How does Tennyson use imagery to present the story in "The Lady of Shalott"?

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Tennyson uses visual imagery and auditory descriptors to further themes of isolation which propel the narrative of "The Lady of Shalott."

Consider the visual imagery in the beginning of the poem:

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
To many-tower'd Camelot;
The yellow-leaved waterlily
The green-sheathed daffodilly
Tremble in the water chilly
Round about Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens shiver.
The sunbeam showers break and quiver
In the stream that runneth ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.

There is a vivid, living, natural world outside the confines of the Lady of Shalott's imprisonment. And the colors of the natural world stand in sharp contrast to the "four gray walls" that hold her.

She desperately longs to be part of this world and to break free from her imprisonment. She longs for human connection and is "half sick of shadows" resulting from existing instead of living.

Finally her yearning for human contact reaches its climax when she spies Lancelot through her mirror. The visual imagery is compelling:

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
His coal-black curls as on he rode,

It is too much. She must gaze upon the wonder of Sir Lancelot, and she breaks the established rules and looks directly down on Camelot.

Immediately, there are consequences, and the auditory descriptors note the angry response of the natural world:

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,

(Bold added for emphasis.)

This is a different natural world than the serene beauty the Lady of Shalott viewed from her confinement. The theme of isolation continues. She leaves her imprisonment alone. She goes to the stream alone. There is no Lancelot awaiting her in the boat; thus, she must enter it alone. The auditory descriptors reflect the misery of her continued isolation:

A longdrawn carol, mournful, holy,
She chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her eyes were darken'd wholly,
And her smooth face sharpen'd slowly,
Turn'd to tower'd Camelot:

The Lady of Shalott dies while singing her mournful song. Her efforts to connect with the natural world are a failure except in her death.

The second part of your question asks how the reader knows the intent of the imagery. I would suggest using different colored highlighters to mark places where you see visual and auditory clues and then examine the context of those descriptors. Do they paint an overall positive image or a negative one? Does the imagery change over the course of the poem? Also consider the tone and the theme and try to determine how the descriptors contribute to those end goals of the poet.

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Imagery is central to "The Lady of Shalott." Tennyson portrays a vibrant, colorful world outside the tower, at which the lady is forbidden to look. The first two stanzas set the scene with plants and trees: barley and rye, lilies, willows, and aspens. Then in the third stanza, the horses draw the barges along the river. Tennyson writes like a painter slowly building up the paint on his canvas, progressing from the background to the detailed figures. The colors are initially muted but when the human figures come upon the scene, they are brightly dressed. The market girls wear red cloaks, the pages are clad in crimson. Even funerals at night have "plumes and lights."

The advent of Sir Lancelot is marked by a plethora of visual imagery—glittering jewels, the red cross on the yellow shield, the mighty silver bugle, and the coal black curls:

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewelled shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burned like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.

It is this sudden dazzling image that forces the lady, already "half-sick of shadows" finally to look outside, as though all the visual imagery in the poem builds up to the brilliant picture of Sir Lancelot. He is the high point of color in the poem, after which we return to the waning "pale yellow" of the woods and the "snowy white" of the lady's robes.

A similar point might be made about the auditory imagery. The reapers listened to the lady singing but made no answer, but now there is Sir Lancelot's song, amidst the jingling of bridle bells. Through all this imagery, Tennyson builds up an irresistible external world, potent enough to make the lady defy the curse.

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The speaker of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" switches back and forth between visual and auditory imagery to reveal the story.

The poem opens with visual imagery of nature, freedom, and movement (which is touch, actually, but the visual does dominate).  Around Shalott, the willows are white (visual), the aspens quiver (touch), the waves in the river run forever (sight and touch), by the island in the river (sight) (lines 10-18).

But in lines 28-36 auditory images predominate:  the reapers "Hear a song that echoes cheerly (auditory).  This is how the lady is known:  no one has seen her wave her hand, stand at the window, or knows her at all.

Another switch from visual to auditory occurs in the shift from lines 73-81 to lines 82-90.  In the first stanza Lancelot is described visually:  he rides like a bow-shot, rides between the barley, his image dazzles into her mirror, his armor shines like flames, as does his shield.

In the next stanza, the imagery changes to auditory:  the bridle bells ring merrily, his equipment belt holds a bugle, and even his armor rings.

All this fascinates the Lady, but what inspires her to actually break the curse and look out the casement or window, is Lancelot's song:

He flashed into the crystal mirror,

"Tirra lirra," by the river

Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces through the room,

She saw the waterlily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She looked down to Camelot.  (106-113)

Imagery makes abstract ideas more concrete.  With the visual and auditory imagery, Tennyson makes concrete his ideas.  That helps the reader understand what he is revealing.  For one example, the Lady first sees Lancelot blaze into her mirror, and then hears the ringing of his bells and armor, followed by his song.  These images concretely reveal what makes the Lady look out the window and break the curse.  The speaker could say that the Lady sees Lancelot in her mirror, and hears him outside, and therefore goes to the window and looks out.  But all that is abstract.  The images make it concrete.   

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