To Tennyson, King Arthur symbolizes the ideal man, and Arthurian England was England in its best and purest form. Some of Tennyson’s earliest poems, such as “The Lady of Shalott,” were set in King Arthur’s time. Indeed, Tennyson rhymes Camelot, the name of King Arthur’s estate, with Shalott in eighteen of the poem’s twenty stanzas, thereby emphasizing the importance of the mythical place. Furthermore, our contemporary conception of Camelot as harmonious and magnificent comes from Tennyson’s poem. Idylls of the King, about King Arthur’s rise and fall, was one of the major projects of Tennyson’s late career. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert envisioned themselves as latter-day descendents of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and their praise helped popularize the long poem. But King Arthur also had a more personal representation to Tennyson: the mythic king represents a version of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, whose death at twenty-two profoundly affected Tennyson. Hallam’s death destroyed his potential and promise, which allowed Tennyson to idealize Hallam. This idealization allows Tennyson to imagine what might have been in the best possible light, much as he does when describing King Arthur and his court.
The imprisoned woman appears throughout Tennyson’s work. In “Mariana,” a woman abandoned by her lover lives alone in her house in the middle of desolate country; her isolation imprisons her, as does the way she waits for her lover to return. Her waiting limits her ability and desire to do anything else. “The Lady of Shalott” is likewise about a woman imprisoned, this time in a tower. Should she leave her prison, a curse would fall upon her. Tennyson, like many other Victorian poets, used female characters to symbolize the artistic and sensitive aspects of the human condition. Imprisoned women, such as these Tennyson characters, act as symbols for the isolation experienced by the artist and other sensitive, deep-feeling people. Although society might force creative, sensitive types to become outcasts, in Tennyson’s poems, the women themselves create their own isolation and imprisonment. These women seem unable or unwilling to deal with the outside world.