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Getting It Wrong in “The Lady of Shalott”

Gray, Erik I.

In what follows I begin by considering the paradox of conscious error, examining its role in a number of Tennyson’s early poems. I then look at Tennyson’s three major re-envisionings of “The Lady of Shalott,” which demonstrate his continuing fascination with this paradox as an essential element of artistic creation. The first rewriting occurred when Tennyson significantly revised “The Lady of Shalott” for republication in 1842. The revisions blur the distinctions between Shalott and Camelot and so reinforce the sense that the Lady remains an artist when she submits to the curse and quits her tower. The next two rewritings of the story both come in the 1859 volume, Idylls of the King. This, the earliest version of Tennyson’s great work, contains four episodes, the middle two of which, “Vivien” and “Elaine,” both revisit the story of the Lady of Shalott; in the completed Idylls, the same two poems, now retitled “Merlin and Vivien” and “Lancelot and Elaine,” remain together at the center of the poem. “Merlin and Vivien” picks up the image of the “bold seër … seeing all his own mischance” from “The Lady of Shalott” and makes him the principal figure of the story. In doing so, the idyll draws out the central action of the earlier poem, the conscious bringing on of the curse, to almost unbearable length. What in “The Lady of Shalott” might seem a momentary impulse is shown in “Merlin and Vivien” in extreme slow motion as a disastrously deliberate submission. “Lancelot and Elaine,” meanwhile, elaborates and expands the basic plot of “The Lady of Shalott,” as Tennyson noted himself.xvii This retelling of the story reinforces once again the lesson of deteriora sequor: the central characters clearly see the distress they are causing themselves, yet they carry on. In conclusion I look at one last “rewriting” -- an unpublished poem in which Tennyson closely echoes the conclusion of “The Lady of Shalott”-- in order to recall that not all poetic consciousness is consciousness of error. Far more often Tennyson was able to recognize that he had found the words he wanted.

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Title
Victorian Poetry

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Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Publisher
West Virginia University Press
Published Here
May 18, 2015