‘“She has a lovely face”’:1 Tennyson and ‘The Lady of Shalott’
‘“She has a lovely face”’:1 Tennyson and ‘The Lady of Shalott’
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’, a poem that met with intense criticism from its reviewers when it was first published in 1832, arguing that the poem prefigures the movement Tennyson is to make in the English ‘Idyls’ of 1842 toward a simplicity of diction and gaining the sympathies of a wide audience. The poem absorbs a Wordsworthian language and poetics from which Arthur Henry Hallam somewhat artificially separates it in his 1831 review of Tennyson’s Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, ‘On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, And on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson’. Wordsworth’s presence is clearly felt in the 1832 version of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, feeding Tennyson’s discussion of some of the poem’s major themes, although the level of borrowing from Wordsworth increases in the 1842 version of the poem, suggesting that Tennyson draws even more deeply from Wordsworth in 1842, both to assuage the critics and to search for a new poetic. The second part of the chapter briefly explores the linguistic and thematic connections between ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and Tennyson’s English ‘Idyls’, specifically ‘Dora’ and ‘The Gardener’s Daughter, Or, The Pictures’.
Tennyson turned to the Arthurian legend in ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (1832; revised 1842), although, characteristically, he declined to acknowledge the poem’s sources, claiming that the poem was influenced by ‘“an Italian novelette, Donna di Scalotta”’ rather than Malory’s Morte D’Arthur,2 even though the story has ‘no Arthur, and no Queen … no mirror, weaving, curse, song, river, or island’.3 F. J. Furnivall quotes Tennyson in January 1868 as saying:
I met the story first in some Italian novelle: but the web, mirror, island, etc., were my own. Indeed, I doubt whether I should ever have put it in that shape if I had been then aware of the Maid of Astolat in Mort Arthur.4
J. M. Gray suggests, however, that Tennyson may have ‘forgotten’ that Malory influenced the poem.5
The poem, published in 1832, met with intense criticism from its first reviewers, most notably and famously in 1833 from John Wilson Croker in the Quarterly Review.6 Tennyson was stung by the reviews, especially Croker’s, and reworked the poem for publication in 1842. The reworked poem ‘has acted as a barometer to chart the changing cultural pressures which have acted upon it at different times’,7 provoking a succession of critical responses, from New Critical readings
in which the Lady’s fate represents the life of the imagination being destroyed by a desire to enter active public life, to the playful post-structuralism of Geoffrey Hartman, for whom the Lady’s barge is a ‘floating signifier’ forever slipping beyond our interpretative grasp.8
(p.19) As Robert Douglas-Fairhurst confirms, the poem naturally gives rise to such a varied critical response, delighting in ‘half-revealing and half-concealing’9 and confessing ‘the inadequacy of our drive to make sense of the world even as it is laying tempting clues for us to follow’.10 Tennyson himself anticipated something of the poem’s ongoing critical appeal, a calculation he bases on the poem’s compact and exquisitely honed form: ‘“A small vessel, built on fine lines, is likely to float further down the stream of time than a big raft.”’11
The ‘fine lines’ of the poem to which Tennyson refers owe much to their rich visual detail, a feature of the language of sensation. ‘The Lady of Shalott’ is described as a poem of sensation and Tennyson, likewise, a poet of sensation. Arthur Henry Hallam, in his 1831 essay, ‘On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, And on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson’, written in response to Tennyson’s 1830 collection, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical, first defined the poetry of sensation, differentiating the poems of Shelley and Keats, whom he describes as writing a poetry of ‘sensation’, from those of Wordsworth, whom he describes as writing a ‘reflective’ poetry,12 in which he piles ‘his thoughts in a rhetorical battery, that they may convince, instead of letting them glow in the natural course of contemplation, that they may enrapture’.13 For the ‘poet of sensation’, by contrast, the ‘simple exertions of eye and ear’ are mingled with ‘trains of active thought’,14 so that the ‘whole being’ of the poet is absorbed in ‘the energy of sense’:15
Other poets seek for images to illustrate their conceptions; these men had no need to seek; they lived in a world of images; for the most important and extensive portion of their life consisted in those emotions, which are immediately conversant with the sensation.16
Hallam aligns Tennyson with ‘the class we have already described as Poets of Sensation’,17 describing Tennyson’s ‘vivid, picturesque delineation of objects, and the peculiar skill with which he holds all of them fused, to borrow a metaphor from science, in a medium of strong emotion’.18 But Hallam also foresaw how such poetry resulted in ‘the melancholy, which so evidently characterises the spirit of modern poetry; hence that return of the mind upon itself, and the habit of seeking relief in idiosyncrasies rather than community of interest’.19 The danger to the poet of ‘perceiving the world through senses that are more sensitive than their own’ is ‘that the poems might end up abandoning ideas and feelings which once circulated as common currency (p.20) between poets and their readers: a poet who detaches himself from his society risks finding himself with an audience of one’.20
Several critics have pointed out the inconsistencies in Hallam’s separation of the poetry of reflection from the poetry of sensation, however. Isobel Armstrong, for instance, describes how, despite Hallam’s rejection of reflection in the essay:
consciousness does avail itself of reflections by presenting the train of associative sensation as a retrospective act, capable of reflexive analysis by as it were historicising the consciousness and working upon it with the analyst’s understanding which comes from the acknowledgement of the latter-day poet that all experience is comprehended in a series of backwards questions.21
Seamus Perry notices, too, how Hallam’s separation of sensation from reflection ‘did not exclude thought from his verse, to be sure, but it did mean that the “elevated habits of thought [are] implied” – which was “more impressive, to our minds” … “than if the author had drawn up a set of opinions in verse”’.22
Others have described how Hallam’s definition of the poetry of sensation is itself derived from Wordsworth’s poetics. James Chandler, for instance, describes how Hallam’s claim that in ‘maintaining that the roots of all art and poetry lie in “daily life and experience,” [Hallam] argues that it is within every reader’s power to understand the artist’s expressions and sympathize with the poet’s passionate condition’;23 with those senses, in other words, that are ‘more sensitive’ than his or her own, and which place the poet with the possible audience of one. Chandler goes on to locate this power of sympathy directly within Wordsworth’s 1815 ‘Essay, Supplementary to the Preface’, ‘the text in which Wordsworth tries hardest to formulate the doctrine that poetry does not depend on advances in opinion’.24
Steven C. Dillon goes further, claiming that Hallam’s terms are a misreading of Wordsworth’s poetics, suggesting that
In order to set up Wordsworth as a poet of reflection, Hallam must reductively cut through the ‘also’ in Wordsworth’s famous formulation: ‘For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply’.25
(p.21) Dillon nevertheless confirms how Hallam’s essay acts as a crucible for the paradigm shift from transcendence to immanence that takes place during the nineteenth century, as ‘the vertical axis of imagination and epiphanic nature (“spots of time”) moves towards a horizontal axis of empirical perception and continuous history’.26
Hallam’s definition of poetry finds an analogue in John Stuart Mill’s elevation of poetic feeling over thought. In Wordsworth, Mill claims in an essay of 1833,
the poetry is almost always the mere setting of a thought. The thought may be more valuable than the setting, or it may be less valuable; but there can be no question as to which was first in his mind.27
There is, he goes on, ‘an air of calm deliberateness about all [Wordsworth] writes, which is not characteristic of the poetic temperament’.28 Mill’s review that same year of Tennyson’s Poems, Chiefly Lyrical and the 1832 Poems, however, reveals him as modifying his concept of the poetry of sensibility, arguing instead that ‘poets must apply the faculty of cultivated reason to their nervous susceptibility and to their sensitivity to the laws of association’.29 Tennyson’s ‘The Palace of Art’, with its criticism of aesthetic isolation, begins, for Mill, to apply the faculty of ‘cultivated reason’, a practice he warns Tennyson he must continue to follow.30
‘The Lotos Eaters’ (1832; revised 1842) and ‘The Lady of Shalott’, in conjunction with ‘The Palace of Art’ itself, thus ‘presage the destruction or decadence of the poetry of sensation and search both for another politics and a new aesthetic’;31 ‘The Lotos Eaters’ is ‘at once the culminating expression of the poetry of sensation and its greatest critique’, as Armstrong makes clear.32 Towards the 1840s Tennyson’s work pulls in two directions:
One [takes] him towards the common-sense Wordsworthianism which assumed that simplicity of diction, permanent and universal moral truths which ‘transcend’ the immediately political and exemplary tales, are a way of gaining access to the sympathies of a wide audience.33
The other pull, meanwhile, is ‘towards lyric sensuousness such as is to be found in the work of Monckton Milnes’.34
But the tension that Armstrong and others locate in Tennyson’s use of the language of sensation is already manifest in ‘The Lady (p.22) of Shalott’. ‘The Lady of Shalott’ not only presages the search for a new poetic, but embodies that search, prefiguring the movement Tennyson is to make later in the 1840s in the English ‘Idyls’, for example, towards a simplicity of diction and the gaining of the sympathies of a wide audience. The poem absorbs a Wordsworthian reflective and ‘unpoetical language’ from which Hallam somewhat artificially separates it in his 1831 essay. Wordsworth’s presence is clearly felt in the 1832 version of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, feeding Tennyson’s discussion of some of the poem’s major themes; the chapter augments the previous critical work done on the poem in this way. The level of borrowing from Wordsworth increases in the 1842 version of the poem, however, suggesting that Tennyson draws even more deeply from Wordsworth in the later poem, both to assuage the critics and to search for a new poetic; gaining the sympathies of a wide audience includes that of the critics, in fact. Tennyson was notoriously and painfully insecure about his poetic gifts, and the borrowings from Wordsworth play directly into this dynamic, scaffolding the poem with the earlier poet’s language and allowing Tennyson to steady his poetic voice and reputation. But the borrowings in the poem do more than stream into Tennyson’s critical insecurities, both complicating and constraining the poem’s discussion of art, life and gender, enabling ‘The Lady of Shalott’ to sail further ‘down the stream of time’.
The benign relationship suggested here itself echoes the supportive allusive model that Christopher Ricks outlines, working in a productive coalition or community of poets.35 The borrowings work at the level of language and cadence rather than deep psychic fear and anxiety, a transmission that Harold Bloom regards in his account of the parricidal urges that he maintains exist between strong, male poets as ‘“something that happens”’ and therefore of little consequence;36 the poem is not born from anxiety or impulse, although the borrowings and echoes do reveal the anxieties attendant upon the creative process and can therefore be said to be working at a psychic level. Wordsworth’s presence creates multiple effects in the poem, however, not all of which can be fully captured by Bloom’s restrictive model of influence or Ricks’ supportive model; some of the echoes from Wordsworth inform, some support, some seemingly establish a priority and overwhelm, some allow Tennyson to revise or, in Bloom’s terms, defensively to weaken Wordsworth, some liberate, some inhibit, some direct the poem, others redirect it. Some indeed are generated by the echo of single words.37
Like ‘Mariana’, Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ seemingly exemplifies the picturesque poetry of sensation that Hallam describes, with objects delineated and held in a fusion of strong emotion. Here is the Lady of Shalott herself as she makes her way into Camelot:
- Lying, robed in snowy white
- That loosely flew to left and right –
- The leaves upon her falling light –
- Through the noises of the night
- She floated down to Camelot:
- And as the boat-head wound along
- The willowy hills and fields among,
- They heard her singing her last song,
- The Lady of Shalott.
The Lady, robed in snowy white, is herself a sharply delineated object, and her plaintive singing fuses the scene in strong emotion. But the text is also inflected with Wordsworth’s ‘unpoetical’, referential language, that language with which Hallam compares the language of sensation in his 1831 essay. These inflections complement the well-known allusive citations to Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’ (1807), Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) and Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ (1820) that the poem contains: Herbert F. Tucker, Jr, after Lionel Stevenson, notes the Shelleyan allusion of the Lady to an invisible singer, ‘the high-born maiden / In a palace tower’, and beyond that to Wordsworth’s ‘To the Cuckoo’ (1807) and ‘The Solitary Reaper’, to which ‘To a Skylark’ was a response.38 And Matthew Rowlinson confirms how,
As a figure who sings without being seen, the Lady of Shalott at the beginning of the poem owes something to Keats’s nightingale. The language Tennyson uses to describe his unseen Lady at the end of the poem’s first section echoes the romantic diction of the pivotal seventh stanza of Keats’s ode, from which he remembers words like casement and fairy, while the weary reaper who hears the Lady’s song derives both from the figure of Ruth amid the alien corn and from Wordsworth’s solitary reaper, who is herself the precursor of Ruth as she appears in Keats’s poem.39
- In the stormy east-wind straining,
- The pale yellow woods were waning,
- The broad stream in his banks complaining,
- Heavily the low sky raining
- Over towered Camelot;
- Down she came and found a boat
- Beneath a willow left afloat,
- And round about the prow she wrote
- The Lady of Shalott.
- And down the river’s dim expanse
- Like some bold seër in a trance,
- Seeing all his own mischance –
- With a glassy countenance
- Did she look to Camelot.
- And at the closing of the day
- She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
- The broad stream bore her far away,
- The Lady of Shalott.
(IV. ll. 118–35)
The use of the visual impression of landscape here to convey mood – the ‘stormy east-wind straining’, the ‘low sky raining’ – echoes Wordsworth’s description of Sir George Beaumont’s actual painting of the maritime sublime in the third section of Wordsworth’s 1807 ‘Elegiac Stanzas: Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont’ (hereafter ‘Elegiac Stanzas’), a poem, like ‘The Lady of Shalott’, centrally concerned with art, writing and image-making. ‘The Lady of Shalott’ absorbs the ‘rueful sky’,40 ‘fierce wind’ (l. 52) of the ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ and turns them into its own ‘pageantry of fear’ (l. 48). The text’s absorption of ‘glassy’ possibly also has a provenance in the ‘Elegiac Stanzas’, confirming Wordsworth’s tendency to self-quote perhaps, as the adjective first appears in An Evening Walk (1793), but also confirming his predilection for ekphrastic poetry; Wordsworth often wrote in the ekphrastic mode during his poetic career, writing a number of ekphrastic poems, beginning with ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ and ending with ‘To Luca Giordano’, written in 1846.41 ‘Glassy’ occurs in An Evening Walk in an early part of the poem, foreshadowing the speaker’s subsequent descent into imaginative darkness: ‘Into a gradual calm (p.25) the zephyrs sink, / A blue rim borders all the lake’s still brink’,42 and goes on to describe how ‘The sails are dropp’d, the poplar’s foliage sleeps, / And insects clothe, like dust, the glassy deeps’ (I. ll. 129–30). ‘Glassy’ also occurs in the first section of Words worth’s ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ where the speaker describes his memory-image of Peele Castle: ‘I was thy Neighbour once, thou rugged Pile! / Four summer weeks I dwelt in sight of thee: / I saw thee every day; and all the while / Thy Form was sleeping on a glassy sea’ (ll. 1–4). He goes on to claim that ‘Whene’er I look’d, thy Image still was there; / It trembled, but it never pass’d away’ (ll. 7–8). ‘Image’ here refers not just to the mirror image of Peele Castle in the water, but to the ‘poet’s internalizing of the sight into an “Image” reproducible in poetry’,43 a poetic power the speaker acknowledges he has lost and which becomes a mere ‘fond delusion of my heart’ (l. 29). ‘Still’ functions as both adverb and adjective in the text, evoking both the sense of the image the speaker creates remaining in place and in time, of never ‘passing away’ or ‘dying’, and a sense of stillness or calm. But, of course, the image does pass away for the speaker, becoming a mere memory-image, subsequently disturbing his sense of calm. A similar effect is achieved in An Evening Walk; here, ‘still’ also is linked to an image being held in place in the mind of the speaker, this time supported by the sense of dropped sails, sleeping foliage and the dusting of insects. But the image is also simultaneously displaced by the sense of sleep, and by the proximity with death, of sinking and of dust, which act to foreshadow the decline of the imagination that occurs later in the poem. ‘Glassy’’s affiliation with ‘deep’ in An Evening Walk, however, feeds into Tennyson’s own description of the ‘mighty Deep’ (‘Elegiac Stanzas’, l. 11), allowing it to share in the illusory calm of Wordsworth’s lake. ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ goes on to explore how the poet would have painted the castle if his were still the painter’s hand and he were still in ‘a state of “fond delusion”’,44 able to add ‘the gleam, / The light that never was, on sea or land’ (ll. 14–15). The writing ‘allows us to inhabit this conditional state [of adding the gleam], even as it implies the poet’s ultimate exile from it’.45 Wordsworth’s ‘verbal painting’ foregrounds the discontinuity between his imagined painting of a beautiful or picturesque landscape and Beaumont’s image of the sublime: ‘In superimposing his work on his friend’s, Wordsworth discerns the terrifying discontinuity undermining the possibility of truth and its basis in something immutable.’46 Rather than simply mediating the language of visual impression and sensation here, the text then also mediates Wordsworth’s reflective, ‘thoughtful’ language and its engagement with (p.26) questions surrounding the reproducible image. Hallam avers that the poet of sensation had no need to seek for images, that they lived in a world of images, and that the most important and extensive portion of their life consisted in those emotions which are immediately conversant with the sensation. Yet Tennyson does have the need to seek for images, images that are drawn not from the world, but from literary memory, and which are not simply conversant with sensation but rather with deep thought.
The absorption of Wordsworth’s language in the text, and its own concern with the mediation of reproducible images in art and poetry, echoes ‘The Lady of Shalott’’s own concern with the mediation of the visual image, as the Lady weaves representations of the world she sees in her mirror:
- And moving through a mirror clear
- That hangs before her all the year,
- Shadows of the world appear.
- There she sees the highway near
- Winding down to Camelot:
- There the river eddy whirls,
- And there the surly village-churls,
- And the red cloaks of market girls,
- Pass onward from Shalott.
(II. ll. 46–54)
In the poem there is ‘a structural analogy between the poem’s [own] mimetic work and that of the Lady’s weaving’:47 ‘What the Lady weaves … is what she sees in the mirror’ – which means that what she weaves ‘refer[s] not only to the world as it exists outside the tower but also to its reflection inside, and to the representation of that reflection in the Lady’s web’.48 The ‘characteristic topic of lyric in the nineteenth century is mediation; in the case of descriptive lyric it is the mediation of the visual image’,49 a pattern set by Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ in 1798. Rowlinson confirms that, ‘as the nineteenth century progressed, lyric came with increasing self-consciousness to reflect on its own mediated character’;50 in ‘The Lady of Shalott’, the ‘representation of the mediation of visual images is one form of this reflection’.51
However, the topic of ‘The Lady of Shalott’’s ‘narrative is indeed mediation’s impossibility’:52 ‘The Lady’s corpse at the [close of the poem] does not in any sense preserve or make legible her song or her mode of life; these are on the contrary represented as irrecoverable.’53 (p.27) Wordsworth’s acknowledgement in the ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ of the disjunction between both poetic and visual art and their power to mediate the visual image and to convey truth and immutability is thus echoed in the disjunction which ‘The Lady of Shalott’ itself acknowledges in the mirror that cracks, the web that floats wide, and the Lady’s own floating death. But Wordsworth does not conclude that mediation is impossible; the poet is still able to inhabit a conditional, illusory state in ‘Elegiac Stanzas’. In mediating Wordsworth’s ‘glassy’ image, Tennyson is therefore performing a retrospective act, echoing a Wordsworthian ‘image’ that is successfully mediated; Tennyson is drawing on the main topic of descriptive lyric – the mediation of the image – yet will nonetheless go on to conclude, through the Lady’s silent death, that mediation is impossible. In so doing, the later poet draws from the very descriptive, referential poetry from which Hallam separates the poetry of sensation in his essay, drawing not only on its main topic but on its language, too, with its simple phrasing and diction.
Interestingly, in being described as ‘glassy’ the Lady in Tennyson’s poem takes on the function of the mirror, as Armstrong points out.54 The Lady herself mediates the two accounts of perception embedded in Hallam’s essay: one based on associationist psychological theory,55 with a dualistic opposition between subject and object;56 the other a Kantian world which ‘always includes the category of the self in its representations’.57 In the former, the ‘mirror is a tabula rasa. It reflects external images but it has no control over the Lady’s perceptual faculties’;58 in the other, ‘the images in the mirror become the result of the Lady’s self-projection and are her own “shadows”’.59 Lancelot as he ‘flashed’ into the Lady’s ‘crystal mirror’ (III. l. 106), for instance, brings with him an associationist epistemology through an act of violent, explosive sexuality, precipitating the shattering of the Lady’s mirror.60 The absorption of Wordsworth’s ‘glassy’ in the text, by contrast, strengthens the idealist position in the poem, reflecting off its own shiny surface. Moreover, its presence signals a Wordsworthian form of perception: in being ‘glassy’ and taking on the function of the mirror, the Lady comes to function as a metonym for Wordsworth’s idealist epistemology, where subject and object fuse in the act of perception and ‘exist as one through the act of self-reflection’.61
The Wordsworthian idealist position in the poem, ironically, is strengthened by Lancelot, the creator and perpetrator of associationist violence. Dillon qualifies ‘the preeminence of beauty’ in Hallam’s essay by emphasising ‘the inherent violence that accrues with an aesthetic (p.28) of sensation’.62 ‘The Ballad of Oriana’ (1830), Dillon maintains, ‘virtually premises itself on a delight in violence, directed both towards oneself and against others’:63
The descriptions of battle and death are far from gruesome, but the effect nonetheless relies on a perverse pleasure taken in the death of the many-voweled heroine. Just so, Idylls of the King consistently moves toward violence in its narrative of the death of beauty.64
Not only does Lancelot bring with him a violent associationist epistemology as he ‘flashes’ into and shatters the mirror, but he also brings with him a very particular Wordsworthian epistemology, which carries within it the conflation of subject and object in the act of perception, that ‘flash upon that inward eye’ (II. l. 21) as Wordsworth has it in ‘I WANDERED lonely as a Cloud’ (1807). Riding on the ‘burnished hooves’ of his war horse (III. l. 101) into Shalott, Lancelot himself evokes Wordsworth’s An Evening Walk. Self-reflexively, in Wordsworth’s early poem, the still lake into which the speaker looks is described as glowing like a ‘burnish’d mirror’ (I. l. 126). Angela Leighton describes how a similar Tennysonian flash in The Lover’s Tale (1879) is ‘oddly anatomical’.65 As she points out, Tennyson writes, for instance, in The Lover’s Tale:
‘The very face and form of Lionel / Flashed through my eyes into my innermost brain’ (I. 365. 93–4) … [Yet] Lionel’s ‘form’ seems to have to push ‘through’ the corporeal eye to reach the ‘brain’, so that the flash of recognition is audibly slowed up by the obstruction of a body.66
Leighton’s reading fits with her analysis here of Tennyson as perhaps the ‘most powerful, undeclared voice of English aestheticism’.67 Writing of Tennyson’s ‘flashpoints’, Leighton suggests that ‘displaced touch’ becomes ‘a defining characteristic [as] again and again the moment of revelation, of spiritual or imaginative intuition, is slightly held up by the sense of a body’.68 Dillon too draws a parallel between Hallam’s sensation and current evaluation of categories of experience:
An argument on behalf of the Body, for example, may not look too much different from Hallam’s; this argument would take place today in the wake of enormous philosophical sophistication (after Heidegger, et al.), but in order to make its case, it may seem obliged to simplify radically. But the simplification will be in appearance only.69
(p.29) The Wordsworthian echoes that resonate through ‘The Lady of Shalott’, however, question Tennyson’s commitment both to the poetry of sensation and to the body. The sense of light in these images is intrinsic to the Wordsworthian imaginative process – the speaker of ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ watches himself adding the light that never was, for instance. There is an undoubted focus in ‘The Lady of Shalott’ on the body, in keeping with its mediation of an associationist epistemology and the language of sensation. Lancelot’s sheer erotic physicality features heavily in the poem: ‘And from his blazoned baldric slung / A mighty silver bugle hung, / And as he rode his armour rung’ (III. ll. 87–9); ‘All in the blue unclouded weather / Thick-jewelled shone the saddle-leather, / The helmet and the helmet-feather / Burned like one burning flame together, / As he rode down to Camelot’ (III. ll. 91–5); and ‘From underneath his helmet flowed / His coal-black curls as on he rode’ (III. ll. 102–3). The speaker describes how ‘A red-cross knight for ever kneeled / To a lady in his shield’ (III. ll. 78–9), an image that suggests a Spenserian influence, according to Ricks.70 The undoubted sense of a body here, however, armoured, jewelled, with flaming helmet and feather at one, his knightly status reflected in the supplicant knight in his shield, is combined with an equally prominent sense of the light of the Wordsworthian imagination, complementing the reflective light of the burnished hooves of Lancelot’s war horse: the sun ‘came dazzling through the leaves / And flamed upon the brazen greaves’ (III. ll. 75–6); Lancelot’s shield ‘sparkled’ (III. l. 80) on the yellow field beside remote Shalott; the ‘gemmy bridle glittered free, / Like to some branch of stars we see / Hung in the golden Galaxy’ (III. ll. 82–4); his broad clear brow in ‘sunlight glowed’ (III. l. 100). Words like ‘glittering’ and ‘glowing’ have a ubiquity in Romantic literature – one thinks of the ancient mariner’s sinister ‘glittering eye’ in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’, for instance71 – but Wordsworth himself frequently draws on these phrases in his own poetry as expressions of the imaginative process: ‘glittering’ features in An Evening Walk, where ‘Never shall ruthless minister of Death / ’Mid thy soft glooms the glittering steel unsheath’ (I. ll. 77–8); similarly, in An Evening Walk ‘brightly blue, the burnish’d mirror glows’ (I. l. 126). In drawing on Wordsworth’s language in this way, Tennyson’s poem forces back into prominence Wordsworth’s focus on mind, and of the mind’s productive and essential idealist relationship with object. The prominent, and destructive, sense of body in the poem is pervaded by an equally strong sense of the light of the Wordsworthian imagination. If the movement of the century is from transcendence to immanence, then that movement appears to be checked here, as the poem seeks out the light of Wordsworthian (p.30) imaginative transcendence as an antidote to the violence of the language of sensation: Wordsworth’s burnished mirror replaces the mirror that Lancelot so violently shatters.
The move towards the light of the Wordsworthian imagination is underpinned by the allusion to Wordsworth in Tennyson’s phrase, ‘All in the blue unclouded weather’ (III. l. 91), confirming Tennyson’s ear for rhythm and sound, as well as rhyme.72 In Wordsworth’s ‘The Green Linnet’ (1807) the speaker describes the visit of the ‘happiest guest’ (I. l. 9) to his ‘sequestered nook’ (I. l. 5) in ‘spring’s unclouded weather’ (I. l. 4):
- BENEATH these fruit-tree boughs that shed
- Their snow-white blossoms on my head,
- With brightest sunshine round me spread
- Of spring’s unclouded weather,
- In this sequestered nook how sweet
- To sit upon my Orchard-seat!
- And Birds and Flowers once more to greet,
- My last year’s Friends together.
(I. ll. 1–8)
Wordsworth’s iambics settle into the blue unclouded weather of Tennyson’s tetrameter line. There is also a clear allusion to the speaker’s dazzled sight as he views the green linnet in Tennyson’s sun that ‘came dazzling through the leaves’ (III. l. 75), when Lancelot first comes into view. But in Wordsworth’s poem the speaker’s description of the ‘spring’s unclouded weather’ is coloured by his imagination, as is his view of the dazzling sun and green linnet; in each, his mind fuses with its object in an act of reflection. Tennyson’s ‘blue unclouded weather’, on the contrary, seemingly confirms his designation as a poet of sensation: Tennyson gives his unclouded weather a specificity, loading it with the kind of rich visual detail that would later appeal to the Pre-Raphaelite movement; he turns the air ‘blue’, as it were. ‘Susceptible of the slightest impulse from external nature’,73 Tennyson here seemingly trembles ‘into emotion at colours, and sounds, and movements, unperceived or unregarded by duller temperaments’,74 as his whole being is absorbed ‘into the energy of sense’.75 Yet in drawing on Wordsworth’s phrasing, Tennyson acknowledges both an alternative epistemological model and the part that imagination or mind plays in perception. Tennyson’s poem performs a further nod to Wordsworth through its insistent end-rhymes, enacting through rhyme – weather and together – its affinity with Wordsworth’s poetry. That ‘weather’ and ‘together’ themselves echo Wordsworth’s own rhyme pattern in lines 4 and 8 of (p.31) ‘The Green Linnet’ serves only to emphasise the productive relationship that exists between the two poets in the poem. If Tennyson establishes Wordsworth’s priority in the text through the re-establishment of the light of the Wordsworthian imagination and the Lady’s ‘glassy’ functioning, here Tennyson’s poetics blend with Wordsworth’s in a creative alliance or fusion. Peter McDonald notes a ‘self-awareness’ in Tennyson’s use of rhyme derived from the erosion of the boundary between repetition and rhyme established by Wordsworth.76 That Tennyson is self-aware in his use of a Wordsworthian rhyme pattern here is open to debate, but it is certainly true that the later poet is engaging with Wordsworth’s poetic practice on a deeply intimate level.
There is another text with which the section above blends, however, and that is Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Tennyson’s poem describes how as Lancelot ‘rode down to Camelot[,] / As often through the purple night, / Below the starry clusters bright, / Some bearded meteor, trailing light, / Moves over still Shalott’ (III. ll. 95–9). The ‘starry clusters bright’ resonate with echoes of Keats’ poem, where the speaker describes the marvellous world of the imagination, where:
- tender is the night,
- And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
- Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
- But here there is no light,
- Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
- Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.77
Like ‘The Lady of Shalott’, Keats’ poem engages with the question of whether art allows an escape from reality and human experience, only to conclude, unlike Tennyson’s poem, that the ‘visionary’ world of art creates perhaps its own form of reality. In both ‘The Green Linnet’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ ‘the song or flight of the bird becomes an emblem of the poet’s own voice, of his vocation, in the original sense of a “calling or summons”, as a poet’.78 The play of these poems in ‘The Lady of Shalott’ underpins Tennyson’s discussion of his own vocation, his own voice in the poem. As we shall see in Chapter 4, Tennyson again draws on ‘The Green Linnet’ in Maud (1855), thereby engaging with the subject of his own poetic vocation. But the presence of Keats’ ‘Ode’ in the ‘blue unclouded weather’ section of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ emphasises Tennyson’s closeness to Keats’ sensuous language; conversely, the presence of Wordsworth’s ‘unpoetic’ language simultaneously emphasises Tennyson’s lack of commitment to it.
Despite Tennyson’s productive alliance with Wordsworth in ‘The Lady of Shalott’, however, the mirror in the poem, and therefore the (p.32) Lady and her ‘idealist’ form of representation, crack ‘from side to side’ (III. l. 115), acting as a synecdoche of the disjunction between mind and object, word and image that Wordsworth’s poem itself acknowledges in the speaker’s apostrophe to the image-making poet he once was. The associationist epistemology is also ‘cracked’ here, of course, and the Lady with it – she breaks into discrete fragments, as ‘Hallam’s fragments of being reappear as isolated sensation in the external world. “She saw the water-lily bloom, / She saw the helmet and the plume”’.79 But the mirror’s fracture is miraculously healed in the poem,80 however, suggesting specifically that Wordsworth’s disjunction between mind and nature is itself potentially assuaged. As glassy mirror, the Lady’s countenance remains whole, thereby implying that the fractured mirror itself paradoxically remains whole, or is re-pieced together. The act of healing that takes place thus enables the mirror’s acts of idealist representation also to be sustained in the poem: the Lady is able to ‘look’ to Camelot (IV. l. 131), for instance; she is ‘Like some bold seër in a trance, / Seeing all his own mischance –’ (IV. ll. 128–9). The associationist fracture of the Lady offers no such healing. Her passive body is carried along, out of Shalott, as ‘the broad stream bore her far away’ (IV. l. 134): ‘Lying, robed in snowy white / That loosely flew to left and right – / The leaves upon her falling light – / Through the noises of the night / She floated down to Camelot’ (IV. ll. 136–40). Robes fly loosely to left and right; leaves fall light; and the night is full of noises, yet the Lady can only float, encased in her ghostly mantle, down to Camelot. By contrast, the idealism still at work in the poem restores the sense of agency needed in the act of ‘looking’. This sense of looking – of projecting the self in its representations – rehabilitates or reconstructs the Wordsworthian epistemological model in the poem. Despite her fracture into discrete parts, the Lady retains a coherent identity, still able to ‘look’; she is not simply a passive body of sensation, floating inertly to her death. Margaret A. Lourie positions the Lady’s boat journey in relation to Shelley: ‘the Lady looks outside herself (back to Shelley perhaps)?’81 But here the Lady just as equally ‘looks’ both forward and back to Wordsworth. There is a sense that the Wordsworthian act of healing specifically counters the violence inherent in the associationist language of sensation – Lancelot’s violent shattering of the mirror, for instance, symbolised by his shield and bugle, which both denote the past and future acts of violence of the ‘bold Sir Lancelot’ (III. l. 77); the Lady’s violent fracture into discrete parts. In ‘looking’ in this way, the Lady privileges Wordsworth’s epistemological model over and above the associationist model at work in the poem, positioning (p.33) active thought in contradistinction to passive feeling. The allusion to Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations’ ode (1807) contained within the Lady as ‘bold seër’ – ‘Mighty Prophet! Seer blest! / On whom those truths do rest, / Which we are toiling all our lives to find, / In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave’ (IV. ll. 114–17) – might be seen to underpin the movement towards Wordsworth taking place in the poem. The Wordsworthian echoes and allusions here also work to draw attention to the visionary or revelatory quality inherent in the Lady’s experience of having ‘cracked’, completing the Wordsworthian ‘priority’ being established in the poem.
The Lady’s rejuvenated ability to ‘look’ also enables her to embrace the social, something denied to her through the language of sensation, although as Joseph Chadwick maintains, the Lady’s perceptions are already socially mediated:82 Beatrice Sanford Russell, quoting Sharon Cameron, explains how ‘“the reduction to sensation without thoughts that appropriate it (or a seeing through such thoughts) unsocializes perception,” because it severs the connection between experiential phenomena and the more personal conceptual organization of these phenomena’.83 The language of reflection, on the contrary, provides a way in which the missing link between the phenomena experienced and the personal organisation of these phenomena can be restored. In this way, the Lady’s ‘look’ emblematises how the phenomena experienced – looking down to Camelot – and the personal organisation of these phenomena have been reconnected, corroborating the blurring of the social and artistic self that is already taking place in the poem; Chadwick notes, for instance, how the social world creates the problems of isolation discussed in the poem.84 In her act of looking, the Lady thereby offers Tennyson an alternative means by which to escape the introspection conferred by the language of sensation, with its ‘return of the mind upon itself, and the habit of seeking relief in idiosyncrasies rather than community of interest’.
The poem ends by paying homage to Wordsworth through Lancelot’s comment on the Lady’s ‘lovely face’ (IV. l. 169). In describing the Lady’s face as ‘lovely’, the poem returns once more to An Evening Walk. In Wordsworth’s poem, in a section of the poem where the imagination begins its recovery after its descent into darkness, the moon is described as having a ‘lovely face’:
- See, oe’r the eastern hill, where darkness broods
- O’er all its vanished dells, and lawns, and woods;
- Where but a mass of shade the sight can trace,
- She lifts in silence up her lovely face;
- (p.34) Above the gloomy valley flings her light,
- Far to the western slopes with hamlets white;
- And gives, where woods the chequered upland strew,
- To the green corn of summer, autumn’s hue.
(I. ll. 348–55)
The moon’s sense of actively flinging light suggests the rebuilding of the imagination after its decline into brooding darkness in the poem, and, by association, the resurgence of Wordsworth’s epistemology in Tennyson’s poem. The play of light and shade here complements the play of light and shade in Tennyson’s poem (in the mirror and the flash of Lancelot, combined with the shadows the Lady self-creates); the Wordsworthian imaginative process contains darkness as well as light – the Lady has created her own shadows of sensation as well as being submissively in receipt of them. Autumn also echoes the move that has already taken place from summer to autumn in the poem (and therefore the blurring of the real and the aesthetic worlds, as noted above).85 Lancelot’s somewhat bathetic, trivial summary of the Lady of Shalott – ‘“She has a lovely face”’ – has been met with criticism, even incredulity,86 although its inadequacy is seen as evidence of the poem’s delight in ‘half-revealing’ and ‘half-concealing’:87
none of the other things [Tennyson] might have said, such as ‘Can I watch the autopsy?’ or ‘Do you think I could have the boat after we bury her?’ are likely to strike us as any better; the poem confesses the inadequacy of our drive to make sense of the world even as it is laying tempting clues for us to follow.88
But the summary’s provenance in Wordsworth goes some way to explaining Tennyson’s ‘unpoetic’ phrasing; in sharing the ‘lovely face’ of Wordsworth’s moon, the Lady gains in visionary power and influence, augmenting the Wordsworthian epistemological model in the poem: she too is imbued with transcendental significance. Further, the Lady of Shalott pays the price with her life for entering the public world and of entering language, her name written on her barge as she floats to Camelot. The poem thus narrates ‘the substitution of a visible (indeed legible …) sign for a voice’.89 If the Lady is denied a voice, then she nevertheless retains a lovely face, however, which offers her a chance of immortality gained through the power of the imagination. In adopting Wordsworth’s phrase and turning it into speech, Lancelot participates in the Wordsworthian epistemology at work in the poem, colouring his perception of the Lady with his imagination; (p.35) he does not rely on pure emotion to mediate sense here. Rather, his view of the Lady’s lovely face is fuelled by his imagination. Both the lady and Lancelot have become active ‘seërs’. Further, that the ‘lovely face’ comes at the close of the poem, when the Lady’s death signals mediation’s impossibility, indicates how the poem retains the possibility of the mediation of the image while simultaneously denying it, even though this is inevitably a retrospective act. The 1832 version of the text omits to position Lancelot among the onlookers at the end of the poem, closing with the words of the Lady of Shalott herself: ‘“The web was woven curiously / The charm is broken utterly, / Draw near and fear not – this is I, / The Lady of Shalott”’.90 In including Lancelot’s comment on the Lady’s lovely face, the 1842 text therefore affords Wordsworth a priority that the earlier version of the poem does not support, allowing Tennyson in turn to give ‘voice’ to Lancelot and to give a ‘face’ to the Lady of Shalott.
The start of the poem also borrows Wordsworth’s language and phrasing. The speaker describes how:
- Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
- Little breezes dusk and shiver
- Through the wave that runs for ever
- By the island in the river
- Flowing down to Camelot.
- Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
- Overlook a space of flowers,
- And the silent isle imbowers
- The Lady of Shalott.
(I. ll. 10–18)
Space features at the close of the poem: Lancelot ‘muses a little space’ (IV. l. 168). Ricks quotes E. E. Duncan-Jones on ‘a little space’, who suggests that the phrase comes from Scott, Marmion I xxi, ‘The Captain mused a little space’.91 The ‘space of flowers’ at the start of the poem, however, is reminiscent of one of the Pastor’s domestic vignettes in Book VI of Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814). Here, the Daughter of the house tends a garden, enclosed within which is her own garden ‘space’:
- – Brought from the woods the honeysuckle twines
- Around the porch, and seems, in that trim place,
- A Plant no longer wild; the cultured rose
- There blossoms, strong in health, and will be soon
- Roof-high; the wild pink crowns the garden-wall,
- (p.36) And with the flowers are intermingled stones
- Sparry and bright, rough scatterings of the hills.
- These ornaments, that fade not with the year,
- A hardy Girl continues to provide;
- Who mounting fearlessly the rocky heights,
- Her Father’s prompt Attendant, does for him
- All that a Boy could do; but with delight
- More keen and prouder daring; yet hath she,
- Within the garden, like the rest, a bed
- For her own flowers and favourite herbs – a space,
- By sacred charter, holden for her use.
(V. vi. ll. 1141–56)
The Daughter’s bed of flowers and favourite herbs is a private space, appointed by sacred charter for her own use; the sense of privacy is emphasised by a ‘rill’ that ‘Flows on in solitude’ (V. vi. l. 1162) through the garden. But in the poem, the Daughter does not partake of this experience; rather, it is the Pastor who describes his experience of her garden, freely enjoying the fruits of her labour, often without permission: ‘– These, and whatever else the garden bears / Of fruit or flower, permission asked or not, / I freely gather’ (V. vi. ll. 1157–9). The Daughter’s garden space thus functions as a confined space, patriarchally controlled, a symbol of her proscribed life (as well as her abused labour). The space of flowers in ‘The Lady of Shalott’ has a similar function, acting as a symbol of the Lady’s confinement and removal from life. Embowered in her four grey walls, the Lady can but overlook the space of flowers; she is prohibited from entering a space restricted to others’ use. Tennyson’s end-rhymes here mimic the Lady’s confinement, with towers and imbowers acting to enclose the space of ‘flowers’. Space in Tennyson has been described as a metaphor for experience – Ulysses’ margin that fades, for instance92 – but here space acts as a metaphor for forbidden experience; the four grey walls extend the metaphor by acting as a boundary between life and the removal from life in the world of art. Yet, the Lady is simultaneously separated from the space of flowers and absorbed within it, confirming how inner and outer worlds, life and art, are combined rather than dichotomised in the poem: in being embowered in Shalott, the Lady is enclosed or sheltered within a bower of flowers, meaning that she shares the space of flowers rather than simply overlooks it. Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’, for example, from which Tennyson draws for his high-born maiden in a tower according to Tucker, is ‘Like a rose embowered / In its own green leaves’.93 The Lady is therefore as much embowered in her space of flowers as her four (p.37) grey towers, as Shelley’s elusive and enigmatic songbird blends its notes with Wordsworth’s own maiden. Tennyson thus breaks down the patriarchal and artistic distinctions that Wordsworth’s poem perpetuates, allowing the Lady momentarily to escape the restrictions to which his own poem nevertheless insists she is already doomed. In drawing his material from Wordsworth’s poem, Tennyson, however, both participates in the ‘social, religious, and didactic’ tone of the earlier poem and subtly undercuts it,94 prefiguring the analysis of ‘the cultural myth of patriarchy’ he makes in poems like Idylls of the King.95
Tennyson continues to draw from The Excursion in his account of the Lady’s weaving. Wordsworth’s speaker in the poem goes on to describe how, as night falls, he cannot refrain from gazing at the widower and his daughters at work in their homely abode:
- This Dwelling charms me; often, I stop short;
- (Who could refrain?) and feed by stealth my sight
- With prospect of the Company within,
- Laid open through the blazing window: – there
- I see the eldest Daughter at her wheel
- Spinning amain, as if to overtake
- The never-halting time; or, in her turn,
- Teaching some Novice of the Sisterhood
- That skill in this, or other household work;
- Which, from her Father’s honoured hand, herself
- While she was yet a little-one, had learned.
- – Mild man! he is not gay, but they are gay;
- And the whole house seems filled with gaiety.
(V. vi. ll. 1167–79)
The scene on which the Pastor gazes is one of domestic harmony and bliss, with the eldest Daughter of the house passing on her household skills to the ‘Sisterhood’, sitting at her wheel and spinning amain. Tennyson borrows from Wordsworth in his account of the Lady of Shalott at her weaving: just as the Lady by ‘night and day’ weaves a magic web with ‘colours gay’, so the eldest daughter at her wheel spins at night as if to overtake never-halting time; the daughters of the house are gay with happiness, while the Lady’s magic web is woven ‘with colours gay’ (II. l. 38); Wordsworth’s rill runs on in solitude, Tennyson’s Shalott is an ‘island in the river’ (I. l. 13). Yet Wordsworth’s speaker views the widower’s daughters through the blazing window; the Lady weaving behind her castle walls, by contrast, is heard but never seen until her body enters the public arena (p.38) and is subject to the public, largely masculine, gaze – it is ‘Knight and burgher, lord and dame’ (IV. l. 160) that come to view the Lady’s body; Wordsworth’s speaker describes a scene of domestic household work, Tennyson an aristocratic woman working in isolation at her weave. The 1832 version of the poem contains neither the lady who weaves by night and day nor the colours gay,96 again suggesting that Tennyson returns to Wordsworth for his sourcing in the 1842 version of the poem, building around the space of flowers from the 1832 version, echoing and reworking the earlier poem’s tropes of private versus public space, the patriarchal gaze and the nature of women’s work. The Excursion was an unpopular poem when first published (Byron called it a ‘“drowsy, frowsy poem”’),97 although it gained in popularity as the century wore on. William Allingham quotes Tennyson himself as bemoaning its ‘“long dreary plains of prose”’.98 Nevertheless, by the time of the publication of the 1842 version of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, Wordsworth had consolidated his reputation as the pre-eminent poet of his age, largely on the basis of the ‘dreary’ Excursion. In borrowing so liberally from the dreary plains of prose of Wordsworth’s 1814 poem, then, Tennyson is able to secure the critical reputation, and perhaps reception, of his revised work by harnessing the cultural authority of his precursor. He does so, of course, by once more borrowing Wordsworth’s unpoetical, ‘dreary’ language.
Gazing features prominently in Wordsworth’s ‘The Two April Mornings’, one of the ‘Matthew’ poems of 1800, written when Wordsworth was visiting Goslar in Germany. While spending ‘A day among the hills’ (IV. l. 12), Matthew is reminded of a similar day thirty years before when he stumbled, when fishing, across the grave of his daughter: ‘“Yon cloud with that long purple cleft / Brings fresh into my mind / A day like this which I have left / Full thirty years behind”’ (IV. ll. 21–4). He goes on to recount how, turning from the grave, he met ‘“A blooming Girl, whose hair was wet / With points of morning dew”’ (IV. ll. 43–4), who stirs the memories and emotions of his daughter’s loss. He looks at this girl, but does not wish her his: ‘“There came from me a sigh of pain / Which I could ill confine; / I looked at her and looked again: / – And did not wish her mine”’ (IV. ll. 53–6). Something of Matthew’s ‘looking’ or insistent gaze runs through the Lady who looks ‘to Camelot’ (IV. l. 131), as well as through the knight and burgher who ‘read’ the Lady’s name on the prow of her boat as she enters the public domain. It runs too through Tennyson’s description of the road that runs by many-towered Camelot – ‘And up and down the people go, / Gazing where the lilies blow / Round an island there (p.39) below, / The island of Shalott’ (I. ll. 6–9). Tennyson’s ‘people’ indulge in the same kind of scrutiny of ‘where the lilies blow’ as Matthew does of the girl whose hair is wet with points of dew, although Matthew’s looking is hedged by memory and an awareness of the differences to looking that time creates. Both scenes carry a sense of indeterminacy, however: Matthew looks at the girl and looks again, trying to match his memory with the blooming girl who stands before him; the people in Tennyson’s poem gaze ‘where’ the lilies blow rather than at the lilies themselves, raising the possibility through the adverbial ‘where’ that the lilies exist in memory as much as in the present. The 1832 version of the poem lacks the people-gazing scene, suggesting that Tennyson returns to Wordsworth in support of his rewriting in 1842.99
‘The Two April Mornings’ ends with the speaker recording Matthew’s death: ‘Matthew is in his grave, yet now, / Methinks, I see him stand, / As at that moment, with a bough / Of wilding in his hand’ (IV. ll. 57–60). Memory again mixes with looking here, as the speaker remembers seeing Matthew stand with a bough of wilding in his hand, although it is not clear when ‘that moment’ is. Wordsworth’s language is absorbed into Tennyson’s poem in the description of the Lady at her casement: ‘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?’ (I. ll. 24–7). Unlike Wordsworth, Tennyson records a moment of not seeing or remembering: Who has seen her wave her hand, or at the casement stand? Wordsworth’s speaker sees Matthew in an image forged from memory, where the Lady is neither seen nor remembered. The interplay between the two poems runs through the reworking of the ‘hand’ and ‘stand’ rhymes. In Wordsworth, seeing and the object of that seeing, image and memory, combine, which is given prominence through the abab end-rhymes: the speaker sees Matthew ‘stand’ with a bough of wilding in his ‘hand’. In Tennyson, however, the rhyme acts to emphasise how the subject and its object have been dislocated – there is no one who has seen the Lady ‘wave’ her hand or seen her ‘stand’, and no one to remember having seen. Again, the lines are added to the 1842 version of the poem, suggesting that Tennyson turns to Wordsworth in the 1842 poem.100 The casement – Keats’ casement, as Rowlinson points out – fails to act as a conduit to the imagination or the treasures that memory can unlock.
Douglas-Fairhurst describes how ‘The Lady of Shalott’ offers itself as ‘a fable of writing’,101 partly through the way in which its lines of verse ‘reach out into the margin that separates art from the world of their readers, before nervously recoiling back on themselves’,102 (p.40) mimicking the way in which Tennyson’s work ‘is shaped by rival centrifugal and centripetal forces, the desire to expand into public life and the desire to retreat into something more “self-involved”’.103 In its exploration of art and life, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ thus mirrors Tennyson’s own concerns between the demands of a poetry concerned purely with private experience and a poetry that moves away from the self and engages with life, politics and generalised humanity: ‘From 1798 onward, Wordsworth’s principal endeavour was to become the poet of The Recluse, or to move beyond an imagination relevant only to a personal case history to demonstrate the imagination’s workings in human life more generally.’104 The presence of Wordsworth’s language enables Tennyson to explore this divide: the presence of Wordsworth’s The Excursion, for instance, allows Tennyson to move into a poetry that is concerned more with generalised humanity, and less concerned with the self, while the reflective language in the poem enables Tennyson to probe his own private concerns, including his commitment to the poetry of sensation and the epistemology that underpins it as well as what is required from him in terms of being a public poet.
‘A gleaming shape she floated by’
In floating past Camelot at the close of the poem the Lady, through death, becomes an artwork, but also an ‘image’: ‘a gleaming shape she floated by, / Dead-pale between the houses high, / Silent into Camelot’ (IV. ll. 156–8). ‘Gleaming’ functions as a resonant word in Wordsworth and in the ‘Elegiac Stanzas’ in particular, where it acts as a reminder of the speaker’s lost image-making powers. The poet adds the gleam, the light that never was, however, allowing him to inhabit a conditional state; and so, in becoming an image, a gleaming shape, the Lady becomes a Wordsworthian ‘image’, strengthening the Wordsworthian epistemology at work in the poem and Tennyson’s reliance on reflective images rather than those grounded in sense. Gleaming is also a synonym for glassy, strengthening the Wordsworthian function in the poem, with the words gleaming and glassy themselves thus creating a mirror image. The phrase is inserted into the 1842 version of the poem, suggesting that Tennyson’s echoing or borrowing of Wordsworth’s language increases in intensity in the ten years from the poem’s first publication. The 1832 version reads a ‘pale, pale corpse’.105 But there is another Wordsworth poem here on which Tennyson draws for his (p.41) ‘gleaming shape’: ‘SHE was a Phantom of delight’, Wordsworth’s 1807 paean to his wife:
- SHE was a Phantom of delight
- When first she gleamed upon my sight;
- A lovely Apparition, sent
- To be a moment’s ornament;
- Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
- Like Twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
- But all things else about her drawn
- From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
- A dancing Shape, and Image gay,
- To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.
(II. ll. 1–10)
Here, the speaker describes how she was a phantom of delight that first ‘gleamed’ upon his sight; she is a ‘dancing Shape’, an epiphanic revelation, an ‘Image gay’. In Tennyson, Wordsworth’s dancing Shape is transformed into the ‘gleaming shape’ of the Lady as she floats down to Camelot, dead-pale between the houses high. But the Lady retains something of the Phantom’s epiphanic quality, becoming an Apparition, ghostly, but also a revelation. In Wordsworth the speaker describes how the dancing shape has the power to ‘haunt, to startle, and way-lay’, and something of this power is carried into Tennyson’s poem: the speaker at the close of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ records how the vision of the Lady on her barge inspires shock and fear in the assembled crowd of knights and burghers: ‘Who is this? and what is here? / And in the lighted palace near / Died the sound of royal cheer; / And they crossed themselves for fear, / All the knights at Camelot’ (iv. ll. 163–7). She becomes, in her own way, ‘a moment’s ornament’.
Tennyson turns to the same poem in his description of the Lady’s ‘glassy countenance’: in Wordsworth, the ‘Phantom of delight’ is described as having a ‘countenance in which did meet / Sweet records, promises as sweet’ (II. ll. 15–16). She has ‘household motions light and free, / And steps of virgin-liberty’ (II. ll. 13–14). But Wordsworth goes on to describe how this woman is ‘A Creature not too bright or good / For human nature’s daily food; / For transient sorrows, simple wiles, / Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles’ (II. ll. 17–20). In harvesting his image of the Lady’s glassy countenance from Wordsworth’s poem, then, Tennyson taps into a ‘femininity constituted through domestic, privatized subjectivity’,106 a subjectivity that is itself a point of discussion in his own poem; in confining the Lady of Shalott (p.42) to her weaving Tennyson’s poem itself engages with both the artist’s and women’s place within society. Wordsworth’s speaker goes on to acknowledge, with the benefit of an ‘eye serene’ (II. l. 21), the woman as ‘A Being breathing thoughtful breath / A Traveller betwixt life and death; / The reason firm, the temperate will, / Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill / A perfect Woman, nobly planned, / To warn, to comfort, and command’ (II. ll. 23–8). The Lady, too, shares the Phantom’s liminal state, travelling between life and death on her journey from Shalott to Camelot. Unlike the Phantom, however, the Lady does not reach the point at which she is in ‘command’. Wordsworth’s speaker moves from unaccountable delight in his lovely Apparition to an acknowledgement, in the third stanza, of her earthly qualities, although she remains ‘yet a Spirit still, and bright / With something of an angel light’ (II. ll. 29–30). Tennyson’s poem reverses this trajectory, with the Lady moving from the earthly, weaving at her web, to the visionary, appearing as a gleaming shape.
Joseph Chadwick maintains that the Lady herself becomes an ‘antidiscursive poet of sensation’ in the poem,107 but in being both ‘glassy’ and ‘gleaming’ she is equally a Wordsworthian poet of reflection, who creates her own self-projected shadows in the mirror. Chadwick envisions the destruction of the poem of sensation, but attributes this to its loss of autonomy, a loss closely linked to the Lady of Shalott’s femininity:
As a feminine emblem of the artist and the artwork, the Lady undermines artistic autonomy by revealing it to be another form of the same kind of confining privacy which removes certain women from the public social world. As an artist and eventually an artwork representing the situation of a certain form of femininity, the Lady undermines the privatized subjectivity of that femininity by revealing it to be vulnerable to the same annihilating objectification Hallam sees the public meting out to the poet of sensation and his works.108
But if the poet of sensation is destroyed through an objectified loss of autonomy, then the poetry of reflection survives, as it escapes the annihilating objectification to which the poet and poetry of sensation are subject. In borrowing the Lady’s gleaming shape, glassy countenance and lovely face from Wordsworth, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ may participate in Wordsworth’s own objectification of femininity, but the poetry of reflection itself transcends the annihilating objectification to which the poetry of sensation and the feminine artist are subject. Carol T. Christ notes how, ‘fearful of the feminization of (p.43) culture, the poet of the period strove to make the female subject bear his name’.109 Dorothy Mermin also notes the limitations of the feminine artist:
She could not just reverse the roles in her poetry and create a comparable male self-projection, since the male in this set of opposites is defined as experienced, complexly self-conscious, and part of the public world and therefore could not serve as a figure for the poet.110
Tennyson keys into the feminisation of culture by making the Lady of Shalott bear his name. However, in becoming a poet of reflection, the Lady also subverts the naming to which she is subjected; she is able to reverse roles and ‘create a comparable male self-projection’, becoming, as Wordsworth frames it in the ‘Preface to the Second Edition’ of Lyrical Ballads (1802), ‘a man speaking to men’.111 In drawing on Wordsworth’s language, then, Tennyson reverses the role of the female artist in Victorian poetry, allowing the Lady of Shalott a place in the public sphere that is denied her both through the language of sensation and Victorian culture at large. Tennyson inherits the Romantic idea of the grandeur of art, an aesthetic empowered ‘with wonderful autonomy and grandeur’,112 an aesthetic which, as ‘The Lady of Shalott’ attests, Tennyson was to find both irresistible and unsustainable.113 In privileging Wordsworth’s model in the poem, Tennyson thus returns to a Romantic aesthetic that celebrates the artist’s autonomous status and removal from public life and the public good. The Lady as ‘gleaming shape’ does not signal the death of the artwork as it enters public life, but rather the rejuvenation of the autonomous Romantic poet, but this in itself is not enough to secure the Lady a role beyond her ‘Four gray walls’.
The 1842 rewriting of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ sees Tennyson draw more deeply on Wordsworth, with Wordsworth’s presence helping to steady the later version of the poem and to feed its discussion of issues relating to gender, art and life. Wordsworth’s presence complicates and at times clarifies these issues too. Tennyson’s borrowings from Wordsworth also help to steady Tennyson’s deep-rooted compositional anxiety, as well as allowing him to engage with a more generalised concern with humanity and to secure his public voice. In turn, by drawing on The Excursion and a range of Wordsworthian (p.44) poems, Tennyson helps to balance and expand Wordsworth’s reputation, offering a more complex view of the earlier poet than the stereotypically confident and prophetic Wordsworth that the Victorians were busy constructing. Yet, the borrowings from Wordsworth signal Tennyson’s unease at being corralled by Hallam’s review and his designation as a poet of sensation, repeatedly testing and questioning his own poetic identity. Wordsworth is at times prioritised in the poem; at other times, Tennyson asserts his own priority in what could seem like acts of Bloomian revisionism and self-assertion. The patterns of borrowing or echo at work in the poem – of informing, feeding, directing, redirecting, revising, complicating, problematising – cannot be contained by one overarching, prescriptive model of influence; nor can they be subsumed under the umbrella of a benign cooperative of poets. That the Lady of Shalott as a poet of reflection enters the world as an autonomous Romantic artist means that Wordsworth does not fully address Tennyson’s artistic and poetic concerns. Nonetheless, it is the complex, echoing presence of Wordsworth that holds both poet and poem together.
Other Tennyson poems from 1842 display an affiliation with Wordsworth, either thematically or linguistically, or both. These include ‘Break, break, break’, written on the death of Hallam,114 which engages with the themes of return and expressibility, and does so in part using Wordsworth’s language: the ‘thoughts that arise’ (l. 4) in Tennyson’s speaker but cannot be uttered owe a debt to Wordsworth’s ‘Lines written in early Spring’ (1798), in which the reclining speaker describes ‘that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind’ (IV. ll. 3–4). Wordsworth’s ‘thoughts’ arise from a sweet mood, while the focus of the speaker in Tennyson’s poem is the unutterability of the thoughts that do arise in him, which are counterpointed with the crashing volubility of the sea through the end-rhymes ‘Sea’ and ‘me’. Unlike the sea, the speaker’s thoughts have no stones on which to break their silence. ‘The Two Voices’, another poem connected with the death of Hallam,115 may owe its title to Wordsworth’s sonnet, ‘Two Voices Are There’ (1807), which Tennyson read in spring 1835.116 The allusion to ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in the speaker’s ‘blessing’ of the family on its way to church ‘fixes Tennyson’s claim, that his is, like Coleridge’s, a conversion poem’.117 But ‘The Two Voices’ also draws liberally on Wordsworth’s language: in an echo of the girl ‘“whose hair was wet / With points of morning dew”’ (IV. ll. 43–4) from ‘The Two April Mornings’, the dragonfly of the opening of Tennyson’s poem flies through ‘“crofts and pastures wet with dew”’ (l. 14). If Tennyson’s poem owes its (p.45) title to Wordsworth’s ‘Two Voices Are There’, then it owes some of its language, as well as its title in part, to ‘The Two April Mornings’. In a reminder of ‘Tintern Abbey’’s ‘living air’ (II. l. 99), the dragonfly in Tennyson’s poem appears as ‘“A living flash of light”’ (l. 15). In its echoes of Wordsworth ‘The Two Voices’ therefore harbours a pantheistic alternative to its main Christian narrative, which is made conclusive towards the end of the poem through ‘Nature’s living motion’ (l. 449), which ‘lent / The pulse of hope to discontent’ (ll. 449–50). The ‘living air’ (II. l. 98) of ‘Tintern Abbey’ becomes a motion, combining with the pulses or ‘sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood’ (II. ll. 28–9) of that same poem to offer Tennyson’s speaker a route out of misery and despair. From this perspective, the dragonfly of Tennyson’s poem, as it flies through crofts and pastures wet with dew, goes through its own kind of pantheistic baptism or rebirth, complementing the Christian ‘conversion’ of the speaker himself.
But there is another group of poems from 1842 that specifically engage with Wordsworth’s unpoetical language and unpoetical universe, poems that were later termed the English or Domestic ‘Idyls’; these include ‘Dora’, ‘Audley Court’, ‘Walking to the Mail’ and ‘The Gardener’s Daughter Or, The Pictures’ (hereafter ‘The Gardener’s Daughter’). The poems return thematically and linguistically to Wordsworth – they borrow Wordsworth’s ordinary language and ordinary themes and ordinary people too, making explicit the pattern at work in ‘The Lady of Shalott’. Tennyson attempts a Wordsworthian simplicity in ‘Dora’, such as that of Wordsworth’s blank verse narrative, ‘Michael: A Pastoral Poem’ (hereafter ‘Michael’), which Edward Fitzgerald read to Tennyson in 1835 on a trip to the Speddings’ house, Mirehouse, by Bassenthwaite Lake in the Lake District.118 Fitzgerald quotes Tennyson, in fact, as saying that he ‘remembered the time when he could see nothing in “Michael” which he now read us in admiration’.119 Wordsworth for his part is rather apocryphally accredited with saying of ‘Dora’: ‘“Mr Tennyson, I have been endeavouring all my life to write a pastoral like your ‘Dora’ and have not succeeded.”’120 Like Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, ‘Dora’ is one of ‘those domestic tales’ (‘Michael’, I. l. 22), a ‘history / Homely and rude’ (‘Michael’, I. ll. 34–5). Both ‘Michael’ and ‘Dora’ share common tropes, a common language and a common metre. Both poems feature lost and recalcitrant sons. Michael’s son Luke and the farmer’s son William in ‘Dora’, as well as brothers’ sons in both poems, form the fulcrum on which the narratives of the two poems revolve in their tales of ‘simple’ (‘Michael’, I. l. 207) households. The poems also share in the same ‘simple’ phrasing: Wordsworth’s Michael is referred to as ‘The (p.46) old Man’ (I. l. 316; I. l. 452), Tennyson’s farmer as ‘the old man’;121 Michael’s son Luke carries within his cheek two steady roses that were ‘five years old’ (I. l. 179), Tennyson’s farmer observes that there has not been for these ‘five years’ (l. 63) a full harvest. Both poems in this way remember ‘Tintern Abbey’’s ‘five years’ that have past (II. l. 1). Similarly, the later poem echoes and reworks scenes from the earlier Wordsworth poem: Michael hears Luke as a babe by the fireside ‘First uttering, without words, a natural tune; / While thou, a feeding babe, didst in thy joy / Sing at thy Mother’s breast’ (II. ll. 347–9). In ‘Dora’, William’s son, the farmer’s grandson, sits in the hollow of the farmer’s arm, stretching out and babbling for ‘the golden seal, that hung / From Allan’s watch, and sparkled by the fire’ (ll. 132–3).
The idyll has its roots in Theocritus and is ‘essentially an urban poetic form, one that emerges in nostalgia for a pastoral way of life’,122 although Tennyson’s use of the term is notably vague, reflected in his idiosyncratic spelling of ‘idyl’.123 Nostalgia for a pastoral way of life in ‘The Gardener’s Daughter’ nonetheless reveals Tennyson as not only indebted to Theocritus, especially in the Seventh Idyll,124 but also to the Pastor’s domestic vignette from Book VI of Wordsworth’s The Excursion. Rose, the Gardener’s daughter, her name itself a reminder of the ‘cultured rose’ of Book VI of Wordsworth’s poem, occupies a private garden, ‘Not wholly in the busy world, nor quite / Beyond it’ (ll. 33–4). Verbal echoes in Tennyson’s poem emphasise the garden’s connections with that of its predecessor in The Excursion: the speaker of Book VI describes the garden as ‘this trim place’ (V. vi. l. 1142); in ‘The Gardener’s Daughter’, the deictic ‘this’ turns to ‘that’ as the speaker describes how the Gardener’s daughter ‘In that still place … hoarded in herself, / Grew, seldom seen’ (ll. 48–9), as trimness transmutes into stillness. Each of the gardens is a private space, removed from public view, much like the daughters in the poems. And yet in both poems, this private space is disturbed by a male imposter or onlooker; in Book VI of The Excursion, the Pastor freely partakes of whatever the garden bears, whether fruit or flower, while in Tennyson’s poem the speaker ‘looked upon’ (l. 61) or ‘beheld’ (l. 121) the Gardener’s daughter in her sequestered place, freely partaking of her image, just as the Pastor partakes of the garden’s offerings. Tennyson’s poem concludes with the Gardener’s daughter offering to the speaker ‘the greatest gift’ (l. 224), ‘A woman’s heart’ (l. 225), although Tennyson does not confirm that the marriage has taken place, only that Rose has become ‘the most blessèd memory of mine age’ (l. 273). Wordsworth’s Pastor observes in the Daughter spinning at her wheel the survival of her mother’s spirit on earth; in potentially becoming a wife, Rose becomes an extension of (p.47) the spirit of domestic bliss, fulfilling the destiny of Wordsworth’s hardy Girl. Tennyson, according to Armstrong, suffers a failure of nerve or a loss of confidence in the English ‘Idyls’:125 the poems retreat from the poetry of sensation and the daring experimentalism of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ into a domesticated and conventional Wordsworthianism. Yet ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and ‘The Gardener’s Daughter’ form part of a whole, both drawing from and reworking Wordsworth’s pastoral vignette from The Excursion. The movement back to Wordsworth is therefore less of a retreat or a failure of nerve than a facilitation, allowing Tennyson once again to question the poetry of sensation and his own role within it, as well as allowing an exploration of the theme of gendered space.
Tennyson draws on Wordsworth’s ‘ordinary’ language in the socalled Lincolnshire dialect poems, ‘Northern Farmer, Old Style’ (1864), ‘Northern Farmer, New Style’ (1869) and ‘The Northern Cobbler’ (1880). Tennyson also turns to Wordsworth’s scenes of ordinary life in the 1880 Ballads and Other Poems such as ‘Rizpah’, ‘In the Children’s Hospital’ and ‘The Village Wife’, leading to suggestions that he turns away from his own ballad experiments of the 1830s and 1840s to adapt the Wordsworthian ballad, with its emphasis on incidents and situations from common life;126 the title of Tennyson’s collection is itself a reminder of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1800).127 Yet, rather than a turning away from his own early ballads like ‘The Lady of Shalott’, the later ballads act as a continuation of them; the Wordsworthian ‘prosaic’ language at work in ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and the scenes of ordinary life that it embraces, from the Daughter of the house at her wheel to Matthew of ‘The Two April Mornings’, prefigure the move towards Wordsworth that Tennyson is to make in these later works.
The year 1842 saw the publication of Tennyson’s monologue, ‘Ulysses’, first written in 1833 soon after the death of Arthur Hallam, but rewritten for later publication. Tennyson considered the 1833 ‘Ulysses’ to be an ‘Idyl’, when he printed it in the 1842 trail pamphlet, Morte-D’Arthur; Dora; and Other Idyls.128 The poem is predicated on distancing the solipsism of the lyrical speaker,129 and is therefore in theory distanced from Wordsworth’s lyrical voice. Yet, as in ‘The Lady of Shalott’, the poem absorbs Wordsworth’s language, with Tennyson echoing, reworking, revising, drawing from his predecessor; but whereas in ‘The Lady of Shalott’ Tennyson returns to Wordsworth ostensibly to stabilise the poem, in ‘Ulysses’ Tennyson attempts to break free from Wordsworth in order to stabilise a ‘new’ poetic form – the monologue. Yet, as the next chapter will show, (p.48) the echoes and borrowings at work within the poem create complex effects, with Tennyson’s revision of Wordsworth mirrored by his dependency on him.
(1.) Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, I, IV. l. 169 (p. 395). All further references in the chapter to Tennyson’s poems are to this edition and appear parenthetically in the text unless otherwise stated.
(37.) Hollander describes how ‘A single word or phrase … amplified or not by a phonetic scheme, may easily carry rumors of its resounding cave’, and this effect makes itself manifest in ‘The Lady of Shalott’ through Tennyson’s echoing of single Wordsworthian words. See Hollander, The Figure of Echo, p. 95.
(40.) Wordsworth, ‘Elegiac Stanzas: Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont’, in Poems, in Two Volumes, II, l. 48 (p. 144). Subsequent references to this poem are to this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.
(42.) Wordsworth, The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth in Five Volumes, I, ll. 117–18 (p. 58). All other references in the chapter to Wordsworth’s poems are to these volumes and appear parenthetically in the text unless otherwise stated. References are given by volume and line number.
(96.) See Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, I, p. 390, n. 37–40. Armstrong suggests that the poem draws on the myth of the weaving lady in Arachne and Penelope, which it fuses with the myths of reflection carried by Narcissus and Echo. See Armstrong, Victorian Poetry, p. 83.
(99.) See Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, I, ll. 6–9 (p. 388). Lines 6–9 of the 1832 version read: ‘The yellowleavèd waterlily / The greensheathèd daffodilly, / Tremble in the water chilly, / Round about Shalott’.
(p.51) (100.) Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, I, ll. 24–6 (p. 389). Lines 24–6 of the 1832 poem read: ‘A pearlgarland winds her head; / She leaneth on a velvet bed, / Full royally apparellèd’.
(121.) Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, II, l. 22 (p. 69). All other references to ‘Dora’ are to this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.
(124.) Ricks, in Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, I, p. 552. Ricks also notes how the poem brings together Tennyson’s friendship for Hallam and Hallam’s love for Tennyson’s sister Emily.