Saturday, May 18, 2013

Victorian Fantasy: Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The topic for this month's meeting of the Victorian Fantasy discussion group was a pair of poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "The Lady of Shalott" and "The Lotos-Eaters." Dame Kghia Gherardi took the lead in the discussion.

Dame Kghia started off by saying, "In many ways, I tend to think of Tennyson as the epitome of the Victorian gentleman. He is someone struggling to make sense of a rapidly changing world, the place for art in that world, and even his own place…[H]e turns to myths and legends for his subject matter, but turns them to a more contemporary theme."

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"The Lady of Shalott" is poem in which the lady of the title is "cursed" to remain in her room, viewing the world only through a mirror, condemned to die if she leaves. After seeing the Knights of the Round Table pass through town, she takes a fancy to Sir Lancelot, sets out in a boat toward Camelot, and dies. The poems is said to be a metaphor for the dilemma of the artist: live a life or create art while viewing life as in a mirror.

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Our extensive discussion of "Shalott" left little time for discussion of the second poem, "The Lotos-Eaters." This time, instead of Arthurian legend, Tennyson's inspiration was Odysseus and his wanderings. As the poem opens, Odysseus's men have reached the land of the Lotos Eaters, who bear gifts including the flower of the lotos. The men partake of it and enter a dream-like state. The men express a desire to stay forever. One similarity with the previous poem is that the effect of the lotus is to live in a dream world - the same conflict between the "real" and the idealized world as in "Shalott." The reader is left with the impression that the dream world is not necessarily the right choice, that the struggles of the real world are to be preferred over the lassitude of the dream world.

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Next month's topic will be Robert Browning and "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."

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