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  • Getting It Wrong in “The Lady of Shalott”
  • Erik Gray (bio)

Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses famously declares, “Video meliora proboque, / deteriora sequor”—I see what is better, and I approve of it; I pursue what is worse.1 The passage is justly celebrated, because it transforms what could be a simple commonplace—people do wrong, even when they know better—into something far more paradoxical. Medea’s three staccato transitive verbs emphasize the deliberateness of her declaration. She is not succumbing to a sudden temptation, or even to any temptation at all. The way the lines are phrased does not imply a choice of something sinful but desirable over an abstract but unappealing “good.” Medea not only recognizes what is better, she relishes it; yet she actively pursues what is detrimental. The sense of deliberateness is reinforced by Ovid’s use of first-person, present-tense discourse in this passage: at the very moment that she is getting it wrong, Medea is fully aware of what she is doing. Yet self-consciousness benefits her not at all. Without explanation—there is no conjunction between her preferring the better and pursuing the worse, only a dramatic line-break—Medea relinquishes her self-determination and her self-interest at once.

Ovid’s Medea finds a parallel in Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. Most fairytale curses are not brought on consciously or deliberately. Sleeping Beauty, for instance (the subject of a poem in Tennyson’s 1830 volume that was then expanded into an entire sequence, “The Day-Dream,” in 1842), falls under her spell when she pricks her finger—a mere accidental slip of the pin. The Lady of Shalott, by contrast, is aware of the curse that hangs over her, and she brings it upon herself with a series of decisive actions.

She left the web, she left the loom, She made three paces through the room, She saw the water-lily bloom, She saw the helmet and the plume,    She looked down to Camelot.2

The syntax, anaphoric and asyndetic, is even more deliberate than Ovid’s. “After over a hundred lines of mainly intransitive description,” as Herbert Tucker writes, we are suddenly given an “electric series of transitives in [these] lines (not ‘walked,’ even, but with prosodic reinforcement, ‘made three [End Page 45] paces’).”3 Yet even as she performs these actions, the Lady remains conscious of their fateful consequences: “‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried / The Lady of Shalott” (ll. 116–117). The very moment when the Lady at last acts with whole-hearted determination is also the moment when she knowingly gives herself up to an outside force.

The powerful fascination of this scene, I propose, derives from its archetypal familiarity. To put oneself under a curse—to know that one is getting things wrong, and yet to pursue—is essential to the experience of creating art. It has long been a critical commonplace that “The Lady of Shalott,” like many of Tennyson’s early poems, is concerned with the role of the artist. Likewise, critics have often noted how frequently Tennyson’s poetry of this period explores the paradox of deliberately willing away one’s will, actively renouncing agency, as exemplified most explicitly in “The Lotos-Eaters.”4 These two topics are of course closely connected: to become an artist has traditionally been seen as a surrendering of oneself to a higher power, to a Muse or other source of inspiration. But Tennyson’s distinction lies in his equation of artistic creation with a compulsion to pursue what is worse, a consciousness of getting things wrong. This is an experience with which every artist—even the greatest—must be familiar: to know what is better; to know what one approves and admires; and yet with every word, every brushstroke, every stitch, to watch oneself do worse. If artists were unwilling to put themselves under this necessity, there would scarcely be any art.

Although this condition may apply to all art, the paradox is more poignant in the case of the verbal arts, because there is no physical medium intervening between the perception of what is better and its pursuit; criticism and literature both take place...


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pp. 45-59
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