Tennysons "The Lady of Shalott" and her nameless desire for the veiled unveiling

Seminar Paper, 2002

30 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Entrance and Tennyson’s dilemma

I RSI and the Lady’s fall into the landscape of desire

II The sin of magic and Mary’s desire

Exit and junctions


Entrance and Tennyson’s dilemma

Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetic composition

Shotter, Lectures, 1980

Once upon a time Umbert Eco quoted Tennyson’s continental contemporary Mallarmé who wrote about avoiding a single absolute word sense concerning the typo-logographic space and epistemic-symbolic landscape:

Einen Gegenstand benennen bedeutet, die drei Viertel des Genusses am Gedicht zu unterdrücken, welche aus dem Glück bestehen, nach und nach zu entschlüsseln, es hervorzubringen […] dies ist der Traum […] Es muß vermieden werden, daß ein einziger Sinn sich aufdrängt: der leere Raum um das Wort herum, (…), die räum-liche Komposition des Textes tragen dazu bei, dem Wort eine Aura des Unbestim-mten zu verleihen und es auf tausend verschiedene Dinge hindeuten zu lassen.[1]

Originally written in 1832, Lord Alfred, 1st Baron Tennyson (1809-1892) published the much-revised poem The Lady of Shalott first in 1833 and eventually the final form in 1842. Thomas Carlyle, writing to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1842, described Tennyson as „a man solitary and sad dwelling in an element of gloom, carrying a bit of chaos about him, which is manu-facturing into Cosmos (...).“[2] Concerning the sense of mystery and elusiveness in contrast to an inherent realism he continues:

It is now also recognized that the realistic and comic aspects of Tennyson’s work are more important than they were thought to be during the period of the reaction against him. Finally, the perception of the poet’s awed sense of the mystery of life, which lies at the heart of his greatness.[3]

Throughout the context of the poem three important discourses[4] can be dis-curred out of a field of discourse totality that is finite and unbounded at the same time. Epistemologically, any concept of discourse means the opposite of any hermeneutics of understandig what the poet intended to say. But what speaks through his words, what do discourses enroll among written lines as a sublime whispering or metonymical gliding of timely and spatial separated signifiers, symbols and metaphors beyond our cultural memory? Concerning the Victorian epoch good old Britannica offers a note:

The Victorian era saw the romantic, evangelical, and humanitarian impulses that had launched the 19th century lose momentum: poets became aesthetes instead of moral legislators of mankind, and novelists began to turn inward on themeselves for their subject matter rather than to society as such.[5]

The second part of my paper approaches an abstract discourse between psychoanalysis, topology and Derrida’s Grammatology of the script related to Foucault and Blanchot. The structuralistic concept of the sign used in this paper refers historically to the overcome Saussurean concept of the sign which was disbanded by Derrida. Saussure’s concept marked the symptom of the simultaneity of an identical string between the signifier (Lautbild) and the signified (Vorstellung) on the one hand and the synchronic insignificance of a single signifier on the other hand which means that one signifier signifies exactly what all other signifiers of the synchronic net do not signify.[6] Thence the overall background is the post-structuralist concept of deconstruction toward the disseminatorical gliding of signifiers caused through the non-initial work of the so-called diffèrance or Spurenspiel.[7] My paper will pursue the most important stages of the Lady’s journey along the mirror, weaving a magic web, coming down the tower and floating along the river until she dies.

The three rings intertwined into another on the front page of my paper indicate the topology of the RSI, the real * , the symbolic and the imaginary or more exactly the symbolic order consisting of a single letter as the smallest unit which Lacan associates as a construct of an investigating subject. This subject is released from human being (Dasein) per se, within its imaginary (In-der-Welt-sein) connencted with the real as a basic precondition for a being itself (angenommene Seins-Gabe).[8] During the Lady’s dwelling in the tower all three rings are onto-phenomenologically separated. But with her gaze out of the window and her moving down into the symbolic landscape the rings are hereafter irrecoverably connected through a single subject which dares, like Eve did, a grasp reaching outside of its own instinct regulation into the will and into emancipation, including an immediate awareness about its mortality. That the rings fall apart if just one ring gets separated or even destroyed will be epistemologically and topologically evident.

The third part of my paper is metaphorology which follows the line of the poem. This metaphorological journey shall postpone the metaphors of symbo-lic evidence within the Christian symbolism, especially the Marian typology. Tennyson’s as we go along thereby becomes a net of junctions between these metaphorical tropes which are simultaneously still weaving a magic web of typological junctions recorded within the appendix.

In terms of literary history Tennyson’s Lady actually based on an as vague as assured source which couldn’t be found in the great libraries of England and America, An Italian romance upon the Donna di Scalotta, in addition to the established source of Malory’s maid of Astolat in Morte d’Arthur.[9] While the first edition (1833) of Tennyson’s poem seems to resemble the novella more than the second (1842) it has a different story from the novella. Especially the mirror, the weaving and the curse which in the novella represent love, the song, the river and island are all absent from the novella. What Tennyson ad-ded to the story doubtlessly matched with the metaphorical claim of the young poet. But the most important images are present:

[…] La Damigella morio del mal d’amore. […] e fu messa in mare. Il mare la guidò a Camelot, e ristette alla riva. […] I Cavalieri, e Baroni dismontaro de’ palazzi, […] vi-de la Damigella, e l’arnese. […] e per lo più villano, cioè Monsignore Messer Lancia-lotto de Lac, […] E così, lassa! Sono morta per bene amare, come voi potete vedere.[10]

Metaphorically, the ocean or the sea marks a decisive difference which idicates an erring human soul in the sense of Odysseus rather than that the river indicates a directed fate and destiny in Tennyson’s symbolic order.

Various literary critics describe a rather psychological dilemma within Tennyson’s work in general which seems important for the understanding of The Lady of Shalott which in my opinion is not theme of this work. Once with-in the discourse of art and mythopoetics this dilemma resembles Tennyson’s struggle for both artistic strategy as well as rhetorical and logical validity.[11] Another remark refers to Tennyson’s ”difficulty in leaving the world and passing into „a Nameless, shadow-less realm“ which insert the reader into autopoietic ordering „spaces between images and words.“[12] An expression of this dilemma we find in Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott with the metaphorical presence in absence of sword and primarily window which will be discussed later on . But the expressive representing or non-symbolic Nameless cannot exist if the symbolic is the only associative between the imaginary and the real which is the other side of the symbolic per se.
I RSI and the Lady’s fall into the landscape of desire

Là où fut ça, il me faut advenir. Wo es war, muß ich ankommen.

Lacan, Seminar II.
Je est un autre. Ich ist ein Anderer.

Rimbaud, Brief an Demeny, 1871.

What follows is an attempt on The Lady of Shalott from the perspective of discourse analysis as a topological psychoanalysis of symptoms of literal phe-nomenology which simultaneously means a deconstruction of the poetical sublimation of the script. This sublimation reveals itself in the two movements of the Lady which act to each other in a right-angled, geometrical and discour-sive manner, that is, in the sense of the RSI-topology of the Borromæic knot. One movement appears in the descent from the tower out of the nameless real dream world of indefinite, metonymic perforated visions. The other movement is guided by the definite symbolic order of the continuous metaphoric landscape along the river. What kind of desire presses the lady through the poem’s lines? Are the final fearful questions „Who is this ? and what is here?“ (iv.47)[13] of „knight and burgher, lord and dame“ (iv.45) actually the answer, although they read her name a line before? Does the proper name (Eigen-name) and its reading manifest the awareness of the ontological difference between the real speaking of speech and the discourse of the imaginary sym-bolic order as a fracture of the real beyond the first outcry in the dessert of undecidedness?[14]

Before we follow the Lady’s journey it is inspiring to hold a sketch of the Borromæic knot of the real, symbolic and imaginary in our hand. This forma-lism is a knowledge historically derived from Saussure’s synchronic language theory of the sign and elaborated in new independent categories by Lacan, up to the smallest unit of the symbolic order which is the letter of our concrete speech. Lacan makes the decisive distinction by the prophetic formula: „Spra-che existiert samt ihrer Struktur, bevor ein beliebiges Subjekt in einem be-stimmten Moment seiner geistigen Entwicklung in sie tritt.“[15] In concept his-tory after Freud this formular is syncopately absorbed with das Unbewußte ist strukturiert wie eine Sprache und als solches formalisierbar.

The human dasein (Heidegger) is consequently separated from a structural subject which is a topological precondition for every human being and its reality. A meta-plateau does not exist but a construct of three world constitu-ting areas respectively three topologic rings.

The symbolic order, the realm of signifiers, is the area of human reality which provides that something can be said, written or poetized and is called the symbolic. The area of the real Lacan sets as the proposition that something can exist per se. Lacan’s the imaginary finally creates the consistency between the real existence and the symbolical ›sagbare‹ which needs to be imagined as a mental image by a human being. From Seminar XX on (1973-74) Lacan concludes that these rings cannot be seen as separated unless they fall apart if one ring is removed. The sign as a combination of symbolic signifier and imagined signified enables an access to a real existing beyond the totality of letters and mental image. An important quality of the imaginary is that nothing can be said about it because if someone utters the imaginary he is immediately within the symbolic order. Exactly this happens to Tennyson’s Lady when she stops her real metonymic weaving of getting phenomenologically abbreviated visions from the imaginary while she didn’t need to say a single word about it. But afterwards within the metaphoric landscape of the symbolic she falls deadly into it by asserting her dasein through a word, her own name.

The magic web of the tower was like the real itself without any fracture[16] which for humans indicates the impossible experience of the being (Sein) including its non-differentiateness where inside and outside fall in one, an analogue to the topology of a Moebius string. Paradoxically, the only „discontinuity within the real“[17] is the subject, is the Lady’s weaving itself, not consciously but as an absent mark which defers[18] itself in a lasting discontinuous weaving dream . One disruption of that dreaming subject now speaks through the symptom of desire (Begehren) which the Lady surrenders through the gaze onto the world and „bold Sir Lancelot“ (ii.5). The separated real collapses and reveals itself in the trinity of the Borromæic knot. The Lady as a subject catches sight of her imaginary lack (Mangel) which is built by the subject’s act of symbolizing and needs to be added to the signifiers, to create a meaning, by any reading respectively looking not through the mirror but through a window. Lacan calls this lack objet petit a which comes up by that signification through the subject. The combination of this objet petit a and the investigating subject he names Phantasma. From the perspective of discourse analysis, Lacan’s Phantasma concept marks the end of a poetological scale within this poem as a phenomenological presence in absence of the WINDOW.


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Tennysons "The Lady of Shalott" and her nameless desire for the veiled unveiling
Humboldt-University of Berlin
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Dr. des. Robert Dennhardt (Author), 2002, Tennysons "The Lady of Shalott" and her nameless desire for the veiled unveiling , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/68393


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