What is the meaning of the poem, "The Lady of Shalott"?
3 Answers | Add Yours
This is a pretty long poem, and a lot goes on, but Tennyson makes it easier to follow along by breaking the action up into four parts. We'll take you through them quickly, to give you an overview:
Part 1: The poem opens with a description of a field by a river. There's a road running through the field that apparently leads to Camelot, the legendary castle of King Arthur. From the road you can see an island in the middle of the river called the Island of Shalott. On that island there is a little castle, which is the home of the mysterious Lady of Shalott. People pass by the island all the time, on boats and barges and on foot, but they never see the Lady. Occasionally, people working in the fields around the island will hear her singing an eerie song.
Part 2: Now we actually move inside the castle on the island, and Tennyson describes the Lady herself. First we learn that she spends her days weaving a magic web, and that she has been cursed, forbidden to look outside. So instead she watches the world go by in a magic mirror. She sees shadows of the men and women who pass on the road, and she weaves the things she sees into her web. We also learn that she is "half sick" of this life of watching and weaving.
Part 3: Now the big event: One day the studly Sir Lancelot rides by the island, covered in jewels and shining armor. Most of this chunk of the poem is spent describing Lancelot. When his image appears in the mirror, the Lady is so completely captivated that she breaks the rule and looks out her window on the real world. When she does this and catches a glimpse of Lancelot and Camelot, the magic mirror cracks, and she knows she's in trouble.
Part 4: Knowing that it's game over, the Lady finds a boat by the side of the river and writes her name on it. After looking at Camelot for a while she lies down in the boat and lets it slip downstream. She drifts down the river, singing her final song, and dies before she gets to Camelot. The people of Camelot come out to see the body of the Lady and her boat, and are afraid. Lancelot also trots out, decides that she's pretty, and says a little prayer for her.
"The Lady of Shalott" tells the story of a woman who lives in a tower in Shalott, which is an island on a river that runs, along with the road beside it, to Camelot, the setting of the legends about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Every day, the woman weaves a tapestry picture of the landscape that is visible from her window, including Camelot. There is, however, a curse on her; the woman does not know the cause of the curse, but she knows that she cannot look directly out of the window, so she views the subjects of her artwork through a mirror that is beside her. The woman is happy to weave, but is tired of looking at life only as a reflection. One day, Sir Lancelot rides by, looking bold and handsome in his shining armor, and singing. The woman goes to the window to look directly out of it, and the moment she does, she knows that the curse is upon her. So she leaves the tower, finds a boat at the side of the river, writes "The Lady of Shalott" on the side of the boat, and floats off down the river toward Camelot. As she drifts along, singing and observing all of the sights that were forbidden to her before, she dies. The boat floats past Camelot, and all of the knights make the sign of the cross upon seeing a corpse go by, but Lancelot, seeing her for the first time, notes, "She has a lovely face."
This poem was first published in 1832, when Tennyson was 23 years old, in a volume called Poems. Up to that point, Tennyson had received great critical acclaim and had won national awards, but the critics savagely attacked the 1832 book, mostly because of poems such as "The Lady of Shalott" that dealt with fantasy situations instead of realistic ones. The next year, 1833, Tennyson's best friend died, which affected the poet as greatly as would anything in his life. For a long time, during a period that later came to be known as "the ten years' silence," nothing of Tennyson's was published. In 1842, a new volume, also called Poems, was published, to great critical acclaim. The new book had a slightly revised version of "The Lady of Shalott," and this version is the one that is studied today.
The poem, The Lady of Shalott, has several meanings or themes. The lady is in isolation, locked in a tower and under a curse though we are never told why. She lives her life passively through a mirror which is to say that she really doesn't live in the real world because the reflection of the mirror is her world. Anyone who lives passively eventually wants to join the real world as the lady does when she hears Lancelot sing. Now, she joins the real world when she looks at Camelot because of the singing and in essence sets the curse in motion. For the first time, she can now choose what to do with the rest of her life which is to float down the river in a boat and see the world along its banks. She dies, but before her death, she lives in the reality of life instead of the distance of a mirror. In death, she is without a name and in the end is treated as an anonymous lady from a place called Shalott.
Join to answer this question
Join a community of thousands of dedicated teachers and students.Join eNotes