Victorian Poetry 41.2 (2003) 287-290
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A Reflection on Fiction and Art in "The Lady of Shalott"
In line 114 of "The Lady of Shalott" (1842) we are told "Out flew the web and floated wide." Tennyson's references to space and spatial relations are sometimes subtle, but prove highly significant for new interpretations of even his best-loved and most discussed poems. Much criticism of "The Lady of Shalott" has seen it as a critique of early nineteenth-century perceptions of the artist/poet, and rested this idea upon the assumption that the Lady's tapestry is "an art three [or one or two or many] times removed from reality, [and that it] is apparently destroyed" when the Lady turns away from it. 1 The Lady's curse, according to such criticism, dooms her to produce an art object that is an inversion of a dim unreality (copied from "shadows" in a "mirror"). It also asserts that her web is as transient as the Lady is herself once she enters the real world (it is "apparently destroyed"). But the line from which this latter sense has been taken does not mention destruction—simply a movement in space: the web flies "Out" and floats "wide." Attention to this detail, I suggest, will enable significant reconsiderations of Tennyson's inscription of the workings of mimesis and the nature of poetic identity in this poem.
The assumption that because the Lady works from mirrored images her art is "removed from reality" is itself problematic. In a footnote Christopher Ricks points out that the mirror is not there simply for the sake of the fairy tale, but because it was a necessary part of a real loom, enabling the worker to see the effect from the right side. 2 The weaver worked from what would become the back of the finished item. If the Lady copies directly from her mirror and produces an image of an inverted (reflected) reality on the back of her web, what is actually created on the front (though the Lady, even with the aid of her mirror, cannot see it aright) is, effectively, a copy of the real (seemingly unreflected) view from her tower window. Some critics have complicated the reflective patterns of the poem, to the point that the Lady is "[teased] out of sight."3 Gerhard Joseph, like David Martin earlier, notes the moment at which Lancelot's image flashes "from the river" into the mirror to create what he calls a "third-order reflection" [End Page 287] (Joseph, pp. 105, 107); this Joseph considers to set up "a perpetual maze in which the putative original image of Lancelot bounces endlessly and without grounding between river and glass, a simulacrum multiplying variety in a wilderness of mirrors" (p. 107). But the river does not reflect the mirror; the reflective trajectory is only one way. The moment is significant instead because this "third-order reflection"—which is in fact no more than a reflection (in the mirror) of a reflection (from the river)—simply shows the Lady Lancelot's image, effectively, the right way round. Mediated by the mirror and the river, this is the closest visual experience of the "real" world outside the Lady has yet had. And such a link between a reflection inside the tower and one outside relates importantly to ideas about poetry and fiction, expressed earlier in the century, as they concern an understanding of the Lady's artistic production.
In "What is Poetry?" (1833), J. S. Mill wrote that "Descriptive poetry consists . . . of things as they appear, not as they are; . . . [things] seen through the medium . . . and arranged in the colours of the imagination set in action by the feelings," and that poetry is "the natural fruit of solitude and meditation."4 Some critics of the 1950s wrote of "The Lady of Shalott" as a comment on the problematic nature of the isolated artistic life, 5 and even those more recent and highly theoretical aesthetic readings do not consider the nature and place of the Lady's...