‘…Just as the storm clouds often slay
The scarcely breathing new born day.’ 1
One of the most popular of Tennyson’s poems, The Lady of Shalott relates the tragic story of an extremely lonely young lady longing for a soulmate. A poem of “technical virtuosity, inspired landscape-painting based on precise observation, and a dreamworld of artistic beauty denying the commonplace”2, “turning to beauty as a possibility of a more complete life”3, it is one of the highlights of the author’s early years.
This paper shall attempt to prove my opinion that the work is very much parallel to an even more famous Russian narrative poem finished about the same year as The Lady of Shalott. I will omit discussing the poem’s popular critical interpretation concerning “the conflict between the artist’s own sensual vision and his need to experience life directly”4 — I’ll rather concentrate on my individual, rather alienated thoughts and feelings arised during the reading, and I will not go into Arthurian considerations, either.
Concerning both the subject of a yearning, introverted young lady and the bleak solution, Tennyson’s poem may be readily compared to two other, albeit larger scale, masterpieces of the early 1830’s — Balzac’s “Eugenie Grandet” and, even more notably, Pushkin’s “Onegin” –, each dealing with the same kind of pastoral, embowered, dreamy, grave and generally misunderstood girls or young women. This ‘caste’ sticks out of its rustic environment like a sore thumb, often being regarded by their own relatives and acquaintances as hopeless misfits, spinsters or nuns to be; being highly sensitive, imaginative and deep-feeling, they find it exceptionally hard, even actually impossible, to become accepted and understood within their immediate environment made up of generally cruder and simpler sorts. Thus, these girls feel obliged to create a world of their own as a progressive act of counterbalance and self-condolence, rich with remnants of childhood fantasy, romantic works they’ve read and an air of bittersweet wistfulness. Pushkin’s memorable portrayal of Tatyana as a child may well resemble the early years of the Shalott Lady:
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“She was no beauty, like her sister,
And had no roses on her cheeks,
Which would attract admiring looks.
A wild thing, mournful and retiring,
Like a doe seen in a forest clearing,
In the midst of all her kith and kin
She seemed like something alien.
She could not manage a caress
With ma or pa, or a soft touch.
Herself a child, in the crowd of infants,
She had no wish to play or dance,
And often on the window sill
All day she sat, silent and still.”5
It is presumable that the Lady is in her twenties, thus she’s the same age as Eugenie or Tatyana. Tennyson does not reveal her past, dealing only with her present continuous.
As if to emphasize her isolation from all human affairs, the reader is made conscious of the constant flow of life around the island of Shalott. The Lady’s peaceful singing before the occurrence with Lancelot is just like Tatyana’s pastoral life before the appearance of Onegin: innocent, harmless, bittersweet, secretive and longing. The reader gets the impression that the Lady has been singing this song for a long time now.
“His [Tennyson’s] words project colorful, living reality constantly like the mirror of the Lady in the tower”6. We may draw a parallel between the shadow of the real, material world reflected in the Lady’s magic mirror, and Tatyana’s vivid fantasizing about being the heroines of all the romantic pieces she reads. Both of them view life through their own peculiar, distanced way that stands between them and life itself; and they don’t feel like giving their ways up, being locked into a durable pattern.
“From separate catastrophes, two rural families flee to the city and find themselves sharing a great, breathing, shuddering joint called Cloudstreet, where they begin their lives again from scratch. For twenty years they roister and rankle, laugh and curse until the roof over their heads becomes a home for their hearts. ” (Winton, 1991) Tim Winton’s critically acclaimed novel, Cloudstreet is a ...
“She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down on Camelot.”
The mysterious whisper might be none else than her very own, girlish fear of life that prohibits her from opening up to unbridled passion, thus becoming a Woman; a kind of self-delusion not at all unfamiliar to the mental world of her ‘soulsister’ Tatyana; as she gives it away in her letter to Onegin:
“Why did you come to visit us?
In this forgotten rural home
Your face I never would have known,
Nor known this bitter suffering.”7
It is the curse of her own passionate love, banging, from within, on the sealed gates of a secluded, silent life — the curse of inner conflict between the old, harmless, innocent, girlish, grayish, habitual lifestyle, and the new one: just the one she has been secretly yearning for years, at least ever since she stepped into early adolescence.
“My life till now was but a pledge,
Of meeting with you, a forward image;
You were sent by Heaven of that I’m sure,
To the grave itself you are my saviour…”8
This correlates the equally crucial lines:
“‘I am half sick of shadows’, said
The Lady of Shalott.”
“She is just becoming aware of the inadequacy of her life as she contemplates the young lovers she sees in the mirror.”9 Enter Lancelot, who is, of course, the Lady’s unwitting ‘Onegin’; her behavior displayed at this point much resembles that of Tatyana upon realising that she’s in love with the man she only saw once. This behavior involves an almost apocalyptic sense of novelty and a sudden disdain of all that is worn and habitual (note how the Lady tosses away her web and the mirror gets cracked).
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson became a will known poet that writes of things that affect her perspective on life. Her poems are so truthful and so insightful because most of her poems are about what she encounters. She wrote some poems based on her point of view of things that influenced her life. Her poetry writings seems like journals because the poem "A Solemn Thing- -it was- ...
These male figures in both poems are the symbols of personality and fulfillment in the vast scene of the world’s growth and beauty; these men seem to the ladies to provide an even more specific promise: the achievement of individual identity. Both the Lady and Tatyana display a most impersonal attitude to their surroundings, as they always did; when their ‘knights’ finally enter their life, they become extremely personal all of a sudden. Lancelot is the first person to be named in the poem, and he seems to guarantee the validity of names and their ability to give permanence and meaning to the self.
“‘The curse is come upon me’, cried
The Lady of Shalott.”
The same turning point in Onegin:
“Ah, nanny, nanny, my heart is breaking,
I’m sick, my dearest nanny, dearest,
I want to cry, I want to sob!..”
The Lady proceeds to embark on a boat ride “like some bold seer in a trance” to reach Lancelot; she scribbles her name on the prow of the boat to claim the promise of personality Lancelot had, in her mind, held out for her. This is in concert with Tatyana’s trancelike, but more realistic, scribbling of her letter that eventually leads to her devastating, invalidating, face-to-face confrontation with Onegin, who doesn’t really want to do anything with her. The final stanza of the Tennyson poem also depicts a kind of face-to-face situation that corresponds with the aforementioned scene in Onegin: unwitting Lancelot gazes intently at the now dead Lady, wishing her a blissful afterlife, remarking “she has a lovely face”. This remark is absurdly inadequate, and again, extremely invalidating, to the emotionally saturated tragedy of the Lady.
According to E.A.Poe, “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”.10 The degree of impact of the male figures on the lives of their respective ‘victims’ seems to differ considerably at first. The actual impact is all but the same in significance: the Lady dies as a result of her thoughtless, hasty flight in the boat, and as for Tatyana, well, she doesn’t pass away physically:
“Indeed, far worse, with cheerless desire
Wretched Tatyana is on fire,
Silence is golden. Although this is a trite comment about the value of soundless ness, it often rings true. However, silence can also be used as a weapon to inflict heavy amounts of emotional damage. Supposing a wife cheated on her husband and decided to keep silent about the whole event, but the husband found out about the affair through a good friend of his, what then The husband, if he is more ...
And sleep deserts her bed completely.
Health, life’s colour and its sweetness,
Her smile and girlish serene calm
Quite disappeared, as empty sound,
And fair Tatyana’s youth then faded;
Just as the storm clouds often slay
The scarcely breathing new born day.”
Tennyson physically ‘kills off’ his protagonist, putting an inevitable end to the story, while Pushkin, basically a realist writer, keeps her alive in order to be able to draw a verisimilar circle encompassing many years.
At the end of his narrative poem, 32-year-old Pushkin, who was a bonvivant, an early dandy who knew womanfolk exceptionally well, admits Tatyana as his “true ideal”11 of woman; with all his experience and disillusion, he wishes for himself a spouse that would be chaste, loyal, serious and not too sociable.
As for 22-year-old Tennyson, he seems to condemn Pushkin’s ideal spouse for being lifeless and joyless. His Lady, however, perfectly embodies the Victorian image of the ideal woman: virginal, embowered, spiritual and mysterious, definitely of the Tatyana-caste. The young poet speaks about the Lady in a tone that is slightly compassionate, affectionate, condescending and ironic at the same time. The broadest, most general irony of the poem is that the Lady simply exchanges one kind of imprisonment for another; her presumed freedom is her death.
She dies by freezing in the cold of the night. Tatyana, also looking for love in the wrong place, is turned down by an ice-cold Onegin, her heart permanently frozen to death.
The Lady is most commonly seen as a form of the artist, and doubtless her absorption in weaving the web (and singing) suggests that. But the poem as a whole can also be interpreted as an allegory of adolescence, a time when the quiet, protected idyll of childhood comes besieged by the blooming passion of sensuality; when this passion gets denied and restrained for too long — in this case, well into young adulthood –, it tends to burst out suddenly, violently — and in this case, tragically — upon unexpected stimulus arriving from the outer world. According to E. Nelson, “the real dilemma is one that can be neither judged nor solved. The Lady must obey and must defy the curse.”12
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The bottom line is that the same applies to Tatyana, doomed heroine of a poem with a more realistic approach. The two works, written at the same time but not nearly the same place, deal with the same subject of embowered, escapist young ladies, and arrive at the same conclusion of the very basic truth: Life cannot be evaded for too long–the pendulum needs to swing out to both sides.
1 Onegin, Book 4
2 Világirodalmi lexikon 15. kötet, 313. o.
3 Az európai irodalom története, 520. o.
4 E. Nelson: The Lady of Shalott
5 Onegin, Book 2
6 Az európai irodalom története, 520. o.
7 Onegin, Book 3
8 Onegin, Book 4
9 E. Nelson: The Lady of Shalott
10 E.A. Poe: The Philosophy of Composition
11 Onegin, Book 8
12 E. Nelson: The Lady of Shalott
Elizabeth Nelson: The Lady of Shalott (Ladies of Shalott: a Victorian masterpiece and its contexts, ed. G. Landow, Brown U., 1979)
Edgar Allen Poe: Complete Works (Wordsworth, Hertfordshire, 1993)
M. Babits: Az európai irodalom törtenete (Nyugat kiadó, Budapest, without date)
Világirodalmi lexikon 15. kötet: Tennyson (Akadémiai, Budapest, 1993)
A. Pushkin: Onegin (Oxquarry Books, London, 2001)