The Poem

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“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.

Forms and Devices

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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, and extends their more conventional associations. The island’s isolation and the temporal significance of the river current also gain by their participation in a symbolic pattern of such complexity. It is the combination of suggestive images with a relatively discontinuous, seemingly naïve narrative that lends this poem its disquieting power. The poem anticipates the modern understanding of dreams as symbol systems suspended in masking narratives. As in dreams, the narrative line is deceptively simple; the deeper significance is encoded in symbol. Since the poem is essentially about the power of dream and symbol, of image over life, its symbolic images embody the poem’s theme rather than express it, which is very nearly the essence of modern poetic symbolism.

The collective effect of the symbol system in “The Lady of Shalott” is a powerful sense of narcissistic introversion. The Lady’s attempt to break out of her insularity fails because she is incapable of escaping her enslavement to images. The image of Lancelot himself had been cast into her mirror from the river surface and is nothing more than another representation of the reality she cannot reach. Trapped in the immobility of her island world of images, cut off from the world of transition and change—of life, love, and death—the lady rebels against her condition by casting herself adrift into the temporal tyranny of the river current. It pulls her into the world of living men and women, but she dies in transit, singing her own death song in a funeral barge emblazoned with her own name; her isolation is never broken.

The rhyme scheme of the poem is also a means for reinforcing the sense of inescapable isolation, for it is one of the most repetitive and insistent rhyme schemes to be found in serious English poetry. The sequence aaaabcccb is repeated throughout the poem, and all but one stanza end with the lady’s name as the final rhyme. The obsessive repetition of the name drives home her own repetitive obsessions. Images and metrical organization work together to create claustrophobia, a terrified sense of compulsive ritual that is wearying and inescapable.

Historical Context

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Arthurian Legend
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 century, appeared in the Historia Regum Britainne ("History of the Kings of Britain") by the English writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, published in or around 1139. It was this book that identified the Arthur of Camelot as the sixth-century king, son of Uther Pendragon, who kept council with his court of knights at a round table and was married to Guinevere. Other historians have guessed that there were other kings named Arthur who could have inspired the legends.

Lancelot, the bold knight who is mentioned in this poem, is not mentioned in the earlier legends. He first appears in the late twelfth century, in Le Chevalier de Charette by Chrétien de Troyes and Lanzelot by Ulrich von Zatzikhofen. This character quickly became an integral part of the myth, a favorite character because he embodies the qualities of courage and chivalry that befit the tales.

According to legend, Lancelot is born "Galahad" but has his name changed early in life when his family is killed by a fire (he later has a son named Galahad with Elaine of Corbenic, who is different than Elaine of Astolat). He is raised by "The Lady of the Lake," a mystical character who is said to have given Arthur the sword, Excalibur, which establishes him as king. It is her influence that establishes Lancelot on his eighteenth birthday as a knight of the Round Table. There, he proves to be the most valiant knight, but he also becomes treacherous: he and Arthur's wife, Guinevere, fall in love and have an affair.

It is their sexual relationship that destroys the court at Camelot. When Arthur finds out about it, he orders Guinevere to be executed for treason. Lancelot and his army attack, spiriting the queen away and killing many knights. Guinevere is returned to Arthur, and Lancelot goes to France where he establishes a rival court. In later years, the animosity between the two men cools, and Lancelot returns to Camelot before Arthur's death to ask his forgiveness. He then retires to live a secluded, monkish life at his castle.

Romanticism
In terms of literary movements, Tennyson is most closely associated with the Victorian era. Queen Victoria liked his work and appointed him Poet Laureate of Britain, a post he held from 1850 to 1892. The first version of this poem appeared in 1833, though, when Tennyson was in his twenties. Its sensibilities reveal a closer attachment to the Romantic movement, which was at its peak at that time.

No category can capture the sensibilities of all of the artists who worked in a particular time, but it is sometimes helpful to name philosophical movements and to group thinkers with similar ideas in order to get a sense of the prevailing mood of an era. Romanticism was the prevailing mood at the end of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth. It is a reaction against the previous mood, which is called the Enlightenment, so named because it emphasized rationality, which led to the drive for political equality as the most rational way for states to govern. Two thinkers associated with the Enlightenment are Thomas Jefferson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, both of whom were instrumental in encouraging the cause of democracy over the rule of monarchs, and their writings contributed to the motivations behind the American and French Revolutions. The Enlightenment produced intellectual philosophers, and the art of the period was called Neo-Classical because it incorporated the logic, order, and balance of classical Greek art. (Neo-Classicism co-occurs with explorations of Greek and Roman ruins in Greece and Italy.)

Many historians recognize the start of the Romantic Period as occurring about 1800, when William Wordsworth set forth a new theory of poetry in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads. The Preface summarizes some important traits of Romanticism: an emphasis on feeling as the source of creativity, a preference for subjectivity, an overall devotion to nature as a symbolic code for spiritual truth, and a desire to give voice to oppressed and rustic people. Poetry Wordsworth said, "is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings … recollected in tranquility." Poetry, then, is the expression of human feeling as it is remembered and continues to be felt. In the shadow of the French Revolution English writers like William Blake and Samuel Coleridge expressed similar sensibilities.

The second phase of Romanticism, from 1805 to the 1830s, produced other writers associated with the term, the most famous of whom are John Keats Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron (born George Gordon). In addition to stressing feeling, writers continued an earlier interest in national history and folklore. Sir Walter Scott wrote historical novels about legendary English characters; John Keats (as well as many others) rewrote the Robin Hood legends; and Tennyson focused on the tales of the Knights of the Round Table. Another relevant element is an interest in the occult and in morbidity; Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein is an example as are the nightmarish visions in the poetry of the U.S. writer Edgar Allan Poe.

Literary Style

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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 by word of mouth and rhyming aided memorization.

The lines of this poem are written in iambic tetrameter. An "iamb" is a unit of poetry (referred to as a "poetic foot") that has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—in the first line, for example, the syllables "eith" "side" "riv" and "lie" are accented more heavily than the syllables that come before them. Iambic poetry closely follows the up-and-down pattern of English speech, making the poem's structure hardly noticeable. Tetrameter means that there are four feet to each line ("tetra" is the Greek word for "four"), for a total of eight syllables to each line.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 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 be caused by viruses and fungi, and science measures correlations between physical health and longevity and psychological and emotional well-being.

Media Adaptations

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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 by Frank Duncan, Michael Horndurn, and David King.
  • "The Lady of Shalott" is depicted in a fantasy painting by John William Waterhouse in 1875. The painting became commercially available as a poster from Shorewood Fine Arts Reproductions in 1999.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
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.

Further Reading
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: Modern Criticism and Romantic Poetry," in British Romantic Poets: Recent Revelations. New York University Press, 1966, pp. 22-32. Foakes does not specifically talk about Tennyson, but he does talk about how Romanticism affected poetry that came after it. Readers can draw conclusions about where Tennyson fits into the scheme Foakes proposes.

Hollander, John. "Tennyson's Melody," in Alfred Lord Tennyson, edited by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 103-26. Hollander's examination of the sound of Tennyson's poems, including "The Lady of Shalott," is rich and full of details.

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