Saturday, May 30th, 2015...10:52 pm

The Lady of Shalott: The Women Behind the Art

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Lady of ShalottLady of Shalott by Elizabeth Siddal (1853)
Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt (1886-1905)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1832 poem below

“Four gray walls, and four gray towers / Overlook a space of flowers, / And the silent isle imbowers / The Lady of Shalott.” Throughout the decades of the 19th century, artist after artist focused on this somber edifice, depicting the world of the Lady of Shalott within its bounds. The publishing of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Lady of Shalott” in 1832 sparked this widespread appeal in 19th century England. Focusing on different scenes, and emphasizing specific symbols, artists such as Gabriel Dante Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal, and William Holman Hunt strove to interpret the role of woman through the figure of the Lady. These assorted understandings of women’s roles illuminates women’s place at the time in which the piece of art was created, as well as how the individual artist personally related to the subject. Tennyson, writing in the 1830s, was grappling with the foundation of the Cult of Domesticity; Elizabeth Siddal, drawing in the 1850s, dealt personally with the issues of women and society; and William Holman Hunt, finishing his final painting on the subject in 1905, depicts the anxiety felt at the turn of the century towards the new, modern woman. The legend of the Lady of Shalott and its myriad interpretations throughout the 19th century serve as a lens in which the reader and viewer can witness the progression of women’s roles in society.

According to Debra N. Mancoff in her book The Return of King Arthur: The Legend through Victorian Eyes, Tennyson, and others, looked to the Middle Ages as “a universal and timeless code for society’s aspirations… [Arthur] spoke directly to any heart that valued honor, loyalty, bravery, and love.”1 By painting this age as an ideal one, the messages conveyed in such stories could be read as models for how to live in contemporary life. One always looks to a time when society “got it right.” Ancient Greece and Rome serve as one such example of a time and culture that has been idolized and mimicked throughout the ages. It just so happens that the legend of King Arthur spoke to the people of 19th century England, in particular. In a time of great change, of industrialization and imperialism, society was looking for an “historic” model, one rooted in their own land. In the case of the Lady of Shalott, Tennyson and his artistic compatriots use the Arthurian legend to cement or explore ideal womanhood.

Countless scholars have explored the meanings behind the various interpretations of this legend. In Marysa Demoor’s analysis of Tennyson’s poem, she focuses on his inclusion of female deranged characters as masked references to the poet’s own struggle with mental illness.2 Elaine Shefer, in her essay on Siddal’s drawing, interprets the artist’s work as a “conflict between being a woman and an artist in 19th century England.”3 Sharyn R. Udall looks at William Holman Hunt’s depiction, stating that it focuses on “the issues of identity, power, and gender… [and] woman’s physical duality.”4 She compares his work with the words of the poet, and notes the inconsistencies as well as the similarities. Though Udall includes Shefer’s essay in her notes, she does not spend any time looking at the two renditions together. The analysis in this essay agrees with some of the interpretations made by previous scholars,5 but also seeks to create a larger narrative between the three works – poem, drawing, and painting.

The definition of the perfect woman was being discussed widely in the 1830s, not only among those of the artistic world. The decade was one of transition, between a neo-classical ideal patronized by Napoleonic France, and a romantic one, a response to the rigidity of classical symmetry and perfection. This shift was found to affect every facet of life. Instructional and etiquette manuals were being published for a female audience, educating them in how to properly act and fit into their appropriate roles. These publications were also being reproduced in the backs of regional newspapers, spreading their proliferation and influence.6 In these works, women were instructed “to be ignorant of all that the world calls pleasure,” and to be happy and content of said ignorance. Perhaps one can look at the 1830s as the beginning of the Cult of Domesticity, or the pushing of woman into the private sphere of the home: “Let home be now your empire, your world!”7

Philosophers, as well, were writing about the nature of the female sex, bringing rational and scientific legitimacy to the way society was treating its women. The two examples mentioned in this essay bookend the period of the 1830s. First is Immanuel Kant, a philosopher living from 1724 to 1804, emerging from the periods of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. In his essay Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, he labels women as the “fair sex,” while labeling man as the “noble sex.” Simply in his characterization of man and woman, he creates a hierarchy of the sexes. Woman should not be educated in the same topics as men, for they “might have a beard to boot.”8 By masculinizing an educated woman, and removing any attractiveness that she may have had, he dissuades any female reader, though by his description, women should not be reading philosophy, from pursuing any such sort of education. A century later, Friedrich Nietzsche writes about the same topic. Instead of using the term “fair sex,” he associates women as “the weaker sex.” Nietzsche condemns woman for the progress she has made within the early 19th century. The strides she has accomplished have caused woman to “[unlearn] to fear man… [And] the woman who ‘unlearns to fear’ sacrifices her most womanly instincts.”9 He sees this movement towards more independence, a loss of the selfless quality of woman in favor of a “selfish” attitude for personal development, as a deterioration of woman as woman.

In Tennyson’s poem, he addresses many of the issues associated with the woman question. The poem isAlfred, Lord Tennyson broken up into four sections. The first sets the scene, the second describes the Lady’s role, the third introduces Sir Lancelot and the Lady’s downfall, and the fourth recounts the Lady’s demise. Each of these sections illuminates important characteristics of woman that connect the poem to the larger discussion of women’s roles.

Nature and floral imagery festoons the first section. Though several decades preceding artists such as Gauguin and Denis, just like them, Alfred Lord Tennyson seems to be likening his female protagonist to nature. The reason for the comparison can be debated. Nature and foliage can represent fertility and fecundity, but as the Lady of Shalott, as mentioned in the second section, does not have any chance of procreating for “she hath no loyal knight,” this is highly doubtful. Another reading of this comparison can be the unbridled power of Mother Nature. She is unpredictable; she is dangerous. Perhaps this is the reason for the great contrast between “the stream that runneth” and the “four gray walls, and four gray towers.” The colorful descriptions of the flowers and trees are hardened by the bleak and dreary description of the towers. This edifice is an attempt to contain the power of woman. Though among the water, crops, and botany, the Lady is separated, “all inrail’d,” from her natural landscape by this manmade structure.

Part two of the poem speaks to her daily role in the towers. By relegating her to the task of repetitive weaving, she has no time to do anything else. Repetitive, mundane work is highly oppositional to the wily work of Mother Nature. Comparing this to the idea of the Cult of Domesticity, by placing woman rigidly in the home, she can be controlled and watched over. Again, Tennyson hints at the perilous nature of woman, as he describes her as living “with little… fear.” Looking back to Nietzsche, he warns of the woman who “unlearns” fear.

It is the last stanza of section two that pushes the action for the second half of the poem. It would seem that Tennyson, as a man writing about the sentiment of a woman, proves to be ignorant of her innermost feelings. Tennyson writes, “in her web she still delights.” How quickly she proclaims, then, that she is “half sick of shadows,” of recreating the world she sees in her mirror. Until she speaks for herself, Tennyson’s description of the Lady paints her as happy in her role, but this is far from the truth. Ultimately, her dissatisfaction leads to her undoing.

Part three of the poem, comprised of five stanzas, mostly focuses on the description of Sir Lancelot, a man of the “noble sex.” It is only in the last stanza that the narrator again looks to what the Lady is doing. Before the arrival of the dashing knight, it seems that Lady of Shalott spends her days “lean[ing] on a velvet bed,” doing nothing but spinning her web. Tennyson paints man as mover and shaker. With the introduction of man, it is only then that the Lady of Shalott gets up and walks – “she left the web, she left the loom / she made three paces thro’ the room.” Although man is the catalyst for all things, it is still the fault of woman for her fall and demise – “’the curse is come upon me,’ cried The Lady of Shalott.” It is curiosity, or to refer to Kant, a desire for education, that undoes the Lady.

Part four recounts the ultimate demise of the Lady in her tower. It is interesting to note the gendering of “the broad stream” in the third line of this section. Nature elements are generally thought of as feminine, but here, Tennyson refers to it with masculine pronouns. Perhaps this is because the stream now carries the burden of the fallen woman who flows down towards Camelot in a boat carved with her name, just as a patriarchal society must deal with the “woman problem.”

There are two possible readings of “below the carven stern she wrote, The Lady of Shalott.” If we look at her as a powerful woman who is ultimately unable to be contained in the tower, we can see this as an act of defiance, or a desire to be associated with such a catastrophic occurrence. The Lady can also be read as a woman who is accused of being too similar to the impulsive character of Mother Nature. She has been so trodden upon, for this reason, that she has taken up the role of submissive and passive, and therefore, writing her name on the stern of the boat represents her acceptance of fault and responsibility for her terrible actions.

Taking all sections of Tennyson’s poem into consideration, he represents woman as particularly dangerous. He compares her to mother nature and describes her as slightly fearless. He also places upon her the traditional role of woman during the 1830s – he relegates her to an interior space and to completing a mundane and never-ending chore. In sum, the poem seems to reflect the contradictory opinions of women at the time. Tennyson offers a moralizing tale, in which he describes woman’s innate characteristics and provides a solution, to contain women’s impulses, as well as punishment for when women break out of their constraints.

Elizabeth Siddal, in 1853, two decades later, was one of the first artists to attempt to recreate a scene from Tennyson’s famous poem. Twenty years can prove a long time in a quickly progressing society such as that of 19th century Europe. Women’s place in the culture of the 1850s can be explained through the changes in dress. As the century progressed, corseting became increasingly extreme. While the beginning of the 1800s saw the Empire waistline, by the 1850s, a corseted, bell-shaped silhouette was desirable. By 1856, the cage crinoline would be introduced making women’s garments all the more cumbersome. The wealthier the woman, the more difficult it was to move around in one’s dress and participate in manual labor. This is the world in which Siddal was drawing her Lady of Shalott.

Unlike many of her contemporary women, she was in an artistic circle that championed differing aesthetics. She dressed differently, and more unrestrictedly, than the average Victorian woman. In her portraits and self-portraits, she can be seen with loose, un-styled hair, differing greatly from the traditional up-do of the time. In an 1854 portrait, she is seen with an un-corseted bodice. Though her style greatly differed from those around her, she still was subject to the restrictions placed upon women. For example, her drawings and artistic works were “referred to as ‘designs,’”10 an endearing and unprofessional term, by her husband, and artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Because she was a woman, her work was not taken as seriously as that of her male counterparts.

In Elaine Shefer’s analysis of Elizabeth Siddal and her rendition of the Lady of Shalott, she argues that Siddal not only captures the persona of a contemporary woman, but that she also, and most importantly, is communicating her experience as a woman artist. The Lady of Shalott serves, in sum, as Lady of Shalotta self-portrait of sorts.

Siddal depicts the scene in Tennyson’s third section of the poem, in which “out flew the web and floated wide; [and] the mirror crack’d from side to side.” But, unlike Tennyson, she doesn’t depict much action – there are no paces and there is no physical separation from her task. In this version, the Lady of Shalott simply looks over her shoulder, timidly, not wanting to step too far away from her role as a woman. Her piety is placed right on the table, where Siddal draws in a crucifixion statue. The only true hint of a desire to break free is the small addition of a bird, perched atop the loom, seeming to sing out the window.

Perhaps another pair of lines from Tennyson’s poem rings out in Siddal’s drawing: “But in her web Lady of Shalott - Siddalshe still delights… ‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said the Lady of Shalott.” The figure of the woman in Siddal’s drawing depicts the first half of this pair of verses. Besides the quick glimpse out the window, she seems quite pleased and happy with the work she is doing, so much so, that she continues the work even with the cracked mirror and broken tapestry. It is the bird, however, that cries that she is sick of the weaving, of recreating the external world in her secluded tower. Pointing towards the window, and seemingly shouting its song, the bird yearns for the outdoors, and perhaps, for the knight riding by.

Unlike Tennyson, Siddal is not attempting to define the role of woman. Instead, she is exploring and reflecting on her own experience as a woman of the 19th century. She does not blame the Lady for her curiosity. The destruction caused by her look out the window is quite downplayed, and at first, might even be overlooked. Her drawing displays the hesitation and conflict that woman feels between her prescribed role and her internal desire.

Fast forward another three decades, and William Holman Hunt is depicting the same scene as Elizabeth Lady of Shalott - HuntSiddal. This rendition is one of several created by Hunt, but marks his final go at the subject matter. As compared to Siddal’s drawing, this painting shows a lot more action. The Lady of Shalott is being entangled in her misdoings, but she is not passively allowing such constriction. She actively pulls at the strings, trying to set herself free. Her hair rises wildly in the air, depicting her almost as a mad woman. Sharyn R. Udall compares her mane to the mass of snakes on Medusa’s head.11 The Lady’s face, however, does not convey madness or danger. She seems determined to break free from her restrictions, but she does not seem to wish ill will on its cause.

William Holman Hunt painted this version of the Lady of Shalott between the years 1886 and 1905. The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was a very drastic turning point for women, and the future rights that would be attained can be seen as a rebirth of womanhood. Whereas in the 1830s religious activities were the only endeavor outside of the domestic sphere in which women could partake, the turn of the century enabled women to push past the walls of the home and “move into the public sphere where they could exercise their moral authority over issues such as public sanitation and education.”12 In his painting, Holman Hunt hints at this idea of woman emerging from her domestic sphere. Firstly, she is included in the external space of the drawing reflected in the mirror. Because she stands in front of the reflective surface, her back is visible in the scene depicting Sir Lancelot. The Lady, and by extension, woman, has not yet stepped outside, but she is slowly emerging.

The loom in which the Lady of Shalott stands entangled features unique stands. The stand on the farLady of Shalott - Hunt left is topped with what looks like a scallop shell, the same used in the depiction of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. As a symbol, this addition can be seen as speaking to the rebirth of women’s roles as the 19th century comes to a close.

One of the painted scenes behind the Lady of Shalott depicts Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides.13 In this tale, the Greek god steals a golden apple from a tree. Perhaps this Greco-Roman allusion can be likened to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, where Eve is the figure who takes a bite of the forbidden fruit. William Holman Hunt, through this comparison, may be criticizing the Lady for this sinful deed, but he can also be representing woman’s thirst for knowledge outside of the domestic sphere.

Lastly, similar to Siddal’s drawing, this painting includes not just one, but several birds. Not only are Lady of Shalott - Huntthese birds separate from the Lady’s body, but she also wears a bodice that closely resembles peacock feathers.14 She has become the bird, singing to the outside, yearning to be set free. In the foreground, two birds soar by her feet. Above her head, two birds begin to take flight out of the window. The trajectory of their journey reflects that of women throughout the 19th century.

In the 1830s, Tennyson’s poem sought to define and allocate a space for women, but by the turn of the century, William Holman Hunt was able to capture the volatile, yet exciting progression that society had made in relation to its women. Throughout the century, it is important to identify the experiences of women themselves, and not take for granted what was promulgated by the patriarchal society. Elizabeth Siddal’s drawing perfectly captures the tension between expectations and desires that women internalized, as men, such as Tennyson, sought to define female borders.


The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1832)

Part I
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
       To many-tower’d Camelot;
The yellow-leaved waterlily
The green-sheathed daffodilly
Tremble in the water chilly
       Round about Shalott.
Willows whiten, aspens shiver.
The sunbeam showers break and quiver
In the stream that runneth ever
By the island in the river
       Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
       The Lady of Shalott.
Underneath the bearded barley,
The reaper, reaping late and early,
Hears her ever chanting cheerly,
Like an angel, singing clearly,
       O’er the stream of Camelot.
Piling the sheaves in furrows airy,
Beneath the moon, the reaper weary
Listening whispers, ‘ ‘Tis the fairy,
       Lady of Shalott.’
The little isle is all inrail’d
With a rose-fence, and overtrail’d
With roses: by the marge unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken sail’d,
       Skimming down to Camelot.
A pearl garland winds her head:
She leaneth on a velvet bed,
Full royally apparelled,
       The Lady of Shalott.
Part II
No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmed web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
       To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be;
Therefore she weaveth steadily,
Therefore no other care hath she,
       The Lady of Shalott.
She lives with little joy or fear.
Over the water, running near,
The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.
Before her hangs a mirror clear,
       Reflecting tower’d Camelot.
And as the mazy web she whirls,
She sees the surly village churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls
       Pass onward from Shalott.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
       Goes by to tower’d Camelot:
And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
       The Lady of Shalott.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
       And music, came from Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead
Came two young lovers lately wed;
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
       The Lady of Shalott.
Part III
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flam’d upon the brazen greaves
       Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
       Beside remote Shalott.
The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
       As he rode down from Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
       Beside remote Shalott.
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
       As he rode down from Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
       Moves over green Shalott.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
       As he rode down from Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:’
       Sang Sir Lancelot.
She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
       She look’d 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.
Part IV
In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
       Over tower’d Camelot;
Outside the isle a shallow boat
Beneath a willow lay afloat,
Below the carven stern she wrote,
       The Lady of Shalott.
A cloudwhite crown of pearl she dight,
All raimented in snowy white
That loosely flew (her zone in sight
Clasp’d with one blinding diamond bright)
       Her wide eyes fix’d on Camelot,
Though the squally east-wind keenly
Blew, with folded arms serenely
By the water stood the queenly
       Lady of Shalott.
With a steady stony glance—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Beholding all his own mischance,
Mute, with a glassy countenance—
       She look’d down to Camelot.
It was the closing of the day:
She loos’d the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
       The Lady of Shalott.
As when to sailors while they roam,
By creeks and outfalls far from home,
Rising and dropping with the foam,
From dying swans wild warblings come,
       Blown shoreward; so to Camelot
Still as the boathead wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her chanting her deathsong,
       The Lady of Shalott.
A longdrawn carol, mournful, holy,
She chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her eyes were darken’d wholly,
And her smooth face sharpen’d slowly,
       Turn’d to tower’d Camelot:
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
       The Lady of Shalott.
Under tower and balcony,
By garden wall and gallery,
A pale, pale corpse she floated by,
Deadcold, between the houses high,
       Dead into tower’d Camelot.
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
To the planked wharfage came:
Below the stern they read her name,
       The Lady of Shalott.
They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest,
Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest.
There lay a parchment on her breast,
That puzzled more than all the rest,
       The wellfed wits at Camelot.
‘The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not,—this is I,
       The Lady of Shalott.’

[1] Debra N. Mancoff, The Return of King Arthur: The Legend through Victorian Eyes, (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1995), 11.

[2] Marysa Demoor, “’His Way is Thro’ Chaos and the Bottomless and Pathless’: The Gender of Madness in Alfred Tennyson’s Poetry,” Neophilologus 86 (2002).

[3] Elaine Shefer, “Elizabeth Siddal’s ‘Lady of Shalott,’” Woman’s Art Journal 9, no. 1 (1988), 24.

[4] Sharyn R. Udall, “Between Dream and Shadow: William Holman Hunt’s ‘Lady of Shalott,’” Woman’s Art Journal 11, no. 1 (1990), 38.

[5] Perhaps it is interesting to note that they are all women.

[6] Lisa Shaver, “Stepping Outside the ‘Ladies’ Department’: Women’s Expanding Rhetorical Boundaries,” College English 71, no. 1 (2008): 48-69.

[7] Shaver, “Ladies Department,” 56.

[8] Immanuel Kant, “Of the Difference of the Sublime and of the Beautiful in the Counterrelation of Both Sexes,” in Woman in Western Thought, ed. Martha Lee Osborne, (New York: Random House, 1979), 155.

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil,” in Woman in Western Thought, ed. Martha Lee Osborne (New York: Random House, 1979), 233.

[10] Shefer, “Siddal,” 23.

[11] Udall, “Between Dream,” 36.

[12] “Introduction to Women in the Progressive Era.” The National Women’s History Museum Presents: Reforming Their World – Women in the Progressive Era. 2007. Accessed May 16, 2015.

[13] Meg Mariotti, “The Lady of Shalott: Pre-Raphaelite Attitudes Towards Woman in Society,” The Victorian Web, 2004, Accessed May 16, 2015.

[14] Ibid.



Demoor, Marysa. “’His Way is Thro’ Chaos and the Bottomless and Pathless’: The Gender of Madness in Alfred Tennyson’s Poetry.” Neophilologus. 86. 2002.


“Introduction to Women in the Progressive Era.” The National Women’s History Museum Presents: Reforming Their World – Women in the Progressive Era. 2007.


Kant, Immanuel. “Of the Difference of the Sublime and of the Beautiful in the Counterrelation of Both Sexes.” Woman in Western Thought. ed. Martha Lee Osborne. New York: Random House. 1979.


Mancoff, Debra N. The Return of King Arthur: The Legend through Victorian Eyes. New York: H.N. Abrams. 1995.


Mariotti, Meg. “The Lady of Shalott: Pre-Raphaelite Attitudes Towards Woman in Society.” The Victorian Web. 2004.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Beyond Good and Evil.” Woman in Western Thought. ed. Martha Lee Osborne. New York: Random House. 1979.


Shaver, Lisa. “Stepping Outside the ‘Ladies’ Department’: Women’s Expanding Rhetorical Boundaries.” College English. 71. no. 1. 2008.


Shefer, Elaine. “Elizabeth Siddal’s ‘Lady of Shalott.’” Woman’s Art Journal. 9. no. 1. 1988.


Udall, Sharyn R. “Between Dream and Shadow: William Holman Hunt’s ‘Lady of Shalott.’” Woman’s Art Journal. 11. no. 1. 1990.

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