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Allusion in The Lady of Shalott

Arthurian Tradition: “The Lady of Shalott” is steeped in Arthurian legend, most notably drawing on the tale of Elaine of Astolat. In Malory’s version of the story in Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), Elaine’s father hosts Sir Lancelot for a tournament and during his stay, Lancelot unintentionally wins Elaine’s affections. After Lancelot rejects her, Elaine dies of heartbreak and requests that her body be sent down the river with a letter absolving Lancelot of any fault and reaffirming her love for him. Similarities can be seen in details like the presence of Lancelot as a catalyst for the heroine and the floating of the Lady of Shalott’s body down the river, among others. Despite Lancelot’s usual characterization as a narrative’s protagonist, it is ultimately the Lady herself who drives the action of the poem and decides the eventual outcome.

Allusion Examples in The Lady of Shalott:

Text of the Poem

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""Tirra lirra,"..."   (Text of the Poem)

The phrase “tirra lirra” first appears in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (act IV, scene III) and is there described as an onomatopoeia for the sound of a lark singing. It is part of a bawdy song about the onset of spring. Lancelot’s carefree singing here echoes the Lady’s singing in the poem’s first section, though his is a direct quotation. That both characters introduce themselves musically could be an allusion to the medieval tradition of sung lays—or rhymed tales of chivalry—which codified many of the Arthurian stories. The song’s sexual undertones emphasize the Lady’s isolation.

"red-cross knight..."   (Text of the Poem)

The “red-cross knight” may be an allusion to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590), which featured a character called “the Redcrosse Knight” in its first section. The Redcrosse Knight represents holiness and is later revealed to be Saint George, the patron saint of England. St. George’s symbol, a red cross on a white background, stands to this day as the English flag. His association with Saint George’s symbol imbues Lancelot with chivalrous, knightly qualities.

"Sir Lancelot...."   (Text of the Poem)

Sir Lancelot is one of the most famous knights from Arthurian legend. His affair with King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, became the focal point for much of the later medieval Arthurian tradition, in which the emphasis shifted from stories of adventure to stories of the court. The replacement of the “Camelot” refrain with “Sir Lancelot” in this stanza emphasizes Lancelot’s importance to the narrative and marks his intrusion into the steady, albeit distant, relationship between the Lady and the outside world.

"Shadows of the world appear. ..."   (Text of the Poem)

The Lady is only able to watch the world through a reflection in her mirror. Mirrors, in a literal sense, reflect images. In a symbolic sense, the mirror indicates that the Lady is not seeing “reality” but rather an inverse or diluted version of it, especially given the contrast between the “clear” mirror and the “shadows” it depicts. She is not witnessing events with her own eyes but is instead consuming images from a detached perspective before translating them into her weaving. The image of shadows are an allusion to Greek philosopher Plato’s (424–348 BCE) “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic. Plato describes a group of people in a cave who only know the world outside by reading the shadows flickering on the cave wall. In Plato’s estimation, these people represent those who are blind to the true nature of reality. Tennyson alludes to Plato’s Cave to suggest that the Lady of Shalott is similarly blind to the outside world.

"lilies..."   (Text of the Poem)

In Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, lilies are a frequent symbol of both physical and spiritual purity. Elaine is referred to as “Elaine le Blank,” for the French blanc, meaning “white.” The lilies growing around the tower where the Lady of Shalott lives provide a connection to the Arthurian source material and help contextualize the isolation of the character, who could be considered unsullied by external influences. This evokes the Victorian ideal of womanhood, which emphasized purity and required women to remain in the domestic sphere.

"Camelot..."   (Text of the Poem)

In Arthurian legend, Camelot is the seat of King Arthur’s power. Tennyson based this poem on the story of Elaine of Astolat, which he claimed to have taken from a thirteenth-century Italian story of unknown authorship, “La Donna di Scalotta.” The framework of the story is older than that, and it also found its way into Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur (1485). In that version of the story, Lancelot briefly stays with Elaine’s family before a tournament and Elaine falls in love with him. Though he agrees to wear her token in the tournament, Lancelot later rejects her. Heartbroken, Elaine wastes away. She dies ten days later after requesting that her body be sent down the river to Camelot holding a note expressing her love for Lancelot.

"To a lady..."   (Text of the Poem)

One of the defining themes of literature that depicts the chivalric code was that of knightly devotion to idealized women. This tradition is the source of the familiar narrative wherein a heroic knight rescues a fair damsel in distress. Knights dedicated their successes to the names of their chosen lady-loves and looked to them as embodiments of virtue. That Lancelot’s shield shows him kneeling to a lady is both a nod to the mythic tradition, wherein Lancelot was the devoted lover of Arthur’s queen, and an ironic comment on male-female relations—both in the context of Arthurian legend and in Tennyson’s time. While Lancelot depicts himself as subject to the desires of a lady, in this poem he actually becomes a catalyst of her downfall. In a parallel sense, the women of Tennyson’s time were held to a strict and confining code of conduct by the imposition of a benevolent sexism that held them to be fragile and in need of protection.

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