Adapted from the author's "Tennyson and the Ladies of Shalott," Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts, Ed. George P. Landow, Brown U.: 1979.

Decorative Initial A few painters chose to paint the moment when the Lady leaves her island. Hughes and Waterhouse portray her in her boat, and Meteyard portrays her leaving her castle prison. In each of these paintings the Lady appears with the chain that binds the boat, and symbolically herself, to the island. Meteyard's Lady of Shalott, which emphasizes the castle the Lady leaves, shows his Lady escaping the imprisonment of the "four gray walls." Although the painting stylistically resembles a Burne-Jones, the manner in which the Lady is escaping is reminiscent of the escaping lovers in Hunt's Eve of Saint Agnes. Meteyard's scene puts one in mind of a fallen woman, a woman running away to a clandestine meeting with a lover.

And down the river's dim expanse —
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance —
With a glassy countenance....

These lines from the poem tell of the Lady's trancelike, down-river gaze, caused by thoughts of the object of her desire and indicating perhaps that she is not responsible for her actions.

Paintings representing the Lady in her boat were as popular as interior scenes. The Lady setting out for Camelot, alive in her boat, allowed artists like Waterhouse and Hughes to portray the pathos of the "cursed" Lady, who follows her heart knowing she is going to die doing so. Mario Praz has perceived throughout the literature of Romanticism "the inseparability of pleasure and pain and, on the practical side, a search for themes of tormented, contaminated beauty" (The Romantic Agony, 1970). The Victorian artists seemed to have agreed with Edgar Allan Poe, who explained in "The Poetic Principle" that a "certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of true Beauty." Exterior scenes provided the artist a different subject, mood, and set of circumstances with which to work.

The subject, the Lady's demise in the boat as she floats down to Camelot, by its nature demands an outdoor setting, which treatment allows the artist to use nature as a poetic ally reflecting the Lady's death, just as Tennyson did. The mood can best be summarized as that of eloquent tragedy when compared with the wistful longing of the embowered Lady.

Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott of 1888 reveals his careful faithfulness to the setting of the poem. At the close of the day "robed in snowy white" and seated in the boat with her name written on the prow, the Lady loosens the chain that binds her to the island, symbolically freeing herself from her self-imposed imprisonment. As in Meteyard's painting, the Lady sets out in a trancelike state with a "glassy countenance." Departing from the poem, Waterhouse has placed a crucifix and three candles in the prow of the boat, by which means he reinforces the funereal tone of her embarkation. She takes with her the tapestry representing her prior life, which she has surrendered for love, and decorated with scenes of the world that she has determined to join. The single leaf that has fallen into her lap poignantly tells her story: her life is over; she is the "fallen leaf," fallen, dying. For love of Lancelot, she has renounced her life; she is a martyr for love — and a fallen woman.

The dense forest wall of muted earth tones and the subdued gray sky that provide a solemn and mournful background for her funeral barge contrast with the richness of color in the tapestry, which depicts the colorful life she had seen in her magic mirror. Light, shining through broken clouds, highlights the broken reeds in the foreground, another symbol of her death, and the reflections of the tapestry.

Arthur Hughes made a study for The Lady of Shalott in which he captures the fearful, hopeful qualities that one can easily imagine in connection with a young Victorian lady's first tryst. The weeping willow behind her forms a natural bower out of which she leans to look down to Camelot. The impressionistic rendering of light reflecting on the river, the leaves of the willow, and the Lady's dress imparts an enchanted, fairytale quality to the picture.

In 1854 John Everett Millais made a drawing The Lady of Shalott with the Lady recumbent in a tiny boat, hair trailing through the water. This drawing is closely related to Millais's 1851 painting of the drowning Ophelia, the Shakespearean heroine abandoned by Hamlet, whose unrequited love caused her to go insane and drown herself. Millais depicts Ophelia in the act of drowning; her hair and dress partially visible on the water surface merge with the water weeds as she is pulled down.

Millais, who concentrates upon the death itself as a beautiful and romantic event, represents both women in the last moments of life, just as they merge with the watery landscape that envelops them, ending their life for love. In both works Millais juxtaposes life and death. In Ophelia he contrasts the bright green of new grass and spring anemones with a fallen tree trunk positioned threateningly over Ophelia's head whereas in The Lady of Shalott he juxtaposes the flock of young swans floating within the protection of the driftwood with the single swan in the foreground.

The subject of the dead Lady in a boat or barge floating down the river inspired Edward Robert Hughes, William A. Breakspeare, John La Farge, and John Atkinson Grimshaw. This theme interested artists because of the sensuality suggested by dead Lady's recumbent body and the decadent attraction of the union of death and beauty, sensuality and spirituality. One finds the same sentiment in the decadent literature of the period, such as D'Annunzio's Trionfo della Morte in which Giogio, the protagonist, thinks, "How her beauty becomes spiritualized in sickness and in weakness! I like her better when she is thus broken.... I think that in death she will attain to the supreme expression of her beauty. " '

John Atkinson Grimshaw painted the dead Lady of Shalott floating down the river in her funeral barge after having done a similar painting, Elaine, in 1877. Both paintings convey the atmospheric stillness of the dead lady as she floats through the night. The Lady of Shalott ( 1878 ) portrays the dead Lady recumbent in an exotic barge set against a wooded background and moonlit sky whereas Elaine, who also died of unrequited love for Lancelot, is accompanied by the shadowy figure of a boatman as she glides into Camelot.

Edward Robert Hughes, who assisted Hunt in completing the Wadsworth Lady of Shalott, combines an atmospheric wooded scene with an exotic barge and boatman in his own version (plate). Although the boatman in Grimshaw's Elaine fits Tennyson's poem in which Elaine instructs her father to send her body to Camelot on a funeral barge with a boatman, there is no boatman in Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott," in which the Lady sets out for Camelot desiring to participate (however briefly) in life and love. Hughes's addition of the boatman signifies either that his painting should be titled Elaine or that he has assigned a new meaning to the poem by including the symbolical figure of Charon, the surly Greek god who ferried the dead across the river Styx to Hades.

Rossetti, the only painter who shows the Lady's arrival at Camelot, depicts Lancelot looking at her. The subject of the wood engraving, the last quatrain of Tennyson's poem, seems much more in keeping with Rossetti's inevitable association of love and death, union and separation. Although this association of death with love concurs with Edgar Allan Poe's statement in The Philosophy of Composition "The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world," Robert Johnston has shown that the roots of Rossetti's association of love and death can be traced back to his translation The Early Italian Poets, which he began in 1846 and finished in 1861. The association of love and death, union and separation, and the intense desire for reunion with the beloved after death found in The Early Italian Poets and Dante's Vita Nuova (which Rossetti began translating about 1846) crystalized in his personal identification with Dante and his later identification of his wife, Lizzie Siddal, with Beatrice.

The feeling of tension between love and death, union and separation, clearly evident in Rossetti's illustration reflects the emotion that Tennyson's poem elicits in the reader. The Lady has given up everything, even her life, for love, and when she finally meets her love, her life is over. Finally together, physically in the same exterior world, they are apart. Rossetti captures the essence of Tennyson's juxtaposition of interior and exterior realms, the separation or isolation of the unattainable embowered Lady and the Lady who gives up everything for love in his design. The Lady is still symbolically contained by the canopy of the boat, and the chain that once held it, still with her and prominently shown, seems to become one with the clasps of the cloak around her neck. She is still imprisoned, now by death, like the figure in his much later Beata Beatrix, whose subject, in heaven, mourns her separation from her lover.

These works present different aspects of the story of the Lady of Shalott, each shaped by the interpretation of the individual artist who "allegorized on his own hook." Tennyson complained that the Pre-Raphaelites' illustrations for the Moxon Tennyson, especially Hunt's, did not accurately represent the content of the poem. Perhaps Ruskin made the most accurate statement about the poem and all the representations of it when he told Tennyson in a letter, "Many of the plates are very noble things, though not, it seems to me, illustrations of your poems. I believe, in fact, that good pictures never can be; they are always another poem, subordinate but wholly different from the poet's conception, and serve chiefly to show the reader how variously the same verses may affect various minds" (Ruskin, 36:165).


Victorian Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson Lady of Shalott W. H. Hunt

Last modified 30 November 2004