This poem starts off by giving a visual overview of the situation. The reader is shown the river and the road, and, far in the distance, the towers of Camelot. The people mentioned in this section are not given specific identities; rather, they are common people going about their daily business. It is from their perspective that the poem first shows Shalott, an island in the river.
The imagery here is of nature, of freedom, of movement. This is contrasted with the inflexible, colorless walls and towers of Camelot in line 15. The flowers in the next line are not described by their colors or even by their motion in the breeze, but are "overlooked" by the grey walls, as if they are held prisoner. This tone of severity in the middle of nature's healthy activity prepares the reader for the introduction of the Lady of Shalott in line 18.
Lines 19-23 focus again on the human activity going on around the island: small river barges pass with heavy loads; small, quick boats called "shallops" skim past the shore around the tower, referred to here as a "margin." With all of this activity, the poem asks who has seen the woman who lives in the tower, implying that she is mysterious, unknown, "veiled."
In the fourth stanza of Section I, the imagery changes from relying on the senses of sight and touch (as implied by the plants' motions in the wind in stanza 2) to the sense of sound. The poem tells us that the lady who lives in the tower has not been seen, and is known only to the farmers who hear her singing while they work in their fields so early in the morning that the moon is still out. Because they never see her but only hear her singing, the reapers think of the Lady of Shalott as a spirit, a "fairy." Up to this point, the reader has not been introduced to her, either, and knows only as much about her as those outside of the tower know.
The Lady seems to be happy where she is: her songs echo "cheerly" (line 30) and she weaves her picture in happy, gay colors (line 38) and she has no care in the world other than weaving (line 44). In this stanza, though, the reader finds out that the Lady will have a curse visited on her if she looks at Camelot. This idea combines many familiar themes: readers generally recognize the maiden trapped in the tower from the tale of Rapunzel or the maiden placed under a spell from the story of Sleeping Beauty; in addition, according to Greek myth, Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, avoided men who wanted to court her while her husband was away by constantly weaving, but then unravelling her work at night so that she would never be done. This is an appropriate allusion because both Penelope and the Lady of Shalott use their craft as a substitute for human involvement. Strangely, the Lady does not know why she has to avoid direct interaction, nor does she seem to care.
Not able to look directly at the world out of her window, the Lady observes it through a mirror. This stanza describes a few of the things she sees in that mirror. The images she sees are described as "shadows." According to the Greek philosopher Plato we experience life like a person would who was chained up inside of the mouth of a cave: he cannot see out, he can only see the shadows of people passing the cave flickering on the wall, and he thinks that the shadows are reality. In that same way we all, according to Plato, mistake images of reality for actual reality, which we cannot see. For the Lady of Shalott, reality is not the broad landscape but the images (Tennyson calls them "shadows") she sees in the mirror.
The people in this stanza are in motion, going about their busy lives while hers is solitary and static. Reflected in her mirror she sees a group of happy girls, a clergyman, a page, and, sometimes, the knights of Camelot, riding in columns.
The action of the poem begins in this stanza, where the Lady's attitude changes: in line 55, she is delighted with the picture she is weaving of the outside world, but in line 71, the first time she speaks, she says she is unhappy with her situation. In between the two, she observes people...
(The entire section is 1800 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Lady of Shalott Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!