The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is a gorgeous, elegant, vivid work of tragedy. Like most of Tennyson’s work, it captures the imagination in its graceful diction and weaves an enchanting spell with its meter and rhyme. Yet beyond its beauty, beyond any theories as to what Tennyson meant or what the poem reveals about its author and the world in which it was written, it is a fabulous example of a simple truth: Classics are exempt from the bindings of genre and the prejudices therein.
For the purposes of today’s discussion, I am defining genre as any category of fiction a bookstore uses to segment its stock. This includes literary fiction, which I know may ruffle some feathers as some fans of literary fiction do not consider it a genre, but please, bear with me and for now.
Though Tennyson achieved the high classification of literature, most of his poetry bears elements of fantasy. Were an author today to write about the subjects that Tennyson did, he would be shelved among J. R. R. Tolkien, Stephen R. Lawhead, and A. A. Attanasio. Arthurian literature generally gets classified as fantasy if it was written in our post-modern world.
Yet Tennyson is deemed worthy of the title of literature. However, much of his work contains elements that I have repeatedly heard condemned among modern fans of the literary genre.
For a moment, put aside the fact that The Lady of Shalott was first published coming up on two hundred years ago. Let’s look at it through our modern lens as if we were magazine editors and it came across our desk for consideration in our upcoming issue.
First of all, taken on its poetic form alone, The Lady of Shalott would likely wrinkle our modern noses. Yes, its language is elegant. But rhyming has almost taken on an amateurish connotation these days, and nearly every line of The Lady of Shalott rhymes. Plus, as eloquent as the descriptions are:
Willows whiten, aspens quiver
Little breezes dusk and shiver,
and aside from the potential analysis of the poem being a metaphor for Tennyson’s life or its contemporary world, which we would know nothing of if he were a new author crossing our desk, the poem has little in the way of internal metaphor or symbolism. Certainly, we could invent some or comb through the lines and find meaning that applies to our world view, but compared to other pieces, this would take far greater effort.
Coupled with The Lady of Shalott’s light use of elevated literary mechanisms, it teems with fantasy. The esteemed lady weaves a literal magic web and sees the world through a mirror. The precise nature of the mirror is left to some interpretation. Tennyson describes it as:
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
This could mean either a fanciful way of describing the literal reflection of the world outside the Lady of Shalott’s window, or it could reference a magic mirror that acts as the only window the Lady of Shalott is permitted to see the world through. In either case, enough other fantasy lives within the poem from the web to the curse that results in the lady’s death.
Were this poem to cross our magazine editor’s desk, it would likely never make it into a tome of literary poetry. Rather, it would stand a better chance of finding a place in one of the many magazines that either focus primarily on or incorporate fantasy elements such as Weird Tales.
But because The Lady of Shalott was written before the advent of genres, and is thus a classic, and because of Tennyson’s skill at creating such beauty with language, it wears the proud mantle of literature.
What do you think? Were The Lady of Shalott to cross an editor’s desk today, would it be classified as literary fiction or fantasy? What do you think of classics like this, no matter their subject, being rolled into the category of literature? Should genre matter when analyzing the merits and flaws of a work of fiction or poetry? And why should it matter?