The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Arthurian Legend
The character Tennyson calls the Lady of Shalott is based on Elaine of Astolat, one of the figures...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

"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...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1842: An important source of entertainment is books and magazines. More middle-class people are familiar with the...

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

  • Read about the presidential administration of John F. Kennedy. Why was it called "Camelot"? Find particular figures from the Arthurian...

(The entire section is 204 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

  • A 1995 videocassette entitled "The Lady of Shalott": A Poem and Its Readers is available from Films for the Humanities &...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

  • 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 entire section is 364 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Jump, John D. Tennyson: "In Memoriam," "Maud," and Other Poems. J. A. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1974, pp....

(The entire section is 278 words.)