"The Lady of Shalott"

Elizabeth Nelson


Decorative Initial T

he Lady of Shalott," one of the most popular of Tennyson's poems, inspired painters throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. The five most popular subjects for illustration were

These five subjects reveal a great deal about the Victorians' conception of love and women.

William Holman Hunt, who remained interested in the poem throughout his career, created the most famous visual portrayal (now in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford) of its subject, but many other artists, including John William Waterhouse, s, Sidney Harold Meteyard, Arthur Hughes, and John Atkinson Grimshaw, created their own versions. The designs that Hunt and Rossetti made for "The Lady of Shalott" in Moxon's edition of Tennyson's poetry (1857) produced a new awareness of the poem's pictorial potential. After the Moxon edition the publication of many illustrated books of Tennyson's poetry provided such artists as Walter Crane and Howard Pyle (who created luxurious books illustrating the single poem) the opportunity to create atmospheric and exotic images by representing various scenes from the life of the Lady, as well by representing analogous subjects, such as Doré's Elaine and Millais's Mariana, of which he did both a wood engraving and a painting. Each artist interpreted the poem in his own way, drawing upon the imagery of the poem itself, prior interpretations and related subjects, current literary interpretations and his own predilections. As documents of popular opinion and attitudes, these works reveal much about the Victorians' conception of love and women, a subject that this essay will explore. In order to appreciate the different visual interpretations of "The Lady of Shalott," one must address its literary source, the relationship of the poem to its historical period, and the different artistic interpretations it has generated -- critics and artists having interpreted the poem in a number of ways, the most popular of which include variations on the themes of the embowered lady isolated from life and love and the conflict between the artist's own sensual vision and his need to experience life directly.

The poem's popularity rests, more than anything else, on its embodiment of the highly complex Victorian conception of woman, and the correlative Victorian attitude toward the home. The overwhelming problems Victorian England faced created a psychological need to retreat into the safety of the home where delicate spiritual values could be protected and preserved. Thus the home became a special place set apart; it assumed the nature of the sacred enclosed garden or hortus conclusus, and the woman as center of the home -- responsible for the spiritual well-being of the family -- assumed an importance previously inconceivable. She became the guiding light to her husband, the means by which his very soul could be saved, and at the same time her enshrinement as the pure woman enhanced her sexual desirability. Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, who could not be more unattainable, perfectly embodies the Victorian image of the ideal woman: virginal, embowered, spiritual and mysterious, dedicated to her womanly tasks.

The tension Tennyson establishes between the interior room and the exterior world, between the natural, material world and the shadow of that world reflected in the Lady's magic mirror, gives expression to the Victorian preoccupation with the contrast between the exterior and the interior worlds. The concomitant ambiguity of space and realities -- the realities of the exterior world, the Lady's interior world, the reflections of both worlds in the mirror, and the reality of the material work of art -- provided artists with an interesting aesthetic play of space and reality.

The Embowered Woman: Pictorial Interpretations of "The Lady of Shalott"

Elizabeth Nelson


Decorative Initial The isolation of the embowered woman, which carries the theme of the woman at the window to a further extreme, became a major subject for artists during the nineteenth century (See Eitner). Often she appeared as the romantic victim of love in paintings like Millais's Mariana, in which the disconsolate heroine of Tennyson's lyric "Mariana" waits, cut off from the world, for her lover to come to her. In Millais's painting, like Waterhouse's 1915 representation of the Lady of Shalott (and unlike either poem), the woman weaves her tapestry in a richly appointed, artificial bower cut off from the world.

As Martin Meisel points out, in Millais's painting a stained-glass window, which depicts the Annunciation, separates Mariana from the natural world of life outside while stylized, artificial animals and floral motifs decorate the wall behind her, emblematic of the artificiality of her existence ("'Half Sick of Shadows': The Aesthetic Dialogue in Pre-Raphaelite Painting," in Nature and the Victorian Imagination 1977, 309--40). In Tennyson's poem the Lady's view of the world is restricted to reflections of the exterior world she sees in the large circular mirror in the background. Tennyson's Lady of Shalott is further removed from nature and the pageantry of life than Rossetti's Mary or Millais's Mariana. The Lady sees the exterior world, not through a window that opens onto real space and nature, but only as the shadow of that reality reflected in the magic mirror. Her curse does not allow her to appear at the casement where the exterior and interior worlds can meet and merge; she is totally cut off. The emphasis upon love and confinement of the woman becomes intensified in the fictional Lady of Shalott, a subject that allowed the artist's imagination more freedom of interpretation.

Artists like Waterhouse and Meteyard who wished to concentrate upon the emhowered Lady's desire for love usually illustrated part of the poem, when she sees the "young lovcrs lately wed." The full title of Waterhouse's painting I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott (cat. no. 66) refers to the Lady's newly aroused desire to share in the experience of life and love, which is what the "young lovers, lately wed" represented to her in her mirror. Waterhouse's Lady leans back from her loom with a wistful, girlish, and indecisive expression and contemplates the "pagent of life" and the "young lovers."

The embowered woman's erotic appeal is suggested by the fact that both women stretch to relieve muscles cramped from long and tedious hours of weaving, a position that displays the female figure. Mariana's posture, which expresses the boredom of her self-imposed imprisonment and the frustration that resulted from her intense longing, contrasts with the more relaxed position in which Waterhouse placed his Lady, who contemplates renouncing the shadows in her mirror in order to participate in life and love. Mariana's table in the background, which has been converted into an improvised altar with candles and triptych, and the stained-glass windows standing between her and the outside world suggest the withdrawn, isolated life one associates with a nun. Millais's painting reminds one of Newman's admonition that young women should enter convents rather than yield to the "temptation of throwing themsclves rashly away upon unworthy objects, transgressing their sense of propriety, and embittering their future life."'J Newman's dire forewarning, however, closely approaches the impending fate of the Lady of Shalott. In Waterhouse's painting, the Lady has not yet come to that fate; she is just becoming aware of the inadequacy of her life as she contemplates the young lovers she sees in the mirror.

The reflections of the young couple, the river, and Camelot in the mirror exist at a remove from the Lady's consciousness. The mirror reflection, the shadow of which she is "half-sick," serves to heighten the tension between the Lady's cloistered existence and the exterior world by opening up the space in the painting and providing a view of an island, a river, Camelot, and a bridge connecting that island with Camelot.

Sidney Harold Meteyard's painting of the same subject and title, "I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott, differs entirely from Waterhouse's; Meteyard emphasizes the sensual mood of the Lady's newly awakened sexual desire. Meteyard confines his embowered Lady in a narrow, cramped space in which her semireclining figure, her tapestry, and her mirror fill the picture plane. His use of predominantly blue hues, the color of the mirror in the poem, further heightens the intense sensual atmosphere. Leaning back against satin pillows, with closed eyes and head turned away from the viewer, the Lady appears lost in erotic reverie. Her tapestry contains a picture of Lancelot, whom she has not yet seen. The magic mirror in the background, with its blue-gray tonality, has the characteristics of a crystal ball in which the young lovers appear as in a vision, an imaginary bridge between the picture of Lancelot and herself. The mirror does not reflect an image of the real world as a mirror should; and in fact since Meteyard makes no reference to the exterior world or to the world of nature in the mirror, he apparently reverses the original meaning and function of the mirror so that it reflects the Lady's thoughts rather than cause them.

Lizzie Siddal, whose long courtship and unhappy marriage to Rossetti ended in suicide, seems to have identified with the more negative aspects of the embowered woman dying for love. Siddal's drawing The Lady of Shalott, one of the first known representations of the Lady of Shalott, illustrates the penultimate moment of the poem -- the Lady is seated at the loom, looking over her shoulder through the window into the exterior world as the web bursts and the mirror cracks. The mirror, in which the reflection of Lancelot can be seen, appears on the opposite wall. Like Waterhouse's version, this work clearly defines the interior world of the woman and the exterior world of the man.

Siddal's presentation of the Lady's environment as an austere room with a bare wooden floor contrasts with the warm sensuality of Waterhouse's "I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott. Whereas Waterhouse and William Maw Egley depict the Lady as a princess embroidering a tapestry to entertain herself in the luxurious surroundings of her castle bower, Siddal portrays her as a worker within "four gray walls." Siddal seems to define her by what she does whereas Waterhouse defines the Lady by her room appointments and her romantic longings and Meteyard defines her as a sensual being whose whole existence centers upon erotic desires.

Egley also defines the Lady by the luxury that surrounds her, in contrast to Tennyson's "four gray walls." Egley's Lady of Shalott presents the Lady in a richly appointed interior room. She has left the loom to look out at Lancelot, whose reflection appears in the mirror above her tapestry. Unlike Hunt's version of The Lady of Shalott, which illustrates the moment the curse descends upon the Lady and she realizes her fate, Egley concentrates upon the wistful yearning of a young maiden's love. The large window in the background provides a view of a romantic landscape and a river flowing into the unknown world, conveying the pensive mood and wistful longing of the Lady while emphasizing the contrast between the Lady's interior tower and the colorful exterior world of romance.

Adapted from "Tennyson and the Ladies of Shalott," Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts, Ed. George P. Landow, Brown U.: 1979.


Eitner, Lorenz. "The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism." Art Bulletin 37 (1955).

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