Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Legacy & “The Lady of Shalott”

During the nineteenth-century revival of Arthurian material, artists used Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poetry as inspiration for their own work, often titling pieces after sections of his poems. The Arthurian characters they depicted paralleled qualities that Tennyson wrote prominently about, and they faced dangers that were metaphors for the obstacles in everyday Victorian life. Tennyson’s poetry did not inspire all the Arthurian art and literature of Victorian England, but it served to raise the subject matter to a new level of literary respectability. Many Victorian Arthurian pictures are either illustrations of Tennyson’s poems or depictions of incidents that originated distinctly in Tennyson’s Arthurian world.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848 as an art movement that sought to revolutionize the prevailing “standards” of modern art—as exemplified by Raphael and his contemporaries—through a return to a pre-Renaissance aesthetic and artistic approach. The Pre-Raphaelites, using classical and medieval themes (such as those found in Tennyson’s work), often focused on rich details and intense colors in their compositions. Many critics and viewers note the beautifully iconic women prominently featured in Pre-Raphaelite art. However, as Elaine Showalter argues, Pre-Raphaelite art “…was part of a new and intricate traffic between images of women and madness in late nineteenth-century literature, psychiatry, drama, and art” (85). Focusing on representations of Ophelia by male artists, Showalter notes they seem “cruelly indifferent to the woman’s death” (85), whereas women artists, “in their efforts to defend Ophelia, they invent a story for her drawn from their own experiences, grievances, and desires” (87). As this exhibit reveals, the same argument can be made for the Lady of Shalott/Elaine.

Ref: Showalter, Elaine. “Representing Ophelia: Women, Madness, and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism.” In Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, 77-94. Edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman and Patricia Parker. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1986.