Victorian Poetry?
All novels are destined to disappear within a generation.
Whereas poetry is about eternal passions, modern novelists
depend on the their readership and should therefore be
regarded suspiciously.
(Thomas de Quincey, author, and essayist, journalist, 1848)
The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot,
Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. [...] Critics have found me
narrow [...]
I hold that since Donne , there is not poet we need bother
about except Hopkins and Eliot.
(F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition, 1948)
Can literature be judged in an objective way?
Is the literary canon stable?
Who decides what is good/bad literature and high/low literature?
Marxist and Feminist criticism and, more recently, Cultural
Studies have challenged the idea of a ‘Western Canon’ and have
tried to enlarge it. One of their ‘heroes’ is Antonio Gramsci, who
believed there is always an ideology involved in canon formation.
Remember the passage from Byatt:
‘La Motte? Oh Yes, Melusina. There was a feminist sit-in, in the
Fall of ‘79, demanding that the poem be taught in my nineteenthcentury course instead of Idylls of the King or Ragnarok. As I
remembered it was conceded. But then Women’s Studies took it
on, so I was released and we were able to restore Ragnarok.’
(Cropper speaking, Possession, p. 305)
On Victorian poets...
‘They thought of themselves as modern. Victorian
modernism sees itself as new but it does not, like twentiethcentury modernism, conceive itself in terms of a radical break
with the past.’
(Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry, 1996, p.3)
In an interview A.S. Byatt said:
‘The Victorians were not simply Victorian. They read their
past and resuscitated it’
The Victorian look on the past and the narrative and
theatrical dimensions of Victorian poetry are the aspects we
are going to investigate in the next classes.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria from
1850 to his death.
He started writing poetry as a child and
was a big fan of Lord Byron.
He has been defined conservative,
reactionary, evasive.
The Idylls of the King is the title of his
famous reworking of the stories of king
Arthur and his knights: the work was
composed and published between 1856
and 1885 and it is madenof twelve
narrative poems.
The Lady of Shalott is a juvenile poem, and it was published in
two versions, in 1833 and 1842.
Sources:
Arthurian stories of Elaine found in:
Malory’s Morte Darthur (editio princeps 1485)
The Stanzaic Morte Arthure (fourteenth century)
and
La Donna di Scalotta, a nineteenth-century Italian novella
However, the poem is a very personal reworking of this
material.
The Lady of Shalott is a
literary ballad.
What formal characteristics
make it so?
What can you say about the
language?
What can you say about
sounds patterns?
Illustration of Tennyson’s poem by
Howard Pyle, 1881.
How is the story told and
the characters described?
What about the setting?
William Holman Hunt
Illustration for the
Moxon edition of
Tennyson Poems, 1857
John William Waterhouse
1894
John William Waterhouse
‘I am half-sick of shadows’
1916
William Maw Egley, 1858
John William Waterhouse, 1888
Arthur Hughes, ‘The Lady of Shalott’, 1873
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, illustration for the Moxon edition, 1857
Why the Middle Ages?
‘Popular antiquarianism, and the romances of Sir Walter
Scott, had enabled readers for the first time to imagine a
DISTANT HISTORICAL PAST neither classical nor
biblical but PART OF NATIONAL HISTORY, and to
engage with an open mind in an imaginative comparison
of such a past with the present state of society’
(Michael Alexander, Medievalism, 2007, pp. 84-85)
Nineteenth-Century Medievalism
Religion:
Attempt to revive the
Sacramental religion
of the Middle Ages
(Cardinal Newman)
Social Reform:
Dignity of individual work
Rural vs industrial life
Thomas Carlyle
John Ruskin
Arts and Decoration:
Architecture (A. W. Pugin)
Medieval festivals and
tournaments
Pre-Raphaelites
Arts and Crafts Movement
Thomas Carlyle
A famous excerpt from Past and Present (1834) where he speaks about
Gurth, a character from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.
Gurth was a swineherd and he was a thrall (slave).
Gurth, born thrall to Cederic the Saxon, has been greatly pitied. [..]
Gurth, with the brass collar round his neck, tending Cederic’s pigs in the
glades of the wood, is not what I call and exemplar of human felicity: but
Gurth, with the sky above him, with the free air and tinted boscage and
umbrage round him, and in him at least the certainty of supper and
social lodging when he came home; Gurth to me seems happy, in
comparison with many a Lancashire and Buckinghamshire man of these
days, not born thrall of anybody! [...] Gurth had superiors, inferiors,
equals. – Gurth is now ‘emancipated’ long since; has what we call
‘Liberty’. Liberty, I am told, is a divine thing. Liberty when it becomes
the ‘Liberty to die by starvation’ is not so divine!
Tennyson’s poetry feeds on the medieval past, but
also on biblical and classical stories.
The Lady of Shalott is a reworking of other stories and
myths:
Elaine of the Arthurian tradition
The Lady of Scalot in the Italian novella
Arachne
Penelope
Narcissus
Lot’s wife
However, the result is original and it includes the two aspects
of Tennyson’s poetry: the ‘romantic’ (i.e. idealistic, derived
from high romance) and the social.:
Words like
WEAVE
LOOM
REAPERS
Could not but remind the Victorian readers of their present.
Power-Looms
Newspaper illustrations
Nineteenth-century workers
in Lancashire:
Queuing for food
Child Labour
Protest
We can look at the poem in at least two ways:
FIRST LEVEL = OPPOSITIONAL READING
RURAL vs URBAN
LABOUR BY HAND vs MERCANTILISM
ORGANIC/INTEGRATED WORLD vs FRAGMENTED COMMERCIAL
WORLD
ISOLATION vs COMMUNITY
PASSIVITY vs ACTION
FEMALE vs MALE
THE AESTHETIC vs THE REAL
This reading condemns the protagonist to PASSIVITY or DEATH.
However, other, less apparent, readings are possible.
Think about the opposition appearance/reality:
-Images from outside are reflected in the mirror and they
are weaved into the magic web: reality is seen through a
mirror and through the lens of art
However,
-The world outside the tower is equally a confusion of
reflection, image, and figure. Think about how the image
of Lancelot reaches her:
‘From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror’
Think about The Lady of Shalott and Labour: there are several
layers of meaning at work at the same time.
- She is a weaver and she delights in her art
(She can be seen as a symbol of pre-industrial home-weaving)
- She weaves ‘by night and day’; she weaves ‘steadily’; ‘she
didn’t choose it, she must keep her position within the room,
etc. (she can be seen as an alienated industrial worker)
The same can be said about farming:
- The landscape is beautiful and bucolic, or rather ‘idyllic’
- The reapers are ‘weary’, exhausted because of work
Think of the poem in terms of LACK:
could it be a celebration of awareness rather than passivity?
Isobel Armstrong thinks so:
‘The reapers and the Cambridge rick-burners reacting to the Corn Laws,
the starving handloom weavers who were being displaced by new
industrial processes, these hover just outside the poem and become
strangely aligned with the imprisoned lady. The possibility of change is
explored through her psyche, as she becomes a representation of
alienation and work. She is unaware of the constraints worked upon her
and obedient to the mysterious power until the appearance of lovers in
the mirror forces her to reconceptualise her world as phantasmal and
secondary, mere representation. [...] The culminating sense of Lack brings
the lady into action. [...] What was lacking was the sense of lack which
forces a realisation of estrangement and oppression. The curse is the myth
of power, a representation, which kept the lady subject.’
(Victorian Poetry, 1996, 84-85)
The position of the poet remains problematic, though.
The poem has always been read as a celebration of artistic
isolation. Tennyson revisits the Romantic rejection of vis-àvis confrontation with external reality, better expressed in
John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale:
“ […] for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful death” (1819)
However, the position of the poet could also be read in the
terms proposed by Armstrong, as the Lady does leave her art
and go out into ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’
(Tennyson, In Memoriam).
We could think about the words of Ash in Possession:
‘Could the Lady of Shalott have written Melusina in her
barred and moated tower?’ (p. 188)
The Lady of Shalott was the
subjects of many paintings ,
but it also inspired the
visual culture of the day in
many ways...
John Tenniel, The Haunted Lady, or “The Ghost” in the Looking Glass, 1863
Nineteenth-century seamstresses
'The Lady of Shalott' by Elizabeth Siddal
The Lady of Shalott was set to music by the Canadian singer Loreena
McKennitt in 1991. It is worth listening to it to have a taste of what it
means to listen to -- as opposed to read -- a ballad.
You can listen to it on Youtube (for example at http://www.youtube.com
/watch?v=ttv0ljOiPSs&feature=related) and you can also have an idea of
the popularity the poem still enjoys and of the (more or less bizarre) uses
people have made of it.
A literary Italian translation of the poem is online at:
http://www.apaxcreativi.ch/Writings/The_Lady_of_Shalott.html
A very useful website for original texts and pictures of medieval and
medievalist Arthurian material is that of the Camelot Project at the
University of Rochester: The editors are among the leading Arthurian
scholars of our times:
http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/cphome.stm