The Lady of Shallot, Who?

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Growing up poetry was never my forte; I always found it to be… superfluous. I always (wrongly) believed that people only wrote poetry to as a means to express their (often unrequited) love for someone. Love was something that I had no interest in as a child, therefore I found poetry irrelevant. I hated how poems always ran me round and round in circles, taunting me with the “true meaning” behind their words. If you want to say something just say! You dressing up an “I love you” in a sparkling gown and royal crown to make it look like something straight out of a Shakespeare play makes me even less inclined to read it. Because I was never very good at it as a child, my dislike for poetry accompanied me throughout the rest of my schooling and, ultimately, to college. Up until last semester, I jumped through hurdles just to make sure that a poetry class never appeared on my schedule.

But then, the unthinkable happened.

Last semester I had a great English professor that absolutely loved poetry; particularly poetry from the British Victorian era. At first, I was a bit put off that half the reading were poetry; I was expecting Victorian literature to focus on novels not poems. Nevertheless, his passion for poetry was actual very contagious. After learning more about the history of aesthetics and reading works like The Mikado, Sleeping Venus, and Picture of Dorian Gray, even though still poetry wasn’t my favorite genre of literature, I had a new found appreciation for it. Fast forward to spring term 2014. I saw that that same professor was teaching a course on poetry. I immediately refused to take the class because of its focus on poetry. But day after day went by and I kept seining that seats for the class were being filled. I finally swallowed my apprehension and decided to sign up for the course. I wasn’t disappointed. I can honestly say that learning more about poetry was actually a very interesting experience. I’m glad I took a leap of faith. Though, I still have a few qualms about poetry; particularly gender.

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Out of the selection of Tennyson poems that I read, I have to say that The Lady of Shallot is my favorite. The vivid imagery of the never-ending fields that “meet the sky” and the beautiful trees that “quiver” paints a clear picture in my mind of how Shallot should appear. However, what really pulls me into this poem is the mystery of the Lady of Shallot. As the protagonist of the poem, I expected to be given the actual name of the Lady. But no; all we’re told is the title of the female protagonist. Though this may be a minor detail that many people would over look or deem insignificant, I can’t help but feel distant from the Lady because I feel as if she is hiding from me. (Never-mind that painting up above; that was Waterhouse’s fantasy and representation of how he imagined her.) We don’t even get a description of her! What does she look like? What color are her eyes? Her hair? The questions are never-ending. The lack of description of the Lady when compared to the overflowing description of Shallot itself and Lancelot is a bit annoyed in that it leaves me unsatisfied. This annoyance is doubled because of the Lady’s lacking background. Where did she come from? Why will she be cursed if she looks directly outside? So many burning questions that Tennyson leaves unanswered! These juxtapose Lancelot’s rather long-winded description. We know that Lancelot has “broad clear brow[s]… coal-black curls” and is wearing “brazen greaves” among a dozen other articles of clothing that are explicitly depicted. Lancelot even has a backstory.

By making the Lady of Shallot so mysterious, it makes me question her identity. But because she is not revealed to posses a real name, and not a title, does that mean that she has no true identity? Or does this imply that her name isn’t important? I feel as though gender roles are obviously at work here. Each section of the poem ends with speech. He first quote is spoken by a reaper who introduces the protagonist “Tis the fairy Lady of Shallot.” It is considered proper etiquette for a gentleman to introduce a lady, which the poem follows. Still, the poem is named Lady of Shallot. The first speaker is a man, which upholds the tradition of men speaking first. This followed by that fact that the Lady doesn’t actually appear until the second section where she is depicted as weaving “by day and night”— an action that is viewed as “womanly.” Throughout this section, no description of the Lady is given, thus implying that she is merely a symbol for the female species; an angel of the house, if you will, and is therefor safe from harm. However, it is only after the Lady sees Lancelot and falls prey to her desire leaving her tower that she is then fated to die. This reoccurring theme of women dying or wanting to die because of unfulfilled love in poetry (and stories) depicts women as defenseless while men get off scot-free. During Tennyson’s time, ideas such as these were common and discouraged women from “deviant” or unwomanly acts for fear of being punished or dying.

This double standard is something that I truly dislike, so maybe I’ll stick to more modern poetry in the future. At least, I hope that modern poetry is more fair to both genders.

One thought on “The Lady of Shallot, Who?

  1. When I first began to read the post I was so mad! Only because I am a poet and I was personally offended lol. But any who I am so happy that your opinion of poetry changed, and you should definitely read this book of poems ( so its short) it is called Head off and Split by Nikky Finny! It is a coming of age story of a black woman poet, so gender, race, and class are all over the novel. If you ever want to borrow it let me know! 🙂

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