One of the many qualities that define poetry from the Victorian age was the idea of heroes and chivalry. Victorian poets wanted to bring these ideals, that were often taken from medieval folk tales and fables, back to their daily lives. The term chivalry is defined by Oxford as “the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak.” The other term, hero, is defined by Oxford as “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” In both of these definitions there is an emphasis on courage and overall being a great person.
Now, by looking at one of the most famous Victorian poets, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and his poem, “The Lady of Shalott” we can see how these medieval ideas of nobleness and loyalty are implemented into his poem.
This poem stands out among the readings for this era because it clearly revisits an old tale. It features things like curses, mirrors, Knights, Camelot, Sir Lancelot, and a stone tower. In addition, this poem distinctly uses a rhyme scheme that makes it sound light and musical, similar to Pope’s use of language and style in The Rape of the Lock. This calls upon readers’ preconceptions of fables and stories and makes them think about how heroic those knights in those stories were.
The classic knight was indeed both chivalrous and heroic as they went to great lengths to save someone and do good in the world while upholding values and morals. However, upon reading Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott,” I find myself asking where is the hero? Enter Lancelot. He is a knight and introduced as “bold Sir Lancelot,” yet his courage, honor, and justice, are not spoken of. Will he show us then, through his actions, that he is the hero of this story?
No. The Lady of Shalott leaves her place at the web to glance upon him, initiating the curse that kills her in the end. In fact, Lancelot did nothing for the lady and because of his looks, jewels, and popularity, he distracted the Lady of Shalott, and she died. This is a new take on the classic medieval tale of knights and princesses as the knight is not heroic or chivalrous and does not save the woman who is stuck.
Tennyson revisits this old idea of heroes and presents audiences with a new idea that the heroism and chivalry is present in the Lady of Shalott’s commitment and dedication to her weaving. While this is not heroism in the traditional sense, the lady of Shalott shows courage when she both ignores the world to continue weaving in isolation and again when she decides to face the curse and look away towards Lancelot. Her noble qualities include staying committed to her craft to avoid the curse.
This new perspective on heroism communicates that doing art and staying devoted to a project can be considered heroic and that women can be heroic instead of the knights. Another way to think about it is that while a Knight’s purpose is saving the woman, the lady of Shalott’s is weaving her web. In his poem, Tennyson presents readers with a new idea of heroes and chivalry as he revisits the old and makes it into something new.
One thought on “Revisiting Heroism”
I like how you said “If Lancelot from this poem was to be represented by another character, it would be Algernon.” I couldn’t agree more!