Alfred Lord Tennyson was not called a romantic poet in his homeland of England, but his work contained aspects of romantic literature. Highlighting these aspects of romanticism in Tennyson’s work is difficult without first defining romanticism and identifying its underlying principles.
According to Webster’s Dictionary romanticism is “a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement originating in the 18th century, characterized chiefly by a reaction against neoclassicism and an emphasis on the imagination and emotions.” Neoclassicism was the artistic form used prior to the romantic period that focused on an acceptance of the established forms of religion and an emphasis on style similar to the ancient Greek and Roman poetry. Religion was not the only establishment upheld in classical or neoclassical writing; social and gender roles acceptable to their time era were also upheld. Romanticism, rather than blindly accept these establishments, questioned them through deep emotions and great imagination.
Webster’s dictionary goes on to say romanticism used “…autobiographical material, an exaltation of the primitive and the common man, an appreciation of external nature, an interest in the remote, a predilection for melancholy…” Romantic poetry often focused on nature with great description, especially the lonely, hidden aspects of nature. Whether in nature or in a more urban environment the characters of romantic poetry are seen having great emotional swings, with death as a reoccurring theme.
Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott, poses an interesting picture of breaking away from social norms. The Lady is confined to a tower to weave shadows of a life she cannot live and begins to feel discontent in her role. “What a secluded maid sees are but pictures, but the hour comes when she says, ‘I am half sick of shadows.’ To know that the pictures of the mind are shadows is to be wild to seek reality.”(Brooke 128) Amid The Lady’s everyday life she begins to want to experience something new to break out of her role as a woman; to become a unique individual. This desire to break away from the standard social roles of women in society is one way in which Tennyson’s use of romanticism in reaction against neoclassicism is demonstrated.
Within The Lady of Shalott, there appears a lot of nature and emotional description. Everything outside of the tower is bright and beautiful - the river, the grass, the fields of rye, the people walking by in love or in morning - all alive and beautiful while The Lady sits in her tower and weaves shadows of that life that she is forbidden to experience. Bright and beautiful, the world points to everything that The Lady is denied: love, color, human interaction, and life. The Lady sees all of the life and color in her mirror, while her surroundings the gray tower her loom and mirror give the impression of restriction, close control, and imprisonment.
“His broad clear brow in sun light glowed;
On burnished hooves...