The Mirror in Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott
Upon my first reading of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, I found the Lady’s mirror to be a particularly intriguing aspect of the poem, and one worth delving into.
First, a bit of history. Traditionally, the allegorical figures of Prudence and Truth were said to carry mirrors. Partly due to the myth of Narcissus, however, the mirror has since become more closely associated with vanity and deception, and this is the most common understanding of mirrors from the Renaissance onward (“Signs and Symbols”). It is interesting to keep these historical interpretations in mind while reading the poem.
When the mirror is first mentioned, Tennyson writes, “And moving thro’ a mirror clear/That hangs before her all the year/ Shadows of the world appear” (46-8). I found this line to be particularly interesting because Tennyson describes the mirror as “clear,” yet “shadows” are dark and ambiguous. In fact, the Lady herself soon states that she is “half sick of shadows” (71). To me, this paradox suggests that, though the mirror reflects the outside world and “magic sights” (65), the Lady of Shalott is very much aware that she can only partake in the imitation of the outside world and that all she sees is not as vivid as reality. This basic notion seems to be the most common understanding of the mirror in The Lady of Shalott. However, it is also worth noting that a mirror can only reveal a finite frame of the outside world, and the Lady does not only see a representation of reality, but can only see what happens to be within the scope of the mirror. This speaks to the aforementioned interpretation of the mirror as a symbol for deceit.
Drawing from Friday’s lecture, if we think of the Lady of Shalott as an artist, it means that her art is an incomplete and finite representation of reality and of the world (not to mention that her art is a representation of a representation). For me, this seems to translate into the theme of isolation present in The Lady of Shalott. Because of her curse, she can only participate in the world by depicting it and cannot join the world herself.
When the Lady of Shalott does look down on Camelot, however, the mirror is destroyed and her art is lost in the wind (114-15). I wonder if this means we can think of the mirror in terms of truth, as well. Mirrors also commonly represent personal reflection and self image, and Tennyson writes that the Lady looks to Camelot “with a glassy countenance” (130) and she is later described as “a gleaming shape” (156), which seems to connect the Lady herself to the symbol of the mirror. When she chooses to look down on Camelot, it almost seems that the Lady loses her sense of self and her inspiration as an artist. This certainly yields questions about the extent to which an artist can participate in a normal life.
Given these ideas about the mirror’s significance, the poem’s conclusion demands to be considered. When the Lady’s curse is finally upon her, the bright colours that describe Camelot and Sir Lancelot give way to more “shadow”-like depictions of Camelot: “In the stormy east-wind straining/ The pale yellow woods were waning” (118-19). This perhaps speaks to the idea that the Lady of Shalott could never see the reality of Camelot. The shadows she longed to escape seem to follow her once she resolves to look directly at Lancelot. Furthermore, when the Lady dies, she is reduced to nothing more than “a lovely face” (169). With her title (notice that her actual name is never stated) written “round the prow” of the boat (161), I can’t help but think of art exhibited in a gallery as the people of Camelot simply gaze down at her. To me, this suggests the loss of identity discussed before.
What are your thoughts? Which interpretation of the mirror do you most agree with? What do you think of the mirror in relation to the poem’s conclusion?
Lord Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lady of Shalott.” 1842. The Victorian Era. Ed. Black Joseph et al. 2nd ed. Peterborough: Broadview, 2009. 179-81. Print.
“Signs and Symbols.” Fitzwilliam Museum. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2015. <http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/pharos/index_front.html>.