Book Review: The Lady Of Shalott

The Lady Of Shalott, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson with illustrations by Geneviève Côté

From time to time I come across illustrated books that take a single poem from a writer and illustrate it [1].  Often these volumes are intended for children, but it seems particularly macabre in this case to imagine the Lady of Shalott, as excellent a poem as it is, as being the sort of work that children would understand and appreciate.  Even so, as I am not reading this as a child I do not feel it necessary to answer or even to speculate on the intended audience of this book.  As someone who reads poetry and writes it on occasion, I suppose I am the natural audience for such a work, and the illustrator does a good job in providing a thoughtful if somewhat fanciful picture of the lovestruck and tragic titular woman of the poem without making the poem too graphic in terms of her lovesickness and eventual death.  And although the poem is deeply mysterious, it is set in a context that allows the reader to think about what layers of meaning Tennyson meant in it without forcing any particular interpretation on the reader, something worth appreciating.

As far as a work goes, this book is a simple and short one, with the lines of the poem illustrated in gorgeous and mostly blue-toned drawings taking up the four parts of the lengthy poem.  Without being an expert on art, the drawings appear to be realistic and restrained, with the blue hues dominating matching the melancholy mood of the poem and the drawings having a somewhat impressionistic air about them, as if they could have been done in a hurry with the colors sometimes going outside of the lines of the figures on the pages.  Even so, the poem and the drawings both convey an air of loneliness and isolation and of heartbreak when the eponymous lady develops somewhat of an obsession towards the dashing Lancelot.  There is certainly little to criticize about the use of the poem as a standalone volume or in the way that the illustrator portrays the lady as being isolated and ultimately heartbroken to the point of death–that is something that young people at least can relate to, given the intensity of emotions and their often tragic consequences for young people in this and every age.

In placing this poem as a standalone work, though, the obvious question arises as to what this poem means.  There are several obvious possibilities.  Tennyson was frequently melancholy as a writer and his poetry often reflects the negative side of romanticism, with the intense feelings of the protagonist of the poem not leading to intimacy and happiness but rather to an unhappy death as she lies in a boat making its way downstream through Camelot.  Was Tennyson reflecting on the isolation of the artist, having a deep love for humanity but often being cut off by artistic sensitivities and the awkwardness of being a creative person?  This is certainly possible, and few people can relate to such awkwardness more than the likely readers of this poem, young or not so young as they may be.  Is Tennyson reflecting on the isolation of women, cut off from the public world during his time, which was limited to men, and unable at the time to make their own declarations of love known but rather being placed in a position of passivity?  This is certainly possible as well.  Perhaps it is best when faced with a layered work like this to suggest the possibility that Tennyson wished to convey several different layers of truth at the same time, along with others that may not be recognized or considered, and to muse upon how they all relate in this moving and sad work.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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