Kari Nixon
Scholar of Medical Humanities and Victorian Literature

Musings

What can Tennyson teach you about living your best life this summer?

With the first official days of summer around the corner, you may be, like me, wondering about how to best spend your time—how to optimize your leisure within the range of limited time and money you have. There are so many options, and such a pressure to “live your best life” (that ubiquitous phrase on coffee mugs and other cheap swag) that for me, at least, the options and freedom can leave me feeling stifled.

It may seem a leap, but Alfred, Lord Tennyson, poet laureate to Queen Victoria, wrote a poem that I want to talk to you about today, called The Lady of Shalott, that I think speaks to what we should really be focusing on when it comes to “living our best lives.”

In “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson invents a myth that he sets in medieval times, but is really something from his own brain. In this poem, an otherwise unnamed lady (the lady of shalott) is stuck in a tower, and cursed.

Bear with me here, because her curse is a little….weird. She is cursed not only to stay in the tower, but that if she so much as looks out of the window (and there is, of course, a window to tempt her)—she’ll die. So, as a sort of loophole, she spends her days with a mirror set up angled towards the window, allowing her to see reflections of what’s out there in the world. And she weaves a tapestry of all she sees.

But, the poem isn’t actually about her looking into a mirror and weaving. No sooner than it gives us this set-up, the poem depicts the Lady of Shalott declaring, “I am Half-sick of Shadows,” and looking out the window.

  No hero comes to save her. No secret trick breaks the curse.

Nope, she definitely dies.

But….why? Why am I sitting here at the beginning of a glorious summer, telling you about some made-up lady who died a made up death in a poem that’s over a century old?

Well, I love this poem, because the main character of the poem chooses real world experiences—to really live—rather than to stay in her room and continue merely existing.

She would rather die than not experience. For her, the world of “shadows” doesn’t count as a meaningful life, and it’s worth it to her to trade in one moment of really living for a lifetime of safety. Safety is, well, safe, but really it’s a guaranteed life of stagnation and isolation.

If you ask me, Tennyson really wants us to draw these conclusions, and the clues he leaves for us about this lie in the fact that his poem is really a little silly.

For one, most of his “medieval” style poems are based in actual medieval legends, whereas this one is entirely made up. It feels a little….out of place, like a break in the pattern of his typical work.

       And, because he’s simply made it up, there’s no way to justify the very odd “curse” as part of legend or tradition.

Why can’t she look out the window anyway?

     And how exactly does looking out the window through a mirror not “count” as breaking the curse?

       Again, if this were ancient folklore, we’d probably give it a pass. Arthur’s grail is holy….well, because it is. But Katniss Everdene better have a back-story to make us believe that she can shoot an arrow.

       The fact that this poem doesn’t make a lot of intuitive sense….we just have to accept the rules of the game as Tennyson sets them up, and sit with our uncomfortable questions about his dubious world-building….all from a poet who usually played by the rules of composition….for me, means this is all meant to be taken as high metaphor.

       Remember: the Lady of Shalott is an artist—she weaves tapestries of the world she sees.

       And, of course, there is a mythological precedence for this.

       In Greek mythologies the Fates were women who wove tapestries of peoples’ lives.

       In this regard….they are basically ‘writing” fate, even though their medium is textile rather than text.

     The rules of the Lady of Shallott’s tower and her curse may be somewhat hard to believe, but she quite obviously alludes to the fate-weavers and –writers of yore.

       So why does she quit?

       I would argue that this is because, as I’ve hinted, she wants more. She knows that her life is no life at all—and, here is where I see the connection to our lives even today—she knows that she can’t “write” in her tapestry of life without having really lived it.

       She declares boldly that she is “half-sick of shadows”—that is, she no longer thinks it’s enough to passively observe life at a distance, and simply “reflect” what she sees—doubly through the mirror and in her copies of it in thread.

       Instead, she decides that ultimately, to represent life in her art, she must go live it boldly, whatever the cost (and her cost is indeed high, making Tennyson’s point quite clear).

       I say this a lot in my classes, and it feels like something of a bold statement, but I’ve yet to find an example of it not being true: our deepest moments of learning do not occur where we’re comfortable.

      We’re comfortable with what we know.

       We’re comfortable with what we’re used to.

       That, by definition, is not adding something new or challenging into our daily mix.

       Deep, meaningful moments of learning and growth cause discomfort. They often happen in our lowest lows. But sometimes, this just means that we’re challenged to question a belief we’ve always had, or an assumption we didn’t realize we built long ago.

      The Lady of Shalott is comfortable in her tower.

       But there’s no growth there.

       And, importantly, she realizes, that this lack of growth is an intellectual death.

       She MUST face danger, risk, and discomfort if she is to grow in her mind, and become a better artist.

       Art requires intellectual life.

       So, as we all begin our summers, I invite you—leave the tower.

      Go outside your comfort zone.

       Read a book with views fundamentally different from your own.

       Travel somewhere different than you’ve been before.

       Take a different approach to a relationship in your life.

       Leave the tower.

       Because outside of our normal is challenging, invigorating, life.

       And in a real, lived, fully experienced life, we find the seeds of art, writing, and creativity.

Kari Nixon