“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 outside world that are reflected before her in a mirror hanging upon her wall. She will not look out at the world itself, only at its “shadows,” for she has received a mysterious warning that if she looks to the city of Camelot, she will fall victim to a curse. The curse comes. Great Lancelot eventually rides by the window, and his splendid image in her mirror tempts the lady to look upon the man himself. As she does so, the tapestry rends, and the mirror shatters. Despairingly, in the midst of a blowing storm, the lady boards a small boat and drifts toward Camelot and death singing a final dirge. When the boat comes to Camelot bearing her silent corpse, all but Lancelot are terrified at this strange apparition. Lancelot, for whom she died loving, simply observes (almost flatly observes), “She has a lovely face/ God in his mercy lend her grace.”
The narrative has the simplicity of a fairy tale, and, as in a fairy tale, causes and motivations are mysterious and obscure. The origin of the curse is never explained, and the lady has learned of it only by a strangely disembodied “whisper.” Again, as in fairy tales, the transparency of the narrative surface hints at greater depths. The lady confesses after seeing a pair of lovers reflected in her mirror that she is “half sick of shadows,” but her vision of the lovers is preceded by a vision of a funeral—significantly, for one later recognizes that her sickness among shadows ends finally with her death among realities. “The Lady of Shalott” remains one of Tennyson’s most evocative and disturbing poems.