"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.