Tennyson & Waterhouse: Shared Visions of The Lady of Shalott

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888.

The Lady of Shalott, painted in oil on canvas by John William Waterhouse in 1888, inspired by the poem titled, “The Lady of Shalott,” written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in 1842, now housed in the Tate Gallery, London, England, UK, from the late Pre-Raphaelite historical period of art created in England for the Royal Academy, at the end of the reign of Queen Victoria.

In Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” based upon medieval Arthurian legend, a mysterious lady weaves an extraordinary tapestry that depicts detailed images of a busy countryside.  She lives on an island, inside a high tower, and may only look upon the outside world by its reflection in a mirror, positioned near her window.  She does not know why, but she is cursed if she should ever look out the window with her own eyes, toward Camelot, without the aid of the mirror.  Tennyson writes that the people in the village below often hear her singing, and perceive the lady as otherworldly.  One fine day, the knight, Lancelot, rides past her window, and she sees his reflection in the mirror.  She is so weary of her confinement in the tower, and so enchanted by his presence, that she looks outside the window toward Camelot.  Suddenly, the mirror cracks and the curse on her life is released.  The lady leaves the tower, finds a boat alongside the river, and writes her name, “The Lady of Shalott,” on the prow.  She seats herself in the boat, as Tennyson writes, “And down the river’s dim expanse / Like some bold seer in a trance, / Seeing all his own mischance – / With a glassy countenance / Did she look to Camelot.”  Then, as the lady lies down in the boat, it carries her along the river to her death in Camelot, and she sings her last song that is heard by all the people in the land.

In John William Waterhouse’s painting, The Lady of Shalott, he depicts a beautiful woman, seated in a heavy wooden boat on the water, along the grassy wooded shore of a calm river.  Waterhouse structures his composition from a vantage point that draws the viewer’s eye along a left diagonal that meets at a vanishing point just above the head of his subject.  These lines create a pyramid shape, with the boat as a dominant base and the lady’s head as a delicate peak that is central in the overall structure of the composition, which emphasizes its dramatic theme of impending death.  Shapes such as these, frame both the horizontal and vertical details of the nature imagery that creates an overall balance to the composition.  The lady is clothed in a white medieval styled gown, belted at the waist in black, and detailed with gold embroidery at the upper arm and low curved bodice. Her emotional state, so evident in her facial expression, appears wary but serene, sad but resigned, and indeed, in anticipation of her impending death.  Her figure is naturalistic to the perceived historical context of Arthurian times, with her long red-auburn hair crowned by a simple ribbon. The boat in which she sits is a dark, heavy, wooden vessel with a scroll-carved prow where the lady has written her name, and from which there hangs a lantern. Beneath it, a cross bears the carved body of Christ in detail.  Three candles tilt in slightly different directions, one lit with a flame that flickers.  Altogether, the boat itself serves as the lady’s own tomb, with all the necessary items for enveloping her body in a peaceful and comforting death.

Detail from, John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888.

The exquisite tapestry that the lady wove in her tower on the island, drapes across the seat of the boat and hangs over the side of it, touching the water of the river.  Her right hand holds the chain that looses the boat from the mooring and her sleeve drapes down upon the top of the tapestry. The lady sits upon the tapestry with her head held high and her posture straight.  In it, we can see some of the images that the lady has crafted, with the most prominent of all featured; that of the knight, Lancelot.  Each of the scenes in the tapestry are framed in circles that emphasize her only view, which she saw in the mirror by her window. The natural environment in which she appears, detailed with trees, grasses, water, and light, depicts an autumn scene through a sky that is heavy with soft gray cloud cover, and reveals only the faintest sunlight appearing on the horizon.  Autumn leaves have fallen into the water, and grasses at the river’s edge appear dried.  A singular leaf rests on the lady’s skirt.  The turning of the seasons is apparent in the thinning wooded area behind the lady’s boat, and the water of the river appears to have gentle and flowing movement.

The specific passages from part IV of Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott,” that inspire Waterhouse’s painting, show that the artist remains mostly true to the text. Tennyson writes, “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.”  Waterhouse beautifully captures realistic effects in his composition, revealing the sky, the woods, and the water.  But we cannot actually see Camelot in his rendering. The focus of his composition is on the lady, herself, and that singular moment in time when she prepares for her death. Tennyson continues with, “Down she came and found a boat / Beneath a willow left afloat, And round about the prow she wrote / The Lady of Shalott.”  Here, Waterhouse, again, faithful to Tennyson’s narrative, makes certain that her name, The Lady of Shalott, appears on the boat.  No willow from Tennyson’s vision, so very often seen in Victorian commemoration of the dead, appears in Waterhouse’s composition, however, as the open expanse or clearing, in which the boat sits upon the river focuses the center of the viewer’s attention.  In doing so, Waterhouse allows his viewers to have a clear perspective of what is essentially the funeral vessel of the lady.

Detail from, John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888.

In the facial expression of the lady, a viewer might note apprehension or perhaps resignation, but here, there is another slight departure from Tennyson’s original text.  He writes, “And down the river’s dim expanse / Like some bold seer in a trance, / Seeing all his own mischance – / With a glassy countenance / Did she look to Camelot.”  There is a faintness of the trancelike state that Tennyson suggests in Waterhouse’s depiction of the lady, but Waterhouse gives her something more of a focus in her eyes that is barely detectable, and yet still discernible.  The lady gazes, ever so slightly at us, the viewers. Waterhouse captures the exact moment that the lady begins to loose the chain that moors the boat, which she holds with a relaxed hand. She does not clutch the chain, nor does she release it, but rather, she holds it gently.  It is a moment of transition which occurs in Tennyson’s own words, “And at the closing of the day / She loosed the chain, and down she lay; / The broad stream bore her far away, / The Lady of Shalott.”  Waterhouse does not allow his viewers to see the lady lay in the boat or to see the boat move upon the stream to carry her away. Rather, the moment he chooses is fixed and arranged in exact detail for the theme of her impending death.

 In his painting, Waterhouse takes liberty with two elements, of which one is taken from Tennyson’s poem, and the other is not.  These are the tapestry, and the Christian icons, respectively.  Using both of these elements, Waterhouse allows the lady’s vessel to take on the function and purpose of a funeral boat.  Originally discovered in Egyptian funeral rites as well as medieval Norse death rituals, the funeral boat provides Waterhouse with a means to romanticize the death of the lady that is in keeping with the overall mythology of the Arthurian legends upon which, “The Lady of Shalott,” is based. Tennyson does not describe the boat in such ways in his poem. In Waterhouse’s painting, however, the funeral boat captures the imagination of the viewer and creates a sense of death that is both a journey and a transformation.  In her book, The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, Barbara Walker notes that, “Norsemen used the same word for boat, cradle, and coffin, sending their dead into the sea-womb by boat to be reborn,” and she points out that the crescent shape of the moon was symbolic of a journey into the afterlife.  This use of the boat as a funeral object in Waterhouse’s painting is in keeping with Arthurian myths of water burial, not present in Tennyson’s original poem.

In Waterhouse’s painting, the lady’s tapestry brought from the tower, drapes across the seat of the boat, which adds to the function of the funeral boat, as the lady’s own tomb.  The artistic work that is the sole record of her life is present, with her, even until her death. In the tapestry, the viewer clearly observes the image of Lancelot; he, who causes of the release of the curse, and the ultimate death of the lady.  The tapestry exists in Tennyson’s poem, but he does not write that the lady brings it with her to the boat.  In Waterhouse’s rendition, the tapestry, together with the lady’s name on the prow of the boat, serve as commemoration of the lady’s life. Here, Waterhouse creates another funerary element, reminiscent of a grave marker. The candles and the crucifix in Waterhouse’s painting do not exist in Tennyson’s poem either, and the artist, again, takes liberty with these objects to adorn the funeral boat.  The crucifix serves as a Christian icon that brings comfort to the lady, symbolizing the redeeming power of Christ’s death, and the hope of eternal life to those who believe in his resurrection.  Together with the three candles, only one of which is lit, Waterhouse creates a kind of Christian altar in the funeral boat.  In this, he establishes the lady as a mortal being who is Christian, rather than Pagan.  As such, the lady will experience a death that will begin her journey to the promised afterlife of the Christian faith.  

John William Waterhouse, by Ralph Winwood Robinson,
published by C. Whittingham & Co platinum print,
circa 1889, published 1892.

The influence of the Pre-Raphaelite artists on John William Waterhouse while he lived at the Primrose Hill Studios in London with his wife, who was also an artist, is much evident in this painting. As a member of the distinguished Royal Academy, he often exhibited there, and The Lady of Shalott was among his earliest exhibited works that he painted, while living at Primrose Hill.  Though not a commissioned work, one of his biographers, Aubrey Noakes, in his book titled, Waterhouse, writes, “Waterhouse, the least pushing and socially ambitious artist of his generation, was singularly fortunate in the way his work attracted the interest of wealthy and influential patrons.”  He furthers notes that Waterhouse won the respect of critics and received favorable reviews for his work, which was not always so with Pre-Raphaelite artists who were not always received well by art critics. Noakes further argues that Waterhouse was influenced by both the Pre-Raphaelite techniques, as well as, the pléin-air, or open-air, style of the French Naturalist painters.  According to Noakes, combining these two influences together in The Lady of Shalott was one of Waterhouse’s best achievements.  The realistic depiction of the lady and the romanticized context in which he places her are hallmarks of the Pre-Raphaelite tradition; an appropriate nod to Tennyson’s Victorian era poetry, as the Pre-Raphaelites were emerging with their interpretations of women from classical and mythological poetry and prose in their artistic creations.

The open space in the composition, however, taken together with the detailed depictions of nature is a fusion with the French Naturalist effort. The catalogue entry for, The Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and Its Contexts, states that Waterhouse, “as in The Lady of Shalott; his chief concern lay with the portrayal of the beautiful woman in the guise of the romantic myth.”  In this, there is no doubt that Waterhouse shared interest in specific subjects with the Pre-Raphaelite artists, although he was not named as one of their “brotherhood” – his art and life did not necessarily coincide with theirs.  His independence from them, owing to his own later career during the era, proved him to be independent of them throughout his lifetime. While scholarly interpretations of Waterhouse’s, The Lady of Shalott, are numerous, several possible interpretations are more clearly evident, but opposing views on the Christian funerary icons are perhaps the most obvious catalysts for analysis, because they alter the lady’s nature.  As a mortal she is subject to the spirit, soul, and body of a human being – specifically a woman.  When viewing the painting and reflecting on some parts of the poem; she is a woman who may have been seduced in love and sexuality by the image of Lancelot in her mirror.  As such, the lady becomes a “fallen woman,” by her choice to leave her weaving to look into the mirror, which then cracks and releases her curse. 

Detail from, John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888.

In her book titled Woman/Image/Text: Readings in Pre-Raphaelite Art and Literature, Lynne Pearce writes that Waterhouse’s lady is “…most decidedly without lust in its cruder manifestations; whatever desires she might have are within bounds, sexually intact, (Waterhouse’s Lady purports to be a virgin), and ready to be sublimated in her devotion to Christ…”  This argument is supported by the fact that she is portrayed as a virgin in both Tennyson’s poem and Waterhouse’s painting, as she is symbolically dressed in a medieval white gown. That the crucifix is evidence of her devotion to Christ, and that it is placed in her funeral boat by the lady herself, indicates her personal assertion in the importance of her purity.  In this, Waterhouse demonstrates the isolation in an impending death that is marked by the decisions and the preparations of the individual, as a woman.  This sense of control over the unknown, and the journey the lady is about to take into death are evident in Waterhouse’s depiction of The Lady of Shalott, which cast the lady as a mortal being – even as that characterization is a missing component in Tennyson’s poem.

By contrast, in her article, “Tennyson and the Ladies of Shalott,” from the book, Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and Its Contexts, Elizabeth Nelson writes that while Waterhouse has placed a crucifix and three candles at the prow of the boat, which reinforces the funerary aspect of the overall composition, he nonetheless depicts her as a “fallen woman.”  She argues that “The single leaf that has fallen into her lap poignantly tells her story: her life is over; she is the ‘fallen leaf’, fallen, dying.  For the love of Lancelot, she has renounced her life; she is a martyr for love – and a fallen woman.”  While this may be a Pre-Raphaelite influenced interpretation, evidenced by a fallen leaf on the lap of the lady, or a possible happenstance, if you will, – the tapestry, the crucifix, and the three candles provide for Waterhouse’s emphasis on the lady’s purity.  Together they are funerary icons that the lady, freed from her tower, has deliberately placed in the boat.  It is she, according to Waterhouse’s depiction, who has the strength and sacred devotion to make certain that she has prepared for her impending death.  In this, she is virtuous as well as wise – remembering items that will speak of her life when she floats down the river to Camelot, where her body will be discovered, after she has sung her last song on the journey toward her death.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888.

 The visual unity of John William Waterhouse’s painting, The Lady of Shalott, presents an overall interpretation that is in keeping with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott.” Here, the visual artist captures an image of beauty and grace in mortal prescience of death, aesthetically pleasing in its romantic depiction, and influenced by two very powerful artistic styles.  The mysterious lady in the tower lives only marginally, through reflections of reality in her mirror, and at the moment that the curse is released upon her life she experiences an actualized reality that leads her to the certainty of her own death.  In that moment, captured by Waterhouse, she is an immortalized mortal, as Tennyson may not have intended. Waterhouse’s artistic portrait of death inspired by prose, captures the romantic imagination of viewers who find comfort in the suggestion of death as the journey toward a new existence.  That journey begins in a beautiful, tranquil physical space, surrounded by the comfort of familiar belongings that speak to the soul of the life once lived, as well as, spiritual reminders of faith and belief that transcend human understanding.  Together, these elements represented in Waterhouse’s composition of, The Lady of Shalott, make it the most requested print sold in the Tate Gallery gift shop in London, England, UK, as a work of art that captures the attention of viewers who identify something in both the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the painting of John William Waterhouse, which marks both these portraits of death, and these shared visions of, “The Lady of Shalott,” as timeless works of art.

Tennyson & Waterhouse: Shared Visions of the Lady of Shalott, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020. All references, citations, sources, and bibliographies are available upon request. 

The Lady of Shalott (1842)

BY ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON

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; 
And up and down the people go, 
Gazing where the lilies blow 
Round an island there below, 
       The island of Shalott. 

Willows whiten, aspens quiver, 
Little breezes dusk and shiver 
Thro’ the wave that runs for 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. 

By the margin, willow veil’d, 
Slide the heavy barges trail’d 
By slow horses; and unhail’d 
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d 
       Skimming down to Camelot: 
But who hath seen her wave her hand? 
Or at the casement seen her stand? 
Or is she known in all the land, 
       The Lady of Shalott? 

Only reapers, reaping early 
In among the bearded barley, 
Hear a song that echoes cheerly 
From the river winding clearly, 
       Down to tower’d Camelot: 
And by the moon the reaper weary, 
Piling sheaves in uplands airy, 
Listening, whispers ” ‘Tis the fairy 
       Lady of Shalott.” 

Part II
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. 

And moving thro’ a mirror clear 
That hangs before her all the year, 
Shadows of the world appear. 
There she sees the highway near 
       Winding down to Camelot: 
There the river eddy whirls, 
And there 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, went to 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 flamed 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 to 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 to Camelot. 
As often thro’ the purple night, 
Below the starry clusters bright, 
Some bearded meteor, trailing light, 
       Moves over still 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 to Camelot. 
From the bank and from the river 
He flash’d into the crystal mirror, 
“Tirra lirra,” by the river 
       Sang 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 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; 
Down she came and found a boat 
Beneath a willow left afloat, 
And round about the prow she wrote 
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river’s dim expanse 
Like some bold seër in a trance, 
Seeing all his own mischance— 
With a glassy countenance 
       Did she look to Camelot. 
And at the closing of the day 
She loosed the chain, and down she lay; 
The broad stream bore her far away, 
       The Lady of Shalott. 

Lying, robed in snowy white 
That loosely flew to left and right— 
The leaves upon her falling light— 
Thro’ the noises of the night 
       She floated down to Camelot: 
And as the boat-head wound along 
The willowy hills and fields among, 
They heard her singing her last song, 
       The Lady of Shalott. 

Heard a carol, mournful, holy, 
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly, 
Till her blood was frozen slowly, 
And her eyes were darken’d wholly, 
       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 gleaming shape she floated by, 
Dead-pale between the houses high, 
       Silent into Camelot. 
Out upon the wharfs they came, 
Knight and burgher, lord and dame, 
And round the prow they read her name, 
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here? 
And in the lighted palace near 
Died the sound of royal cheer; 
And they cross’d themselves for fear, 
       All the knights at Camelot: 
But Lancelot mused a little space; 
He said, “She has a lovely face; 
God in his mercy lend her grace, 
       The Lady of Shalott.” 

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