “Destiny” recalls how this single poem, like no other in the language, became visually canonized in the last half of the nineteenth century. It is this abundance of related imagery that makes distinguished instances of the pictorial tradition--as the paintings by Hunt and Waterhouse are--fitting candidates to represent the period.[1]

Figure 1

1885-1906; Hartford, CT, Wadsworth Atheneum.

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Figure 2

1900; Burnley, Towneley Museum.

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Waterhouse’s most famous painting of the Lady of Shalott (1888; London, Tate) depicts her departure for Camelot in a boat, but he painted two other major canvasses--"The Lady of Shalott" (fig. 3) and "I am Half-Sick of Shadows, said the Lady of Shalott" (fig. 4)--that rely on the circular, mirror-dominated idiom of Hunt’s painting, which was itself based on Hunt’s earlier illustration for the 1857 “Moxon Tennyson” (fig. 5).[2] For reasons soon explained, it is “Destiny” that I want to look at more closely. Donated by Waterhouse in 1900 to the Artists’ War Fund for British casualties and those widowed during the second Boer War, “Destiny” features a young woman holding a valedictory bowl for departing ships that are reflected in a circular mirror, one that simultaneously allows viewers to look into a private room and out of an elevated window. As in Hunt’s painting, where a woman’s enclosed space is contrasted with the reflected glimpse of Lancelot and his heralds, Waterhouse’s painting asks us to behold in one glance a feminized interior and an exterior spectacle of martial masculinity. Whether the woman in “Destiny” is pictured at the moment she is looking up or down, moving toward or away from the bowl, the mirror, or the window is not clear, and this studied ambiguity goes some way in glossing the image’s laconic title and the questions it might raise. Does “Destiny” convey a jingoism made the worse for being made so pretty? Or does it represent a fatalistic, almost reluctant participation in the rites of empire? And what about the provocative sash, an accessory that is both loose and tied up, concealing and revealing? Does it manifest chastity and romantic fidelity? Or does it draw attention to organs of pleasure and reproduction? Is the woman’s conspicuous abdomen in the process of expanding into the rounded fullness of the juxtaposed globe, an object that is girdled as well? Is it a curse or a blessing--to use terms vital to Tennyson’s narrative--to be left at home in this way?

Figure 3

1894; Leeds City Art Gallery.

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Figure 4

1915; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

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Figure 5

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By design these questions stay unresolved as Waterhouse embraces a key gesture within this pictorial genre: he has the mirror duplicate the main female character. This is a portrait of two ladies, one whose lips remain untouched and unparted--and one whose lips are in painterly contact with the bowl where its lip reflects the shadow of the opposite column. If the woman in “Destiny” is a dual emblem of embowered innocence and erotic experience, as I am suggesting, if she is fully clothed and implicitly disrobed, she is also the recognizable sister of Hunt’s brilliantly costumed Lady, likewise posed in profile, who has kicked off her pattens and had her skirt raised above a petticoated knee. And while Waterhouse’s painting declines the depiction of pictorial weaving, it retains a commitment--one essential to Tennyson’s text and Hunt’s image--to representing replication and reproduction. In addition to presenting a double portrait of the woman and reflected images of two indistinguishable ships, Waterhouse invites us to read the woman’s book as yet another token of reproduction: with the making of globes in the West dating to the end of the fifteenth century, we have good reason to assume that this text was produced on a printing press, that engine for multiplication that was regularly associated with Europe’s imperial destiny.

Set in the placid context of clement weather, this reproductive theme might be the vehicle for a comforting message of proliferation, but an equally important motif of fragmentation keeps the tone of the painting complicated. For with the single exception of the isolated column to the far right, behind the woman (or in her past), everything here--the mirror, the woman herself, the sash, the ships, the globe and the book--is partially reproduced. Everything, anticipating the on-coming shock of war, is broken up. Without resorting to the frenzied hair that dominates the top half of Hunt’s design, Waterhouse charges his image with a destructive energy evidenced by these shattered idols of mimesis. Giving off multiple, partial reflections, this canvas is a metaphorically cracked mirror, one that recalls the central episode in Tennyson’s text and Hunt’s illustration of it: “The mirror cracked from side to side; / ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried / The Lady of Shalott” (115-17).

But why begin an essay about Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” by commenting on a painting that does not explicitly claim to illustrate it? For two reasons. By explaining how “Destiny” can illustrate Tennyson’s poem, one is compelled to describe in purely formal ways how both participate in an aesthetic tradition that is simultaneously literary and pictorial; and, by claiming that non-verbal media can help us to read the text, I am deliberately highlighting a dialogue between the textual and the pictorial that is essential to the poem’s meaning. For I want to show how Tennyson’s text originated in the 1830s in response to a new visual economy that relied on the mass production of imagery. Illustration, in other words, is not only an important component of the broader cultural reception of “The Lady of Shalott”; illustration is a crucial historical category for understanding how the poem initially took up the topic of visual reproduction and its cultural implications.[3] From the start of its public reception, “The Lady of Shalott” has been understood as an allegory about its author’s creative anxieties, and Isobel Armstrong’s readings of the poem, in particular, have made it clear that these autobiographical (or psychological) contexts were allied to the social and political terrain of Tennyson’s early poetic career (Victorian Poetry 83-6). “The reapers and Cambridge rick-burners reacting to the corn laws, the starving handloom weavers who were being displaced by new industrial processes, these hover,” Armstrong writes, “just outside the poem and become strangely aligned with the imprisoned Lady” (Victorian Poetry 84-5). A good deal more, however, needs to be said about how the poem encodes its own iconic destiny by formally mirroring a moment in Britain’s age of industrialization when two machines in particular--the steam-press and the power-loom--had transformed ideas about intellectual and physical labor and the relations between aesthetic and commercial spheres. In this context, we can see the many visual interpretations of Tennyson’s text as tributes (more or less faithful) to the author’s creatively expressed concerns about being a writer in an age when an illustrated print media had harnessed new powers of representation and replication. So while the paintings by Waterhouse and Hunt rightly emphasize a reproductive theme at the heart of “The Lady of Shalott,” these late nineteenth-century responses are belated refractions of Tennyson’s earlier preoccupation with the fact that visual ornamentation was increasingly produced and reproduced by mechanical means.[4]


Initially published in 1832 and later republished in a revised form in 1842,[5] Tennyson’s poem tells the story of a mysterious Lady who takes her name from an island in a river that flows “To many towered Camelot” (5). An observer of the world that passes her by, both on the river and on a road that follows its course, the Lady in her tower is also pointedly unobserved. The only witnesses to her existence in the poem’s first part are reapers who hear--but do not see--her singing:

Only reapers, reaping early

In among the bearded barley,

Hear a song that echoes cheerly

From the river winding clearly,

 Down to towered Camelot:

And by the moon the reaper weary,

Piling sheaves in uplands airy,

Listening, whispers ‘’Tis the fairy

 Lady of Shalott.’


In part II of the poem, this invisibility is partially explained by a “curse” that requires the Lady to weave continuously a copy of the passing scenes as they are reflected in a mirror “That hangs before her all the year” (47). When Lancelot appears in the mirror in part III, the Lady turns from her loom and “look[s] down to Camelot” (113). This unmediated gazing cracks the mirror and seems to bring on the Lady’s death. In the poem’s concluding fourth part, the Lady descends from her tower and writes her name on the prow of a boat that bears her to Camelot. As in part I, she again reaches an audience through song, being heard but not seen as she approaches the Arthurian capital at night. She then becomes a speechless spectacle, a corpse that visually disrupts an evening of feasting in the poem’s final stanza where Lancelot among an otherwise muted crowd steps forward to make the observation, "She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace" (169-70).

Featuring weaving as a visual art and contrasting that mimetic activity with the more expressive but deadly act of becoming a beautiful thing, “The Lady of Shalott” reinvigorated an ancient literary habit of featuring reflection, spinning, weaving, and sewing. Tennyson knowingly fused “the many myths of the weaving lady, from Arachne to Penelope, with the myths of reflection carried by Narcissus and Echo” (Armstrong, Victorian Poetry 83). And in coining the word “Sha-lott” and rhyming it with either “Came-lot” or “Lance-lot” nineteen times, the parson’s son bestowed on his narrative--both highly derivative and strikingly original--an occluded Biblical source. With “LOT” being the poem’s tell-tale sound, it persistently recalls the wife of Lot, another nameless woman who experiences a mortifying paralysis as punishment for looking in the direction of concupiscent urbanity (Gen. 19:26).[6] But even as it describes a mythic weaver and troubled spectator whose literary ancestry is ancient and diverse, “The Lady of Shalott” is also engaged with its contemporary world as it formally and conceptually registers the fact that the production of texts and textiles in Tennyson’s day was being transformed by machinery.

A figure to announce Tennyson’s inheritance of a literary authority from a lineage that included--despite all of his denials--Homer, Ovid, and Spenser, the Lady of Shalott was qualified as well to represent the fate of those whose lives were deeply touched by textile manufacturing, the first large-scale industry in Britain to be completely transformed by automated machinery. These could include factory workers of both genders, the mostly male participants in the long-dying craft of hand-loom weaving, and the proliferating number of female seamstresses who, before the advent and wide application of the sewing machine, manually converted mass-produced textiles into garments.[7] In part a product of the early stages of the industrial revolution, Tennyson’s poem features a duplicitous central character who invokes both increasingly marginalized forms of artisanal labor and increasingly common forms of repetitive factory work. Tennyson’s weaver is also connected to the reapers who toil, like the Lady, “by night and day” (37). In the poem’s richly braided phonic texture there is importance to the fact that the phrase “Piling sheaves” is quickly followed and mimicked by “There she weaves” (34, 37), a sequence that draws attention back to Tennyson’s first understated metaphor, where he associates the fruit of the land with the products of the loom by calling upon the verb “clothe” to describe how “Long fields of barley and of rye” cover and color the landscape (2-3). Here again the relationship between the weaver and the reapers is both artful and particularly topical, for it reflects the fact that the most prominent campaigners for the cessation of agriculture tariffs (or Corn Laws) were those in the manufacturing classes who were eager to see their factory hands--the largest single section of them employed in textile production--able to get cheap bread on low wages.

The point is not that Tennyson did something terribly original in composing an allegory of authorship in which weaving bears a relationship to writing but that this traditional trope had a strong contemporary resonance in part because presses and looms had been newly realigned at that time. In numerous ways, readers in the 1820s and 30s were to be reminded about the extensive relations between texts and textiles. These ranged from some kinships of creative analogy to others grounded in material reality. In the era’s best-known tactical combination of literary anonymity and celebrity--the serial address of “The Author of Waverley” to the reading public--two examples remind us how the comparison of writing and weaving had been invested with a new potency related to the conviction that it was, as Thomas Carlyle put it in 1829, “the Age of Machinery” (64). In “The Introductory Epistle” to The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), Walter Scott touched on the topic of his own astounding literary productivity in a fictional interview with “The Author of Waverley.” Responding to rumors that this “unknown” writer was incessantly working “merely for the lucre of gain,” Scott’s authorial voice playfully embraces the commodification of his writing as he boasts of “having established such an extensive manufacture” that benefited “hundreds, from honest Duncan the paper-manufacturer, to the most sniveling of the printer's devils” (13). A shocked Captain Clutterbuck replies: “This would be called the language of a calico-manufacturer” (14). Three years later, Scott prefaced his Tales of the Crusaders (1825) with the minutes from a meeting where the same Author proposed the formation of a joint-stock company to invest in a steam-powered novel-writing machine based on a new invention for producing clothing: “they put in raw hemp at one end, and take out ruffled shirts at the other, without the aid of hackle or rippling-comb, loom, shuttle, or weaver, scissors, needle, or seamstress” (v). Using the same principles, a form of automated writing could be achieved, it was proposed, “by placing the words and phrases technically employed on these subjects in a sort of framework, like that of the sage of Laputa, and changing them by such a mechanical process as that by which weavers of damask alter their patterns” (vi).

By the time Scott’s works were being re-produced (if not composed) by steam-presses in 1830 during the production of the “Magnum Opus” edition (Millgate 35), real-life entrepreneurs of paper and ink were embarking on campaigns to draw attention to the social significance of the industrialized production of print media through the coordinated utilization of mechanized paper production, stereotyping, and steam-powered printing machines. A little more than a decade after the first images of printing machines appeared in illustrated periodicals (fig. 6), Charles Knight’s Commercial History of a Penny Magazine (1833) gave readers a detailed look into a modern printing office to disclose how new levels of literary circulation were underwritten--literally--by repetitive circular motion. Published as a supplement to The Penny Magazine, the Commercial History contained, among other things, an image of a steam press (fig. 7) and a description of its workings that emphasized--as all early accounts of these machines did--how the essential innovation was the use of cylinders that allowed the printing of both sides of a sheet without removing it from the press.[8] With this in mind, we might read in the initial notes of “The Lady of Shalott”--“On either side . . .” (1)--something more than the first manifestation of the poem’s interest in duality and duplicity: this phrase echoes as well the printing machine’s primary claim to fame. The Commercial History also gave a detailed description of the process by which cloth rags were transformed into “the sheet of paper which the reader now looks upon” (14). Just as Tennyson would write of a Lady who “weaves by night and day / A magic web with colours gay” (37-8), Knight describes and depicts a paper-making machine that relies on the revolution of “an endless web of the finest wire” (14). And one of the accompanying illustrations of a paper-cutting machine (fig. 8) is an uncanny anticipation of the weaving Lady’s iconography even as the letterpress vouches for the industrious nature of the workers by asserting their equivalency with textile laborers: the “work is performed by young women, who are as neat in their persons as the upper work-women in a well-regulated cotton-mill” (16). Seated before a structure that resembles a loom, these two women face a continuous stream of blank pages in an enclosed space that is in communication with but also separated from an exterior perceived through windows. These are apertures for the entry of the sunlight that allows the workers to inspect the flow of paper. But the casement to the right also raises the same specter of interrupted labor that is the main crisis in Tennyson’s poem. Were the women to turn and look out this window, their jobs would cease to be performed.

Figure 6

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Figure 7

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Figure 8

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At a time when textile manufacturing--rather than railways--dominated the textual and graphic representation of the nation’s experience of industrialization, the power-loom and the steam-press were repeatedly invoked to gauge or describe the impact of the other. In 1833, for example, the London Times called attention to a letter from a hand-loom weaver in which he urged his fellow workers to unite in an effort to keep their wages from declining. The Times suggested that it were better “to leave the manufacture itself for some more lucrative employment” rather than stand up to the losing battle of selling their labor in a market increasingly dominated by machines. And the Times found the weavers their fitting moral in the story of the printing press: “Before the invention of the art of printing, the transcription of manuscripts was a considerable trade, yielding high wages. Suppose the scribes thus employed had chosen to continue their profession after the use of moveable types, and to run a race with the press driven by a steam-engine, their wages would certainly have fallen to a rate inadequate to support existence” (13/12/33, p. 2). This same association of textual and textile production appeared in “The Art of Paper-Making” (1835) in Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, the other cheap weekly started in 1832 that, along with The Penny Magazine, redefined notions of what qualified as mass literary consumption. Probably written by Robert Chambers, the journal’s editor and major contributor, “The Art of Paper-Making” named the essential pioneers of mechanized paper production--the Fourdrinier brothers--“the Arkwrights of paper-making” (119), and part of Scott’s earlier jest about mechanized creativity in Tales of the Crusaders was pronounced to have become a reality of sorts: “When we behold so great a triumph of mechanical art, one may almost be pardoned for doubting whether the wonderful machine jocularly hinted at by the Author of Waverley, where undressed flax is put in one end and comes out at the other in the shape of finished ruffled shirts, washed, dressed and all, be all together chimerical!” (120).

By the early 1830s, the power-loom and the steam-press had become established fixtures in the nation’s economy and in the nation’s imagination. Instruments for replacing manual labor, the power-loom and the steam-press could highlight conflicts between humans and machines, but they were also, along with other manufacturing devices, the subject of a celebratory rhetoric greeting them as agents for reducing human toil even as some machines were given animated, human-like qualities. These works included general portraits, such as Charles Babbage’s On the Economy of Machines and Manufactures (1st ed., 1832), while a more specialized literature focused on textile manufacturing, with two major works--Edward Baines’s History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1835) and Andrew Ure’s Cotton Manufactures in Great Britain (1836)--appearing before the public within months of each other.[9] Shadowing both kinds of publications was an extensive commentary about the new abilities to produce print. This discourse had important antecedents, but two new factors distinguished it. First, machinery was now responsible for the making of the most widely distributed forms of print media. Before the 1820s, printing shops were scenes of replication, but that replication was fundamentally manual, with ink meeting paper by the pull of a lever. Second, and mostly thanks to the revival of wood engraving, print was more frequently illustrated as image and text were integrated on the page in ways that were not feasible when copper and steel plates were used. In terms specific to the history of Britain’s illustrated press, Tennyson’s poem came of age in a period bounded by the inaugural publication of The Penny Magazine in March of 1832 and the Illustrated London News, the nation’s first successful illustrated newspaper that began publishing in May of 1842. The same period was the heyday as well of the expensive, illustrated annuals such as The Keepsake and The Tribute (two that Tennyson contributed to).[10] These were the preconditions for the linguistic shift, described by Martin Meisel, when “the pictorial sense of ‘illustration’ came to speak for itself”: "Exemplification and enhancement by any means were inherited meanings that persisted in the word; but the pictorial illustration that we have in mind nowadays when we speak of a book with illustrations was not taken for granted before the 1820s, that is to say before the rapid effect of a series of technological innovations on the production of illustrated books" (Realizations 30).

Two other examples can help us to understand how the trade in printed products was tending to be understood on terms that could escape the rule of letters and approach the form of pictorial narration we must imagine issuing, like Philomela’s tapestry, from the Lady of Shalott’s loom. This trend is visible in another article from the Times, “The Art of Printing in 1832,” that appeared in August of that year. It begins by referring to a past prediction that the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars would decrease the demand for “daily and periodical papers.” To the contrary, the Times notes “how a much wider range of action has been thrown open to the art of printing, with all its mechanical resources.” And in this case, the contemplation of “the machinery of a first-rate cotton mill, with an 8-horse power steam engine,” was a chance to underscore how the Times’ own “printing concern” was an even more efficient example of achieving the factory system’s essential goal, reducing the expenditure of manual labor. This tribute to the merits of industrialized printing then blossoms into a discussion of how the press’s “diffusion of information” was increasingly integrated with the diffusion of imagery. And the “views or delineations” that appeared on so many printed pages were now satisfying the same desires that panoramas and dioramas did on “a still larger scale” (1/8/32, p. 5).

A manifesto for a new visual culture chiefly powered by the press, “The Art of Printing in 1832” would have its claims and insights vastly expanded in “The New Art of Printing,” a serio-comic piece that appeared in Blackwood’s in 1844. This essay hailed the end of conventional, logocentric reading and the dawn of a new age when the press would chiefly convey images “for the more ready transmission of ideas.” “Every thing is communicated by delineation,” wrote Catherine Gore. “We are not told, but shown how the world is wagging. . . . All the world is now instructed by symbols, as formerly the deaf and dumb; and instead of having to peruse a tedious penny-a-line account of the postilion of the King of the French misdriving his Majesty, and his Majesty’s august family, over a draw-bridge into a moat at Treport, a single glance at a single woodcut places the whole disaster graphically before us” (47).


If we are looking for a time when a British poet might discover his predicament--both his problems and his opportunities--in a story featuring reapers, rote textile production, and a startling visual abundance, there is no more promising period than the three decades following Waterloo, an era that saw the development of a new visual economy, the widespread establishment of the factory system, and the political prominence of a related debate about agricultural tariffs that helped to preserve the high status of land owners at the expense of urban manufacturing classes. Recognizing “The Lady of Shalott” as an artifact from a period defined, in good measure, by the agency and visibility of the steam-press and the power-loom does not, however, entail the rejection of other interpretations that are ungrounded in that history. In Edgar Shannon’s classic humanist reading of the poem, for example, nineteenth-century modes of producing texts and textiles do not figure at all in an exegesis that prefers resources ranging from Plato’s allegory of the cave to Paul’s metaphysics of vision (“Poetry as Vision” 211; 221). Such commentary is authorized by some of Tennyson’s most programmatic works. In longer poems ranging from “The Palace of Art” (1832, 1842)--where the poet’s un-regenerate soul is enthroned as “Lord of the visible earth” (179)--to “The Holy Grail” (1869), Tennyson seems eager to endorse an orthodox hierarchy of the material and the spiritual, a creed given paradigmatic formulation at the opening of In Memoriam (1850):

Strong Son of God, immortal Love,

 Whom we, that have not seen thy face,

 By faith, and faith alone, embrace,

Believing where we cannot prove

“Prologue” 1-4

“We have but faith: we cannot know,” the Prologue continues: “For knowledge is of the things we see” (21-2). “The Lady of Shalott” displays its own understanding of how the crisis of modernity was a crisis of visibility. But in doing so, Tennyson’s poem calls upon more than these ancient theoretical juxtapositions of the material and the spiritual (defined as the unseen). And the subject of the visual, for the historical critic at least, needs to be considered in relation to relevant technologies of visibility--and the increased visibility of mechanical technology.

Focusing on how and why Lancelot’s appearance in the mirror is so pivotal to “The Lady of Shalott,” I now want to show how Tennyson’s version of the famous knight represents this emergent come-hither economy of desire as far as it spoke to the wandering eyes of Victorian consumers. Structurally paired with the reapers, Lancelot ultimately replaces these rural workers as the text’s authoritative internal interpreter of the Lady. And where those reapers knew the Lady by auditory report, Lancelot will pronounce his reading of her based on a purely visual level of experience. The best place to start discussing “The Lady of Shalott” in great detail is this concluding scenario, where the fourth part ends, as all of the parts do, with the poem’s only instances of directly reported speech, in this case Lancelot’s final comment, "‘She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy lend her grace, / The Lady of Shalott’" (169-71). This ending has engendered a great deal of disagreement among critics; and the starkest differences tend to take shape around the sufficiency of Lancelot’s comment, whether or not his praise for the Lady’s beauty is a laudable tribute to be distinguished from the crowd’s less positive reaction, or an exposure of his oblivion to the fact that his dazzling appearance brought the dead creature into their midst.[11] Does Lancelot step forward to become a hero in an aesthetic romance of devotion to the face of things? Or does he merely reveal his own severely limited vision? The important point to make here is how this critical dilemma reiterates one a reader ought to have concerning the Lady’s central action, her turn away from her mirror to view the outside scene directly (109-17). Is this a moment of positive development and self-assertion? Or is it a self-destructive act that brings the artist and her art to an end? Lancelot, in other words, does not merely judge the Lady of Shalott: he resembles her. Like the Lady, he is a singer, and he takes her place by becoming the poem’s final reflective observer, one who is given a poetic task--he “mused” (168) after all--grounded in a visual experience that is forced upon him.

Understanding Lancelot and the Lady as subjects of the same poetic system is the key step to grasping how a series of implicit antitheses--including Shalott and Camelot, female and male, rural and urban, private and public, author and audience, stationary and mobile--are the working parts in a poetic cycle whose real subject is a ceaseless form of desire incited by the eye. The nature of this desire is primal and infinite--like the poem’s river that “runs for ever” (12). But it also reflects new systems of mechanical replication and reproduction. As Herbert Tucker has suggested with his characterization of the flagrant similes describing Lancelot’s entrance--“their rhetorical prominence shows how mechanically the erotic furnaces of part III are stoked” (112)--Tennyson’s romance is no cold pastoral but partially powered by steam. Here we have to consider the poem’s formal character and learn to describe it--despite its flowery reputation--as repetitive and mechanical. The poem’s basic formal entity is a nine-line stanza rhyming aaaabcccb, with the fifth line always ending in “Camelot” and the ninth line always ending in “Shalott,” a pattern to which there are only two exceptions. This form embodies the poem’s thematic and spatial contrasting of Camelot and Shalott, and it distills within each stanza a version of the entire poem’s depiction of a cyclical physical trajectory. In any given stanza, the reader makes a journey to “Camelot,” but this arrival then gives way to a terminal confrontation with “Shalott,” the place where the Lady’s journey began and the word by which she is known. Most important of all, the poem’s regular and repetitive procession mimics the Lady’s incessant weaving. As it shuttles back and forth between “Camelot” and “Shalott” in the course of each stanza, the poem--like the Lady--“weaveth steadily” (43). All of these repetitive qualities remind us too that the signifier “The Lady of Shalott” has multiple referents: the phrase names the Lady in the poem, the boat that brings her before a viewing public, and the text that tells her tale.

Like the proliferating entities that correspond to “The Lady of Shalott,” “Lancelot” is also destined to be multiplied, and a visually acute reading of the poem suggests that it is not simply the appearance of Lancelot in the Lady’s mirror that causes her crisis; it is his association with a transformative level of visual reflection and refraction. As many critics have pointed out (Ricks 75; Joseph 107), Lancelot flashes into the mirror from two distinct spots: “From the bank and from the river” (105). He appears, in other words, both as a direct reflection and as a reflection of his prior reflection on the river that he rides by. In a brilliantly redundant gesture, Tennyson highlights this moment by having it occur at the only time when he rhymes a word with itself. Here the first “river” is visually doubled on either side of the word “mirror,” the poem’s central noun of visual replication:

From the bank and from the river

He flashed into the crystal mirror,

‘Tirra lirra,’ by the river

 Sang Sir Lancelot.


The kaleidoscopic character of this flashing is heightened by the fact that Tennyson initially describes Lancelot in reflective terms: he and his horse, both highly ornamented, throw back the sun’s “dazzling” light in a number of ways (73-108). And Lancelot sports, as well, his own concise pictorial narrative, a shield depicting a “red-cross knight” kneeling before a “lady” (78-80). This image of a knight and a lady (in a poem about a lady and a knight) will soon appear in the mirror in two forms, one directly from the shield itself, the other from a light-speed iteration of the river’s reflective surface. What makes this a virtual visual wonderland is the fact that none of the images of lady or knight have the privilege of an original over a copy.

While the poem’s climactic repetition takes place on a mirror that “crack[s] from side to side” (115), part III is more generally constructed in terms of literal and figurative repetitions that can be seen and heard. Tennyson has parts I, II, and IV consistently engage in a form of repetition focused on the end of each line. Part III, however, builds to a final stanza in which repetition also occurs at the inception of and within the poetic line:

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces through the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

 She looked down to Camelot.


In this same part, the single verb repeatedly associated with Lancelot reveals the traveling knight to be, like the Lady, a creature of repetition. For Lancelot is described as doing exactly the same thing six times: “he rode” appears in lines 74, 86, 89, 95, 103, and 104. And this six-fold “he rode” is mimicked by the Lady’s six-fold activity as portrayed in the formulaic binomials of third person pronoun followed by single syllable verb: “She left,” “she left,” “She made,” “She saw,” “She saw,” and “She looked” (109-15). Tennyson would strengthen the terms of this resemblance in his revisions for the 1842 version by changing the direction of Lancelot’s travel. Three times the 1832 text reads, “As he rode down from Camelot,” while the 1842 text has him riding “down to Camelot” (86, 95, 104). In the revised version the Lady repeats Lancelot’s journey, and his movement is linked to the Lady’s fatal act of speculation, her looking “down to Camelot” (113, emphasis mine). In its portrayal of the moment before Lancelot’s final pronouncement, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1857 illustration for the poem embodies this state of resemblance (fig. 9). Rossetti clearly depicts only a small portion of the left side of the Lady’s face which is primarily illuminated by a torch thrust downward, while the left side of Lancelot’s face is mostly brought to light from the candles poised over the Lady’s head. This candled canopy recalls Lancelot’s prominent helmet in part III even as it obscures the Lady’s features along the same facial plane marked by Lancelot’s hat. It is a synchronic statement of unity for the two characters, an image of togetherness suggested by the earlier lines, “The helmet and the helmet-feather / Burned like one burning flame together” (93-4).[13]

Figure 9

-> Voir la liste des figures

In this reading of the poem, then, Lancelot is disqualified from playing the role that so many insist upon, that he is an avatar of a passionate engagement with life or reality that is to be contrasted with the theory and practice of aesthetic retirement. Lancelot is better understood as an illustration of a visual overload that can take place in either Shalott or Camelot. “The world outside the tower,” as Armstrong writes, “is equally a confusion of reflection, image and figure” (Victorian Poetry 86). And Lancelot is not only the fiery, masculine, and experienced foil to the Lady’s innocently embowered isolation. He represents a new visual economy in which the distinction between the real and the merely represented has been challenged under the pressure of new powers of representation and replication, powers that are vying to be the age’s defining reality. His contribution to any plot said to reaffirm a stark distinction between the real and the represented is certainly undermined by his participation in the poem’s only two departures from its basic “Camelot-Shalott” pattern. In the first stanza of part III “Lancelot” takes the place of “Camelot,” while in the same part’s fourth stanza “Lancelot” takes the place of “Shalott” (77, 108). Standing in for either place, either word, with equal grace, Lancelot is fully adapted to a world in which appearances are realities.

At the center of “The Lady of Shalott” is a mirror, and one cannot help seeing it, in part, as a traditional correlative of contemplative reflection. But just as importantly, this mirror is dialectically allied to the spectacles and capacities for mass production that would be memorialized in the Great Exhibition of 1851.[14] And when Tennyson’s Lady herself takes on the attributes of a mirror--“With a glassy countenance / Did she look to Camelot” (130-1)--she is further associated with the same materials and mechanics of visibility that would make Joseph Paxton’s “Crystal Palace” both the showcase for and the emblem of that Exhibition. [15] Like the Exhibition, “The Lady of Shalott” was designed to draw a spectacular crowd, a group of on-lookers given new scopic privileges even as the epistemological fruit of this experience inconclusively hangs in the balance. While Tennyson’s In Memoriam, as noted earlier, slowly but surely confesses to a faith in the unseen that is contrasted with verifiable visibility--“For knowledge is of things we see” (22)--“The Lady of Shalott” casts doubt on this old and ultimately comforting order of things. The three prominent questions in the poem’s first part link the Lady’s initial invisibility to incomplete knowledge of character: “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?” (24-7). Given the ensuing disclosure that the lady is only known by “echoes” (the aural equivalents of reflections) of her song, there is an internal logic to the reaper’s conclusion that she is a “fairy” (35). Later, when the Lady proves to be mortal and becomes visible to all those gathered in Camelot, her “fairy” character is naturalized into fair attributes, her possession of “a lovely face” (169). But in becoming visible she remains essentially unknowable beyond the terms of Lancelot’s final pronouncement. Indeed, the conclusion of Tennyson’s poem endows its own sustained problem: How do we know the Lady of Shalott when we do see her? She would become, after all, an increasingly recognizable figure even as she would remain a mystery. And with this vexed identity--one that combines physical presence with interpretive opacity--she embodies a deeply conflicted reaction to the century’s evolving visual abundance. For some, the period’s capacity to mass-produce imagery was leading to new levels of cultural verisimilitude as the visible was equated with the verifiable. Others feared that the new powers to represent life, objects, and emanations of the imagination fueled a broader drift toward social subjectivity or illusionist predicaments.[16] As life was increasingly illustrated, were observers being illuminated or deluded? As our proverbs (or clichés) remind us, “seeing is believing”--but “appearances can be deceiving.”


In talking about the Lady of Shalott it is easy to slip into a mode--as I have just done--where she takes on a life of her own, a life that was related early on to the poem’s susceptibility to illustration. Unhappy with Hunt’s 1857 depiction of the Lady “with her hair wildly tossed about as if by a tornado,” Tennyson would plead that “the illustrator should always adhere to the words of the poet” (Hunt 2.124-5). But in Tennyson’s day and in ours, the Lady of Shalott has been free of such intentions, aided, in part, by new levels of vendible visuality. And while the poem features an imprisoned lady who escapes only to die, that Lady is possessed of a kind of power that cannot be limited to the service of patriarchal fantasies about women wasting away for the love of men. “We may allegorize her into the artist,” writes Nina Auerbach, “the poet’s anima, a fragile divinity, an heretical anti-divinity, and a great deal more, but she carries a suggestive resonance beyond these clarifications, weaving a myth that belongs to herself alone . . . . Perhaps because her myth is solely her own, not an exemplary tale into which she must fit herself, it is not King Arthur but this difficult creature who has become the haunting icon of her own day” (11). Commenting on the pictorial tradition, the art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn similarly speculates about a creature evading authorial and critical determination:

Through multiple representations the Lady of Shalott has come to seem the most quintessentially ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ of images. Moreover, her image evolves collaboratively among the works of a variety of artists. Tennyson was right to worry, for who can forget the images when rereading the poem? . . . We are accustomed to thinking of Pre-Raphaelite art as one that leaves no detail unclear, yet despite the vividness of her various incarnations the Lady remains radically indeterminate. She may be a sexualised woman; she may be the victim of patriarchal oppression; she may be an allegory for the artist; she may be a fairy prophet. At the end of the twentieth century, though, we may perhaps rejoice that the Lady has eluded the attempts of patriarchal societies, either hers or ours, to fix her meanings.


Both of these commentaries feature a form of aesthetic animation, a transgression of the border between life and art that is encouraged by the reproductive networks that make the mass production of visual media possible. And Tennyson’s poetic voice was in his own day described in terms--both complimentary and critical--that can help us to understand how he caught the ear of his readers by speaking so frankly to their eyes. For Arthur Hallam, writing in 1831, Tennyson’s status as a poet of “sensation” was closely connected to his visual acuity, "his vivid, picturesque delineation of objects" (192).[17] This was rivaled by what Hallam stressed was an equally perceptive ear, but the visual trumps the aural in his description of Shelley and Keats, whose true heir, Hallam insists, Tennyson was:

Rich and clear were their perceptions of visible forms; full and deep their feelings of music. So vivid was the delight attending the simple exertions of eye and ear, that it became mingled more and more with their trains of active thought, and tended to absorb their whole being into the energy of sense. Other poets seek for images to illustrate their conceptions; these men had no need to seek; they lived in a world of images.


Writing more than thirty years later, Walter Bagehot defined Tennyson as an “ornate” poet, and Hallam’s positive poetic power to live in a world of images was redefined as a knack for meeting consumer demand for “accessories” (348). With readers purchasing copies of Tennyson’s Enoch Arden (1864) by the ten-thousand, Bagehot enjoyed the deflating task of characterizing the collection’s title-poem as a bad faith exercise in dressing up a working man to be fit to enter the parlor: “he has given us a sailor crowded all over with ornament and illustration” (349).[18] Defining Robert Browning’s poetry as “grotesque” in the same essay, Bagehot claimed it was characteristic of the age that these two showy stylists were grabbing attention in a culture coming to be dominated by the undiscerning tastes of the middle classes. “[S]cattered, headless; . . . well-meaning but aimless; wishing to be wise, but ignorant how to be wise,” Bagehot’s bourgeois literary consumers “take, not pure art, but showy art; not that which permanently relieves the eye and makes it happy whenever it looks, and as long as it looks, but glaring art which catches and arrests the eye for a moment, but which in the end fatigues it” (365).

Bagehot’s faith in an alternative form of “pure” art is too innocent by far, but his pronouncement that his times had a defining relationship to the spectacular has been repeated in different forms by a variety of scholars of the period.[19] There is no doubt, in any case, that “The Lady of Shalott” is a visually prolific text. Inspired by new forms of visual abundance, it spawned remarkable levels of visual reproduction. And any larger account of this history of cultural production would have to reckon with the fact that the Lady’s name is legion. Just as I began by asserting the kinship of Waterhouse’s “Destiny” to explicit representations of Tennyson’s poem, others have spotted the Lady of Shalott’s veiled presence in settings technically unsponsored by Tennyson. “The Awakening Conscience” (1854; London, Tate), for instance, another Hunt painting in which viewers face a lady, a mirror, and a reflected exterior, has been linked to Hunt’s earliest extent study for his 1857 illustration of the poem (Peters Corbett 79; Meisel, “‘Half Sick of Shadows’” 334; Prettejohn 225; Wagstaff 14). By the same token, John Everett Millais’s “Mariana” (1851; London, Tate) is not merely a response to Tennyson’s poem of that name, but yet another oblique tribute to “The Lady of Shalott.” In Millais’s painting, the female protagonist’s wearying task of mimesis is again an art of the distaff, the detailed embroidering (not in the poem itself) of an autumnal scene perceived through a window that is a looking glass of sorts: as it depicts the Annunciation, this portrayal of the revelation of the heavenly espousal of God and Mary is a mirror image of Mariana’s perpetually unespoused condition. Here again the essential thread in the pictorial tradition’s allegiance to Tennyson’s poem is the commitment to represent art’s replication of life within an aesthetic frame. And on these terms the first public event for the PRB--the exhibition of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Girlhood of Mary Virgin” (1849; London, Tate)--is also a legible refraction of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” Like the figure in Millais’s “Mariana” and like Tennyson’s Lady in part III of the poem, Rossetti’s Mary is depicted as she pauses in the act of “picture-making on cloth” (Meisel, “Half Sick of Shadows” 326), copying a lily in this case.[20]

Study the remains of Victorian visual culture for some time, and one can develop the conspiratorial impression that the Lady of Shalott is almost everywhere. Along with the fictive denizens of Camelot at the close of Tennyson’s poem, we are compelled to confront shades of the Lady in surprising places. These include a number of ambitious oil paintings by artists such as Hunt, Waterhouse, Millais and Rossetti, but they also include instances of widely circulated illustrations such as John Tenniel’s “The Haunted Lady, or ‘The Ghost’ in the Looking-Glass” (1863), an image from Punch that deploys a mirror to recall how upper-class sartorial beauty was linked to low-paying, insalubrious female toil. In the same decade, George du Maurier’s five-part illustrated parody "The Legend of Camelot" appeared in the same serial and gives convincing testimony to the ways in which Tennyson’s poem was considered a privileged source for a larger cultural phenomenon that included by the 1860s the pictorial works of Rossetti, Hunt, and Millais, as well as the poetry and design work of William Morris.

Seeing the Lady of Shalott in so many places has made knowing her all the more challenging, all the more life-like. While other poets would inspire non-verbal illustrations, Tennyson’s poem has no competition for the scale and repetitive quality of its visual descendents. Others have given plausible explanations for the ubiquity of “The Lady of Shalott” in the nineteenth-century imagination (Gribble 3-4); and the frequency of her reproduction bears out Elaine Scarry’s observation that beauty “seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication” (3). This essay has made the more pointed case that this proliferation was in part founded on the poem’s formal responsiveness to a new visual economy that paralleled other industries that had been transformed by machinery.[21] As a nineteenth-century writer who found a mercurial muse in machinery, Tennyson is joined by many others both well remembered and forgotten. He stands out, however, in his early willingness to give to the visual itself a new cultural centrality, one that could seem to be colluding with but also challenging a logocentric cultural ideal. Living in a world of images, to borrow Hallam’s phrase again, was not just an ideal for poets of sensation in the 1830s and later; it was the visual context that increasingly defined commerce, aesthetics, and, of course, politics.

Parties annexes