Arts & Tradition

The Power of the Imagination

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
BY Eric Bess TIMEApril 28, 2020 PRINT

Sometimes, I’m the victim of my own imagination. I let my thoughts run wild with desires for my future and what I’d change about my past. And sometimes, my imagination adds the creative element I need to complete a complex project or add an element of wit to an otherwise bland conversation.

I was looking through paintings by John William Waterhouse and saw his painting “The Lady of Shalott,” which is based on Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name. I began to think about what this poem and painting say about the imagination and was led down a path riddled with “what ifs?”

The Lady of Shalott

Tennyson was one of the most famous poets in English history. His poem “The Lady of Shalott” was written in 1832 shortly after the death of his abusive father and then updated in 1842, after the poet hadn’t written anything in 10 years. 

The poem tells the story of the lady who lives on an island called Shalott in an isolated tower surrounded by fields, flowers, and a river that flows down from King Arthur’s castle at Camelot. No matter how many people pass by her tower, however, no one ever sees her. She remains hidden because she’ll be cursed if she looks out her window or leaves her tower. But a mirror that reflects the outside world hangs in front of her, and she spends her days embroidering the images she sees from the mirror.

As she tires of these images, Lancelot arrives and appears in her mirror. Lancelot, appearing larger than life, entices her to turn from her weaving and look out her window. When she looks out her window, the mirror cracks, and she knows: “The curse is come upon me.” 

She leaves the castle and hurries to a boat on which she writes “The Lady of Shalott.” She boards the boat and floats down the river, but it’s not long before the curse takes her life. The boat carries her lifeless body down the river until it reaches the shore. A group of knights come upon her body and see a piece of paper on her chest, which reads: “The web was woven curiously, The charm is broken utterly, Draw near and fear not,—this is I, The Lady of Shalott.”

“The Lady of Shalott” 1888, by John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas; 5 feet by 6 feet 7 inches. Tate Britain, London. (Public Domain)

The Moment of No Return

Waterhouse was greatly influenced by Tennyson. According to the Tate galleries website, Waterhouse “owned a copy of Tennyson’s collected works, and covered every blank page with pencil sketches for paintings.” In this painting, Waterhouse decided to depict the scene from this stanza:

With a steady stony glance—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Beholding all his own mischance,
Mute, with a glassy countenance—
She look’d down to Camelot.
It was the closing of the day:
She loos’d the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Waterhouse showed the moment in which the Lady of Shalott removes the chain that keeps the boat docked to the shore. She doesn’t pay attention to the chain itself but stares longingly into the distance as if in a “trance … with a glassy countenance.” She’s dressed in white, which is typically a sign of purity, and is framed by the dark masses of her environment. She sits on a blanket that is embroidered with the woes of her own story, as if she’s “some bold seer.”

The Indeterminate Question

The Tate interprets this as follows: “In Victorian society women were often restricted to the home and domestic life as men went out to work. The poem could be read as a warning to women who didn’t conform to this.” However, I think more can be gathered from the potential meaning of this poem and painting than reducing it to issues we deem important today.

I imagine the Lady of Shalott is plagued by the possibilities of the curse placed on her. The curse has everything to do with her leaving her tower and experiencing the real world. Is it possible that the tower is symbolic of our imaginations? It’s not that she doesn’t experience the sounds and sights of the world. She does; she just doesn’t experience them directly. She can hear the sounds from outside and see the sights of the world in the mirror.

Are our imaginations mere reflections of the “real” world, and do we sit with the needle and thread employed by our minds to fashion images inspired by this world? If so, what is the danger of leaving our imaginations behind and turning toward the “real” world? The mirror—the very thing that inspired the images that the Lady of Shalott wove—is cracked when she looks at the “real” world. 

Was Tennyson reminding us of the power of our imaginations to provide meaning to our lives, that without the imagination—the mind’s eye—we might find ourselves feeling lifeless on this journey down a stream over which we have little control? 

It also seems that Waterhouse’s painting suggests the importance of the imagination. The Lady of Shalott does not look at what she’s doing but stares longingly into the distance as if she’s captivated by her own imagination. 

Waterhouse depicts her as “some bold seer”—as if she’s a soothsayer of old—telling her own fortune in the images she weaves. The blanket she sits on depicts the image of a woman dressed in white in front of a castle. It also shows a procession of knights. Are these knights the ones who accompany Sir Lancelot, or are they those who will find her lifeless body later? If she is a seer, it must be the latter. How, if not by the workings of the images in her own mind, would she be able to weave parts of her own story before they happened? 

detail of John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Lady_of_Shalott
A detail showing the embroidery by the Lady of Shallot. “The Lady of Shalott” 1888, by John William Waterhouse. Oil on canvas; 5 feet by 6 feet 7 inches. Tate Britain, London. (Public Domain)

But then I read the letter that’s found on the Lady of Shalott: “The web was woven curiously, The charm is broken utterly, Draw near and fear not,—this is I, The Lady of Shalott.” And I ask: Are Waterhouse and Tennyson also warning us about the potential dangers of the imagination? 

She weaves the images inspired by the “real” world with a curiosity for experiencing the “real” world. The charm that keeps her confined to the reflections in the mirror is utterly broken when her desires for the images in the mirror are redirected into the real world. Our imaginations can sometimes stimulate unhealthy desires, which have the potential to cause us harm only when we actually pursue them. Even when we know these desires will cause us harm—just as the Lady of Shalott weaves the woes of her fate in Waterhouse’s painting—we still sometimes find ourselves pulled by desires down a path we would otherwise avoid.

Or maybe Waterhouse and Tennyson are suggesting that our imaginations, and the desires they stimulate, give us the power to face our fears. Our imaginations give us the strength to come face-to-face with the possibility of our own death, and in so doing, we may come closer to understanding what it means to be authentic to ourselves. Is this why the Lady of Shalott writes: “Draw near and fear not,—this is I, The Lady of Shalott”? 

She requests that whoever finds her lifeless body come toward it and not be afraid. To me, it’s almost as if she’s saying there’s no reason to be afraid of death. The person who finds her should come close to see her lifeless body and conquer their own fears of death. She’s found her own authenticity in conquering her fears of death.

So many questions are stimulated by great works of art. Tennyson and Waterhouse have reminded me of the power of imagination, especially when it’s stimulated by a question that gives birth to other questions. Through these questions, stimulated by works of art, I’m led to weave images I otherwise wouldn’t and, in the process, I’m also reminded that the imagination is a powerful thing. It can have positive or negative consequences based on how we direct its powers. 

And what directs its powers besides wisdom? Maybe the message of Tennyson and Waterhouse can be summed up as follows: The imagination is dangerous without wisdom, and wisdom is lifeless without imagination.  

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions we explore in our series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).

Eric Bess is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA) and assistant professor at Fei Tian College in Middletown, N.Y.
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