Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, and John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: Comparative Essay
The conflict between life and art mimics that of a double-edged sword. Art is made to imitate life, simultaneously enhancing it while being elevated by it. In contrast, art inspires life, and life is ameliorated through the performance of art. The binary contrasts of life and art are broadly explored within the literature of the nineteenth century – particularly in poetry. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”, and John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, though two vastly different stories, both bring to light the clash between life and art. Tennyson, through the eponymous Lady of Shalott, presents the artistic life as one detached from the mundane life and reality. The Lady’s curse to die upon gazing out her window, towards lively Camelot, is synonymous with the conflict between an artist’s inclination towards social involvement and their doubts about whether it is possible to attain for someone dedicated to their art. On the other hand, Keats, through his interaction with an ideal Grecian urn, values art for its immortality, its permanence and existence beyond the mortal life. Through the poet’s dialogue with the urn, Keats celebrates the ideal beauty of art; art is superior to life as experiences captured in art resist decay and are forever perfect whereas life fades away. Both poems position art as either opposite or above human life, possessing an unpleasant disposition towards it, even though life is equally important and necessary for art to thrive.
The heroine of Tennyson’s poem is cursed to a life of seclusion in a tower on the island of Shalott, away from the busy lives of the citizens of Camelot. The mysterious curse separates her from the outside world through “four grey walls, and four grey towers” (Tennyson 1.15) and a river. Her alienation is further increased by her tower window, which she is forbidden to look through and a magical mirror that displays images of the outside world. Restricted to a life of observation, the Lady sits by her loom and weaves “these shadows of the world” creating a “magic web with colors gay” (Tennyson 2.38-39). Traditionally, an artist is said to surrender themselves to a higher power. This belief is synonymous with the invocation of a poet’s muse, where a poet performs a prayer to one of the nine muses of Greco-Roman mythology asking for the inspiration and skill to accomplish a great literary work. However, in the Lady’s case, her surrender is not voluntary. She weaves as there is nothing else for her to do; it is her only outlet of expression. Her weaving, and thus, her curse, becomes her identity.
In the beginning, it appears that her solitude secures an existence of peace and possesses its own allure, depicted by a long, winding river surrounded by fields of barley and rye, and plains that seemingly touch the sky (Tennyson 1.1-4). Yet it becomes clear that the peace of the landscape is only attributed to the Lady’s perspective. The “reaper weary” (Tennyson 1.33) suggests that the scene would appear quite different from a different point of view. Also, the reaper’s whisper, “Tis the fairy / Lady of Shalott” (Tennyson 1.25-26) indicates that the Lady is an unknown figure in the land of Camelot. It starts to become clear that the Lady cannot have both a place in society and be an artist. The Lady is a dedicated artist. As a weaver, she spends her days and nights, creating a magical and beautiful tapestry. However, her curse prohibits her from an active role in society. “But who hath seen her wave her hand?” (Tennyson 1.24) shows that the Lady and her weaving are unseen and equally unknown, existing solely in the shadow of her tower.
The poem can be read for the isolation-bound life of an artist. As expressed by the following line, “She knows not what the curse may be, / And so she weaveth steadily, / And little other care hate she” (Tennyson 2.42-44), despite her isolation, the Lady’s weaving keeps her content. However, in translating the reflections of the real world to the medium of her loom, she struggles to balance herself between the living world and her world of art. Her constant weaving suggests that the Lady is being overwhelmed, ostracized from the happiness and sorrows of human life. It is not until she views the reflection of two lovers that she commences her rebellion declaring, “I am half sick of shadows” (Tennyson 2.71). With the introduction of Lancelot, the conflict between the Lady’s world of shadows and the real world of human passion is brought into focus. Lancelot enters, emanating radiance, clad in armor “like one burning flame together,” sitting up top his “thick-jeweled [shining] saddle leather” (Tennyson 3.92-94). It is the attraction of human connection that induces the Lady to defy her curse, leaving her tower to enter the mortal world of time, change, and ultimately, death.
The poem presents the conflict between an artist’s need for withdrawal and the demands of human connection. Leaving her tower, the Lady renounces her art, and the web is torn from the loom and her mirror breaks:
She left the web, she left the loom
She made three paces thro’ the room
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott. (Tennyson 3.109-117)
She abandons her art for an active life, outside the realm of her loom. But it is important to note that she does not abandon art entirely. Tapestry turns into a song that is both mournful and holy, and both loud and low (Tennyson 4.145-146), expressing the complexities and contradictions that life offers: the result of the Lady’s entrance into life and her journey towards death. Here, the poem can be read to suggest that an artist cannot achieve fulfillment until they participate in the chaos of everyday life. Although art imitates life, art is merely a reflection of it. It is equally dependant on society and cannot exist without it, just as the Lady’s life could not have existed in the absence of art. This delicate balance was off from the beginning. The Lady’s isolation has taken away her identity and character. Weaving was all that was left of the Lady’s identity and upon defying the curse, that too was taken away. As such, as the Lady drifts towards Camelot and slowly dies, the citizens of Camelot do not recognize the Lady as an artist. She is reduced to nothing and then into a “lovely face” (Tennyson 4.169) as Lancelot gazes upon her body. Here, the Lady who has spent her life creating art is reduced to an object of art that obscures any recognition of the Lady herself. Without the delicate balance of life and art, an artist is at risk of losing their artistic identity and of unsatisfying the human necessity for social connection. Both are necessary for the other to thrive.
The conflict between life and art is portrayed differently in John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In this poem, Keats contrasts the temperance of life to the permanence of art. The poet expresses the attainment of immortality through art, and representation in art, addressing the urn he speaks of, “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe” (Keats 5.46-47). A Grecian urn is a relic of the classical Greek era that records the ancient Greek life. Upon laying eyes on the urn, the poet’s imagination is put to motion. He addresses the urn as an “unravish’d bride of quietness” and a “foster-child of silence and slow time” (Keats 1.1-2), whilst contemplating the various scenes unfolding on the surface of the urn. He sets his eyes on the depiction of a God and his worshippers, surrounded by the beautiful walls of accompanying temples. He visualizes the passionate pursuit of love as lovers meet. These various images invoke a stream of questions whose answers can only be satisfied by the imagination: “What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? / What wild ecstasy?” (Keats 1.8-10). Through speculation, the poet’s mind is overcome with wonder and astonishment as he observes the life-like expressions of the figures depicted on the urn. It is at this point that the conflict between life and art first emerges: the superiority of art over life.
The piper’s voiceless melodies fuel the imagination. In life, even the most beautiful tune must come to an end thus, the poet expresses “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (Keats 2.11-12). In the world illustrated by the urn, music is eternal and so is love. Immortalized on the clay is a scene of men chasing after the lovers. Though the lover “never canst kiss [the maiden]” (Keats 2.17), they will never exist separate from one another. They will always exist, at that moment, bound to one another. Trees will never shed their leaves and the scene of sacrifice will never move past its climax. The lives presented on the urn are forever fixed, and though no scene ever plays before the eyes, the poet’s imagination visualizes it realistically. Keats presents the parallel worlds of life and art in this ode: the former is that of the human world and the latter is that which is fulfilled by the imagination. Keats presents the same concept in “Ode to a Nightingale”, a musing on art and life, inspired by a nightingale’s song. The bird’s song and the poet’s happiness are juxtaposed to the fleeting natural elements of human life, such as youth and beauty. The narrator considers death and old age, lamenting how both are certain for humans yet art remains unaffected and thus, the nightingale, and its song, never need to worry about it. Here, Keats treats the duo of art and life with an unpleasant disposition: holding art to a standard that that life nor reality could ever attain. Similarly, human emotion and happiness are transient, but art can enshrine all with an ideal beauty that is forever fixed.
Art, in Keats’ perspective, does not preserve the remains of a dead artist. Instead, it is the granted wish for immortality. The sculptor of the urn lives in the depictions they have etched onto the clay. It is important to distinguish that John Keats’ longing for immortality encompasses not only the immortality of a man but also the immortality of love too. While a mortal love ends and leaves the heart “high-sorrowful and cloy’d” (Keats 3.29), the love portrayed on the urn is permanent. In contrast to Psyche, whose curiosity causes her to lose her lover, the curiosity of the urn keeps the lovers together. Art is the most successful attempt humans have made in the quest for everlasting life. The concept of eternity is prevalent in Keats’ overall belief in art, so much so, that he believes that humans could never fully comprehend it. Keats states that the “silent form” of the urn “dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity” (Keats 5.44-45). The idea that an artist can be preserved in the form of their art, for as long as that artwork exists, is an abstract concept that is difficult to comprehend. As such, Keats describes the urn as a “cold pastoral,” (Keats 5.45) envious of its eternal preservation.
Near the end of stanza one, Keats asks many questions of the urn. With each question he voices, he is met with silence. Keats wishes to uncover the secrets of the urn, how it, with its engravings, possesses the secrets of immortality. Above all, the underlying question is this: In its eternal silence, what is the urn telling its admirers? Keats ends the ode with the answer he receives, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (Keats 5.49). These two lines present many complexities, depending on how they are interpreted. However, in its simplest form, the message is clear: beauty and truth possess longevity greater than that which art, and its preservation, provides. Upon first glance of the urn, an observer may be puzzled. However, the figures that grace the surface of the urn slowly become more intelligible as the observer relates the scenes to their own experiences. The poem is introduced with a stanza full of questions; it concludes with a stanza with none. The urn possesses the ability to speak to all who contemplate it and it remind the observer of our own dilemma as mortals who exist in a finite dimension. The urn surpasses the test of time because it is beautiful and its beauty is judged by what the observer deems as true. And truth, in general, or in urn alone, is beautiful.
It is often expressed that life cannot exist without art. In the absence of art, people lead limited lives, devoid of imagination. To truly “live” requires the touch of art, as a life lacking art is not a life at all. As with the Lady of Shalott, art is an expressive outlet. In a more generally applied sense, it can be a refuge from daily troubles and concerns, and the monotony of everyday life. As with the Grecian urn, art is a vessel for imagination. Imagination pervades our entire existence. It influences our thoughts and ability to create as well as elaborate thoughts, dreams, and knowledge. Simultaneously, as highlighted by each poem, art must also be detached and distant from reality. It should always be a reflection of reality, and thus of life. Art is made better and cannot exist without society, just as life cannot, and should not, exist in the absence of art. Neither can triumph if the other does not. And so, the trick to wielding the double-edged sword of life and art is balance.
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