In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” the eponymous Lady is cursed to spend her life alone, weaving in the top of a tower, with a mirror as her only window to the outside world. Though she is trapped against her will, “in her web she still delights / to weave the mirror’s magic sights” (64-65). Into her endless tapestry, she weaves in all the images shown to her in the mirror, such as funerals, weddings, and the people who pass by on the road to Camelot. This creation of art is her only pleasure in life. However, after what is implied to be years of isolation, she becomes “half sick of shadows” and loses her artistic passion (71). At the chance passing of Lancelot, she cannot bear it any longer and leaves her weaving to look out and see the world for what it really is, bringing about her own death in the process. The Lady does not die for her love of Lancelot, who just happened to catch her interest at that moment, but for her love of life and the world, which she could not experience and, therefore, could not recreate in any way that did it justice in her mind.
Through the Lady, Tennyson may have been expressing his own artistic frustration. The Lady tries to represent the world inside her tapestry, but it can never be exactly as it truly is on the outside, not only because of the limitations of art but also because she only ever sees anything secondhand, through the mirror. This could be a metaphor for Tennyson’s own desire to recreate things in his poetry that he had never seen, and could never see, such as, for example, the city of Camelot. The “shadows of the world” that the Lady glimpses in the mirror are comparable to descriptions in books and oral legends learned from other people (48). She sees the other people, and the shining city, but she never experiences them. Thus, the images that she weaves into her web feel inauthentic; they are only reflections of shadows. Tennyson probably felt the same way about his poetry.
Unable to bear the inadequacy of her art and unreality of the mirror, the lady goes to the window and sees, for the first time, unhindered, “the water lily bloom,” Sir Lancelot, and Camelot (111-113). In effect, she is seeing nature, humanity, and civilization, three of the most common subjects of art, as they really are. This destroys her preconceptions of them, as represented by the cracking of the mirror, and renders her previous art obsolete, causing the tapestry to unravel. However, in giving up her art to experience true life, the artist part of her dies.
“The Lady of Shalott” is, at least partially, about the death of an artist’s passion, and her ability to create art, which is based on imagination and creates only illusions. The Lady trades her art for reality and loses her life. This could be an expression of Tennyson’s own misgivings about his art and the possibility of being both an artist and a grounded human being. At the center of it is the question of whether a person can’t be a great artist and experience life, or can’t be a great artist without experiencing life.