At the time Tennyson wrote "The Palace of Art" and "The Lady of Shalott," he was concerned with the problem of telling an engaging story while also exercising his talent for creating static set-piece descriptions. In the former poem Tennyson found one way of doing this: he created a narrative out of a lengthy progression of static tableaus. In the latter poem Tennyson achieves the same feat in a different way, by dividing the poem into a descriptive and a narrative portion. The first two sections of the poem present a series of static descriptions narrated in the present tense, such as:
"There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott."
By using the present tense, Tennyson frames the Lady of Shalott's weaving as a continuous, static action which does not and will not change. Indeed, the threat of the curse forces her to maintain this static existence. Thus the first two sections of the poem simply describe the Lady's unchanging life and the unchanging landscapes that surround her. In the third and fourth sections, however, Tennyson switches to the past tense as he narrates the story of the Lady's encounter with Sir Lancelot:
"She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
'The curse is come upon me,' cried
The Lady of Shalott."
The change in tense indicates that the poem has now become a story of unique events rather than a description of static conditions. The introduction of a new element — Sir Lancelot — into the Lady's life concides with the introduction of change and movement into her previously static situation. However, in attempting to act and to change her life, the Lady triggers the curse which will soon kill her. When she tries to become the protagonist of a story rather than a participant in a static description, she dies.
1. Does the Lady of Shalott's fate suggest that change and action equal death, or did Tennyson intend to convey a more ambiguous message?
2. What were Tennyson's views on narrative as opposed to description, and how does the tragic ending of this poem reflect those views?
3. The Pre-Raphaelites excelled at painting static scenes which had clear narrative content. For example, Holman Hunt's The Shadow of Death depicts a single moment in Christ's life, but that moment suggests the entire story of Christ's crucifixion. Do paintings like this resolve the tension Tennyson sees as existing between description and narration?
Last modified 30 September 2004