“The Lady of Shalott” Response by Elena N

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?

Works Cited

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>.

4 thoughts on ““The Lady of Shalott” Response by Elena N

  1. I really enjoyed the focus you placed on the mirror. I would like to expand on this from a different perspective.

    There is some speculation as to where Tennyson got his inspiration to write the poem, but I choose to believe he is taking a page from the book of Arthurian literature. Camelot, Lancelot, and Elaine rings a bell in my mind (though I may be biased as I took medieval literature last year, so perhaps this is still fresh in my mind). In a nut shell, (for those of you unfamiliar with the story) Elaine falls in love with Lancelot at her father’s jousting tournament where Lancelot competes in disguise, wearing one of her love tokens in battle. He still loves Guinevere however, but Elaine misinterprets the acceptance of her love token as his declaration to love her back. Elaine famously asks the fair knight: “suffer me not to die for your love.” He does not take her seriously in her threat to die from love-sickness, and in turn, she doesn’t eat or drink for 8 days, and requests to be sent down the river to Camelot (she then becomes the Lady of Shalott).

    So… getting back on track. Elaine claims that God made her fall in love, and that is the only offense she has committed. What the problem is, however, is that she loves Lancelot too much or out of measure. I think with regards to the mirror, we can shed even more light on the poem in 2 ways: firstly, I believe her curse is a curse of love – love is a curse in her situation. Looking in the mirror and seeing Lancelot is a constant reminder of her loss and rejection. The images in the mirror are a constant reminder of this, what she is missing out on out there. In a sense, Lancelot is also the curse himself. If it had not been for her love of Lancelot, if it had not been his rejection, if it had not been for him appearing in her mirror, The Lady of Shalott would be fine; she would have never gone and looked out the window. The curse of being in love with him got her in this maiden-in-distress-locked-in-a-tower situation in the first place. Paradoxically though, by forcing herself to go to the window and look at him is Elaine’s way of confronting her curse. This leads me to my second point: I feel as though the mirror shattering is the onset, but also the ending of her suffering. She does feel the full weight of her curse (the hardships of her love), by the shattering of the mirror, but in a sense she is simultaneously breaking free of these feelings, which have helped to create her own prison. She is free of seeing everyone’s reflections and in turn her own dwelling on her feelings.

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  2. I did not know of the mirror as vanity reference before, thanks. Maybe since the Lady of Shallot has left the tower and now must suffer the curse, Lancelot seeing her as just a “lovely face” she has become the reflection of the person that she used to be and is now just a piece of art or shadow of what she is only to be glanced at and no longer appreciated as the person she was. I never thought of this before.

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  3. I most agree with the interpretation of the mirror as an incomplete and finite representation of reality: just as the Lady of Shalott is confined to conduct her craft in the tall tower, so is the world confined within the frame of the mirror. By extension, if we use Socratic thought, her art is thus a mere facsimile of the manufacture (real world) represented in the mirror. In other words, her art is less than the shadows cast upon the allegorical cave. I offer that the Lady of Shalott dies at the end of the poem not because she chooses to look away from the mirror and down at Camelot, but that she is driven mad by frustration over her confinement in the tower and the parameters imposed on her world and craft. The poem is unclear about who confines her or imposes these parameters, but I offer that the appearance of Lancelot suggests an oppressive, dominant patriarchy is what limits the Lady. Her turning away from the mirror signifies a revolt against the patriarchy, and as the break in the mirror renders the mirror no longer functional, the Lady’s madness represents her inability to continue functioning in her limited role within the world.

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  4. I agree with you on the fact that the mirror is a finite representation of reality because she is only capable of seeing as much as is within the scope of the mirror and this does in fact contribute to the theme of isolation. The only reality she is enabled to experience first hand is her art and not much else thus her art is finite. However, I don’t think that it is because she looks down unto Camelot nor her looking at lancelot why shadows befall her sights still. I think it is a little deeper than that. Rather than basing it solely on her quest for Lancelot or her sighting of him, note as well that she showed signs of being lonely and isolated prior to seeing lancelot, she felt this way when the damsels passed, newly wed lovers and the funeral possessions that took place and these made her weary as well. I want to extend that it is this need of connection, company and love why she leave the tower and opts to go after Lancelot, he came about just when her resolve was broken. Though Tennyson shows clearly that she was made for art and not of the world thus the world even when she steps into it physically remains a shadow. That being said I agree that upon her death she does in fact remains what she was intended to be, art.

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