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...
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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...
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The character Tennyson calls the Lady of Shalott is based on Elaine of Astolat, one of the figures from the legend of King Arthur. Traditionally, she was identified only as "demoiselle d'escalot," the fair maid of Astolat. It was Sir Thomas Malory who gave her the name "Elaine" in his 1485 book Le Morte d'Arthur. Tennyson wrote about her as Elaine, the Lilly Maid of Astolat, in The Idylls of the King, published in 1885, but in his poem "The Lady of Shalott," he has taken liberties, leaving her without a name and changing "Astolat" to the archaic "Shalott." In both versions, the character dies of unrequited love for Sir Lancelot and floats down the river in a barge, to be wondered about by the common people who are going about their daily concerns.
The legends of King Arthur and his knights are mythical, although many researchers have put forth theories about the actual historical existence of the people they describe. The legends began appearing during the Middle Ages between the fifth and fifteenth centuries. The earliest record of a King Arthur is in a seventh-century Welsh text. Arthurian stories were told all over Europe, particularly in France. The first continuous narrative of the legend, with most of the knights and supporting characters and specific episodes that readers know in the twenty-first...
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"The Lady of Shalott" is a ballad. There is no standard structure for a ballad, but the term refers to a poem or a song that tells the story of a person or people, usually with details that give them qualities that are larger than life.
The poem is divided into four numbered sections, with each section, like a story, rising to a climax before it ends. This structure helps capture the reader's interest, enticing the reader to find out what will happen next. Each section is broken down, not quite equally, into stanzas, which are sections in poetry similar to paragraphs in prose. There are four stanzas in Parts I and II, five stanzas in Part III, and six in Part IV. Keeping the early sections shorter allows the poet to hold the reader's attention.
The stanzas all contain the same basic structure: there are nine lines, with a rhyme scheme of aaaabcccb. This means that in each stanza the final sounds of the first four lines (coded as the a sound) are similar; lines 5 and 9 rhyme (the b sound); and lines 6, 7, and 8 rhyme with each other. Unlike some poets, who try to de-emphasize or conceal rhymes, Tennyson brings attention to rhymes by making most of the lines end-stopped—the flow of words is brought to a halt by punctuation. This strong emphasis on rhymes helps to give the poem the feeling of an ancient tale, since it resembles poems from the time before printing was developed, when news was carried from town to town...
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Compare and Contrast
- 1842: An important source of entertainment is books and magazines. More middle-class people are familiar with the mythic stories as they have been preserved in literature for generations.
Today: There is still some familiarity with King Arthur's Court, but most people know it as it is depicted in movies or in theme park recreations.
- 1842: The English countryside is more open and unpolluted. Cities, particularly London, are crowded and polluted, but people who have been to the country can easily imagine the landscape that Tennyson describes.
Today: For the most part, the English countryside is divided into walled-off fields and farm tracks. Since coal burning is illegal in cities, urban air pollution is reduced.
- 1842: Alfred Tennyson was a young, struggling poet who had to quit writing for a time because he could not pay his bills.
Today: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is considered an important writer and his works are studied in English literature courses.
- 1842: Scientists do not understand microbiological causes for death, which makes it more mysterious; thus, poets explore rich metaphorical possibilities for explaining what causes sudden death.
Today: Microbiology explains many symptoms to...
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Topics for Further Study
- Read about the presidential administration of John F. Kennedy. Why was it called "Camelot"? Find particular figures from the Arthurian myths that correspond to figures in U.S. politics. In particular, who would you say is most like the Lady of Shalott?
- The Lady of Shalott could only look at the world through a mirror, but mirrors were quite different in Tennyson's time than they are now. Research the history of how mirrors are made and explain how that would affect what she saw.
- Write a poem or a short story that explains how the Lady of Shalott came to have this curse put on her.
- This poem has been put to music several times. Adapt it to your favorite type of music, cutting out parts that you think are unnecessary. Explain your choices.
- The Lady of Shalott weaves a picture of what she sees outside her window. Research tapestries from the Middle Ages and report on what kinds of images they present and what kinds of stories they tell.
- Assume that the Lady of Shalott is not under a curse at all, that she cannot go outside because of psychological inhibitions. Report on what treatments are currently available for someone in her situation.
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- A 1995 videocassette entitled "The Lady of Shalott": A Poem and Its Readers is available from Films for the Humanities & Sciences. It features a reading of the poem and responses by a variety of interested people.
- Encyclopedia Britannica Films produced a 16 mm. film in 1970 called The Lady of Shalott, with Cecil Bellamy reading the poem, plus a variety of music and visuals related to it.
- "The Lady of Shalott" is included on a Caedmon recording of The Poetry of Tennyson, read by Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Lewis Casson. It was recorded in 1972 and is also available on audiocassette.
- A four-album set released by Allyn & Bacon in 1955, Master Recordings in English Literature, includes this poem. V. C. Clinton-Baddeley reads.
- A two-album set, Narrative Poetry, part of the London Library of Recorded English series, includes this poem. It was released by Columbia in 1980, with selections read by Cecil Trouncer, Julian Randall, John Laurie, and V. C. Clinton-Baddeley.
- The second entry in the Argo series, The English Poets from Chaucer to Yeats, is devoted to Tennyson. This recording, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, made in association with the British Council and Oxford University Press, includes selections from Tennyson read...
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What Do I Read Next?
- Edgar Allan Poe's poem "Annabel Lee" deals with the sudden death of a woman the speaker has loved, "many many years ago, in a kingdom by the sea." Poe's poetic music matches Tennyson's. Originally published in 1845, it is available in The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, published by Vintage Books in 1995.
- Sir Thomas Malory's version of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, titled Le Morte D'Arthur, was published in 1485 by William Caxton and is still one of the most influential sources used today for information about the myth. It is available in an unabridged edition, a reprint of the Caxton original, from Sterling Publications, copyright 2000.
- John Steinbeck, the twentieth-century author who is best known for his realistic novels such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, wrote one of the best updated versions of the Arthurian legend in his Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, available from Noonday Press, 1993.
- Tennyson included a poem entitled "Lancelot and Elaine," which stays truer to the traditional legends about the relationship between the Round Table knight and Elaine of Astolat, in his book Idylls of the King, which is all about the legends associated with King Arthur. Portions of the book were...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Jump, John D. Tennyson: "In Memoriam," "Maud," and Other Poems. J. A. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1974, pp. vii—xx.
Noyes, Arthur. "Tennyson and Some Recent Critics," in Some Aspects of Modern Poetry. Hodder & Stoughton., 1924, pp. 133-76.
Saintsbury, George. "Tennyson," in Corrected Impressions: Essays on Victorian Writers. Dodd Mead & Company, pp. 21-30.
Shaw, W. David. "Rites of Passage: 'The Lady of Shalott' and 'The Lotus-Eaters,'" in Tennyson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Elizabeth A. Francis. Prentice-Hall, 1980, pp. 19-27.
Whitman, Walt. "A Word about Tennyson," in Critic (New York), Vol. 10, January 1887, pp. 1-2.
Amis, Kingsley. Introduction to Tennyson. Penguin Books, 1973, pp. 7-19. Students who find scholarly work hard to follow will appreciate Amis's brief examination of Tennyson's life and importance. Amis, who could be one of the funniest novelists of the twentieth century, seems an unlikely choice for introducing Tennyson's poetry, but his essay is reverent and warm.
Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet. Harvard University Press, 1960. Part biography and part criticism, this book gives some insight into Tennyson's psychological state as he wrote this poem.
Foakes, R. A. "The Commitment to Metaphor:...
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