Descriptive Language And The Lady Of Shallot
Essay, Research Paper
In any piece of lyrical poetry, authors must masterfully use the language of the poem to covey the intended meaning. In order to ensure the meaning is not lost, it is imperative that the author incorporates various aspects of the narrative to escalate the poem past its face value. Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shallot” is no exception to the rule. From lines like “blue unclouded weather” and “the gemmy bridle glitter’d free”, one can draw that descriptive language is Tennyson’s tool to revealing the underlying meaning (Griffith 334). In each of the four parts of “The Lady of Shallot”, Tennyson uses descriptive language to convey his intended meaning to the audience.
Tennyson uses Part I to show the setting of the poem, and introduces the Lady of Shallot to the audience. Part I starts off with a description of “Long fields of barley and…rye that clothe the wold (hilly, open country)” (Griffith 332). From this line in the opening stanza, the reader already gets a sense of where the poem takes place, a gently rolling countryside of utmost beauty. In the second stanza, lines like “Willows whiten, aspens quiver, little breezes dusk and shiver” further our mental picture of the setting (Griffith 332). Later in the stanza, we learn of “four gray walls, and four gray towers” and that “the silent isle imbowers the Lady of Shallot” (Griffith 332). Tennyson’s description in the last couple of lines of this stanza introduces the Lady of Shallot and gives a feeling of her isolation (which is quite important toward the poem’s meaning, and will be built on later in the piece). The final stanza in Part I tells how early morning workers “hear a song that echoes cheerly from the river” and think that it is the “fairy Lady of Shallot” (Griffith 332). Through words like “echoes cheerly” and describing her as a “fairy”, the reader gets a sense of beauty (this beauty unbeknownst to the people I might add) from the Lady of Shallot. All of Part I sets up the rest of the poem, and Tennyson’s use of descriptive language makes the reader feel as if they are right there, witnessing the events first hand.
The second part of “The Lady of Shallot” reveals much more of the outside world than the confines on the tower of Shallot. Tennyson uses Part II to show the Lady of Shallot’s need for contact with the brilliant world he has built through vivid description. It begins by speaking of the “magic web with colors gay” which “she weaves by night and day” (Griffith 333). This small passage is quite important to the rest of the story. By describing this “magic web” that the Lady of Shallot painstakingly spends all her time on, Tennyson is conveying a message much bigger. In this stanza, the “magic web” is the Lady of Shallot’s life. She constantly works on this “web” and it is all she has ever know. And as she weaves, the Lady of Shallot gazes through a mirror and sees “shadows of the world” (Griffith 333). And this is exactly what she is witnessing, shadows; since she isn’t involved with this outside world, the happenings are never more than images—never reality. The Lady of Shallot contently continues “to weave the mirrors magic sights” (Griffith 333). She then witnesses “a funeral, with plumes of light”, and even “two young lovers lately wed” (Griffith 333). By using descriptions as these, Tennyson shows reality to the Lady of Shallot as best as possible (eventhough she is not part of this reality). Through the use of descriptive language to build up the outside world that the Lady of Shallot is isolated from, in the last stanza of Part II, she admits that she is “half-sick of shadows” (Griffith 333). Though the web is all she has know in her life (and been content with I might add), the Lady of Shallot reveals a desire to experience this brilliant outside world described.
In Part III, Tennyson’s extensive use of descriptive language brings an image to the Lady of Shallot that is so powerful it changes her life. The majority of Part III is a description of Sir Lancelot (which the Lady of Shallot sees through her mirror). The first stanza describes how the sun “flamed upon the brazen greaves (armor)” as Lancelot rode “between the barley sheaves” (Griffith 334). Tennyson then provides more vivid descriptions like Lancelot’s glittering bridle that looked like “some branch of stars hung in the golden galaxy” (Griffith 334). You read of Lancelot’s “thick-jewell’d…saddle leather”, and how his “broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d”, and even of his “coal black curls” that flow from underneath his helmet (Griffith 334). Tennyson spends more time describing Lancelot than any other thing that the Lady of Shallot has seen through her mirror. The extensive use of descriptive language shows the Lady of Shallot’s extreme fascination with Lancelot. This fascination is so strong it brings action in the final stanza of Part III. The last stanza talks about how the Lady of Shallot left her loom and mirror and went over to the window to get a true view of Lancelot. When she did so, her web floated out the window, and her mirror cracked from side to side. The extensive description of Lancelot earlier in Part III is used to represent an element that is so strong it is not possible for the Lady of Shallot to pass up. This description of Lancelot (being exactly what the Lady of Shallot sees through her mirror) is so overwhelming that she is willing to give up her web and mirror just to catch a glace. The fact that web flew out the window and the mirror cracked shows that the Lady of Shallot gave up her entire life just to catch a fleeting glimpse of Sir Lancelot. The descriptive language in Part III is beautiful, and gives meaning far past the mere written words.
The final part of the poem describes the Lady of Shallot’s journey into the outside world and her ill-fated demise. As she descends the tower, Tennyson describes “pale yellow woods”, “stormy east-wind[s]” and a “low sky [heavily] raining” (Griffith 335). These descriptions represent the Lady of Shallot’s view of the once beautiful countryside. She then found a boat and wrote her name on the side before she floated down the “river’s dim expanse” (Griffith 335). The dim and dreary description given to the outside world, shows that the Lady of Shallot knows that her fate is sealed. As she is floating down the river, Tennyson describes how leaves flew left and right “upon her falling light”, and how the Lady of Shallot sang her final song, “a carol, mournful, holy, chanted loudly, chanted lowly” until “her blood was frozen slowly” (Griffith 335-6). Though sad, this language is beautiful, and describes her passing perfectly. And as her boat floated down to Camelot, and the people found her, it says that “the sound of royal cheer” died (Griffith 336). Lancelot then looked upon her and said “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace, the Lady of Shallot” (Griffith 336). In my opinion, Part IV is both beautiful and powerful. As soon as the Lady of Shallot decides to leave the tower, she knows her fate. And after she dies, the people of Camelot finally learn of the “fairy Lady of Shallot” (Griffith 332).
Tennyson’s descriptive language in “The Lady of Shallot” is beautiful, and drastically enhances the meaning of the poem. The description of everything in the outside world is so vivid that it brings the Lady of Shallot to loose everything she has ever known. She is willing to give up her life to experience the brilliant things seen in her mirror…even if it is only for a few moments. Without Tennyson’s eloquent descriptiveness, “The Lady of Shallot” is much more than mere words.
Griffith, Kelley. “The Lady of Shallot” Narrative Fiction. Ed. Ted Buchholz. Fort Worth:
Harcourt Brace College Publishers. 1994. 332-336.