An Explication of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott
Children often grow up listening to fairy tales. Repunsel is one fairy tale about a girl cursed to live a life of isolation in a tower. She longs to break free from seclusion and become part of the outside world. She eventually finds her one true love and risks her life to be with him. "The Lady of Shalott" by Lord Alfred Tennyson relates to Repunsel in many ways. In this poem, Tennyson tells a story of isolation. The woman in this ballad is also doomed to remain on her sheltered island eternally. If she even looks out at Camelot, she will die. She finally sees her "red-cross knight" (line 78). The Lady of Shalott escapes from her "silent isle imbower[ed]," yet dies a tragic death before she even meets Lnacelot (17). In reality, many people do not experience this extreme form of seclusion, although it is very common for someone to change his/her life or even risk it to be with the person he/she loves.
Tennyson starts out with the total seclusion of the beautiful, young Lady of Shalott surrounded by "Four gray walls, and four gray towers" (15). She knows nothing of the humanity outside of her chambers. Her only knowledge of reality is the shadows she sees through her "mirror clear" (46) and the web she "weaves by night and day" (37). At this point in the ballad, the reader does not know whether the Lady of Shalott is forced to be in this situation or chooses to live a life of complete isolation. She seems quite content with her present surroundings. Looking through her crystal mirror is all she needs to sing her "song that echoes cheerly" (30). The lady has no desire to leave her private world because she is unaware of any other kind of life. She knows very little of the "many-towered Camelot," (5) and intends to keep it that way.
Things suddenly change when the Lady of Shalott observes "two lovers lately wed" (70). She starts to see the possibilities the outside world has to offer, but realizes that these advantages are far beyond her reach. The lady begins to regret her seemingly unimportant life inside her chambers. This passage could be viewed as the gradual aging of the Lady of Shalott. She is developing her consciousness and questioning her existence. She no longer wants to live a life of seclusion, yet she has nowhere to go, or no one to turn to. Tennyson remarks, "She hath no loyal knight and true" (62). It is during this part of the ballad where the curse of unknown origin and consequence is mentioned: "She has heard a whisper say, / A curse is on her if she stay / To look down to Camelot" (39-41). Tennyson arouses curiosity and builds up tension, while " [ . . . ] she weaveth steadily, / And little other care hath she" (43-44). When the Lady of Shalott bemoans, "I am half sick of shadows" the poet marks a turning point of the poem (71). The reader is now attentive and interested in the outcome of the story.