The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Lady of Shalott,” in both its original form of 1832 and in the revision of 1842, is divided into four separate narrative sections, each containing from four to six stanzas of nine lines each. The meter is predominately iambic tetrameter with an insistent and unusual rhyme structure involving double couplets and a triplet in each refrain. Alfred, Lord Tennyson took the poem’s title and a few of its incidents from an anonymous medieval Italian novella variously identified as Donna di Scalotta or Novella LXXXI in the Cento Novelle Antiche (c. 1321). As is usual with Tennyson, this source is so altered in his retelling as to be largely unimportant for interpretation. What Tennyson retains from his source is simply a story of a lady’s desperate love for the greatest of Arthurian knights, Lancelot, a love which ends in the lady’s death.
The poem opens with a description of a riparian landscape: a river flowing between fields of grain down to Camelot and the sea; within this river, an island; within this island, a castle; and within the castle, the Lady of Shalott. There are enclosures within enclosures. About the island, ships sail and barges drift, but the Lady of Shalott remains unseen within the walls. Only her voice is sometimes heard by reapers at dawn; listening to her strange song, they refer to the mysterious lady as a “fairy.”
This lady, the reader learns, weaves a tapestry of all the sights of...
(The entire section is 520 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The most striking formal aspect of this poem is its remarkably vivid images. “The Lady of Shalott” was a favorite with Victorian painters and illustrators, who understandably delighted in picturing the crisis of the curse with its sprung tapestry and cracking mirror. Those images, and that of the lady’s funeral barge at the poem’s close, have been admired by many modern critics as early examples of poetic symbolism. While the magic mirror and tapestry belong to the machinery of legend and fairy tale, they seem more than props in Tennyson’s hands. The lady’s mirror, for example, reflects not only the outside world but also the condition of the lady herself as an outsider. Both the lady and the mirror capture images within frames, the mirror in its glass, the lady in her tapestry. This identification is pushed even further at the poem’s close when the lady is described as having a “glassy countenance” as she gazes toward Camelot. Having preferred realities to shadows, having rejected the mirror’s vision for her own, she becomes a mirror herself; her countenance now mirrors her coming death.
Tennyson’s careful insistence on referring to the tapestry as a “web” suggests the idea of entanglement that is certainly part of the lady’s condition. The insect connotations of “web” are also admissible, for this web is very much made from the lady’s own substance: When it is disturbed, she dies. The careful texturing of these images reinforces, deepens,...
(The entire section is 607 words.)