Read below our complete notes on the poem “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Our notes cover The Lady of Shalott summary, themes, and analysis.
The poem “The Lady of Shalott was originally written in 1832 by Lord Alfred Tennyson. The poem was revised and published in 1942. Lord Alfred Tennyson claimed that he based the poem on an old Italian romance. However, the poem is similar to the story of the Maid of Astolat in Morte d’Arthur by Malory.
The poem includes a reference to the Arthurian legend, and “Shalott” appears to be very close to “Astolat” in Malory’s work.
The charm of the poem is rooted in its elusiveness and mastery. The poem “The Lady of Shalott” is about the conflict between life and art. There is a Lady who sings in a remote tower and wears a magic web that appears to represent the artistic isolation from the activity and bustle of life. When she sets her art aside and gaze down to the real world, she meets her tragic end and curse befall on her.
Thus, the poem captures the conflict between the desire of an artist for social involvement and his or her skepticism if her act is viable for the one who is dedicated to art. The poem also appears to express the personal dilemma for Tennyson as an artist. Tennyson feels obliged to look for a subject matter outside the world of his own mind.
He wants to talk about his own immediate experiences, comment on history, politics, and humanity. However, he feared that the expansion of subjection matter to the broader territories would destroy his magic of poetry.
Part One and Part Four of the poem focus on the Lady of Shalott from the perspective of the outside world. While Part Two and Part Three of the poem deals with how Lady Shalott views the world.
Summary of Lady Shalott
The poem opens with the description of a road and river that crosses the long fields of rye and barley and reaches the town of Camelot. While traveling along the road, the people of town look towards an island known as Shalott. The island lies further down the river. The island contains several flowers and plants. It includes aspens, lilies, and willows. A lady, known as Lady of Shalott, is imprisoned on an island in a building made up of “four gray walls and four gray towers.”
Along the edge of the river to Camelot, there are heavy barges and light open boat sail. However, no one heard or seen of the Lady living on the island. She is only heard by the reapers who harvest barley. They hear the echo of her singing. At night time, only the tired reaper hear singing and whispering, “‘Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott.”
The Lady of Shalott is weaving a colorful, magical web. She has heard someone saying that if she looks down at Camelot, a curse will befall on her. However, she is not aware of what the curse would be. Therefore, she only focuses on her weaving and does not lift her eyes.
While weaving, a mirror is hanging before her. In this mirror, she sees the shadows of the world. These shadows include highway roads that pass through fields, the peasants of the town, and the eddies in the river. She also sees a group of damsels, a young shepherd, an abbot, and a page dressed in crimson, occasionally.
She also sees a pair of knights riding on a horse, even though she has no loyal knight of her to court her. Despite all these things, she enjoys her solitariness and her weaving. When she sees a pair of newlyweds or a funeral procession, she expresses her frustration with the world of shadows.
A knight comes in a brass armor riding through the fields of barley. The sun is shining on his brass armor and making it shine. When he rides, the gems in the bridle of his horse glitter like a constellation of stars. The bells ring. The knight hangs his sash. His armor makes noise when he runs alongside the remote and isolated island of Shalott.
The jewel on the saddle of the knight shines in the blue and unclouded weather. This makes him look like a meteor in a purple sky. In the sunlight, his forehead glows. Under his helmet, his black curly hair flows out. When he passes by the rivers, he sees his image flashes into the mirror of the Lady of Shalott.
He instantly cries, “tirra lirra.” The Lady stops weaving the web when he hears and sees the knight. The mirror cracks, and the wed flies out of the room. The Lady proclaims her doom as she says: “The curse is come upon me.”
The sky breaks out in storms and rain. The Lady of Shalott leaves her tower and goes down. She finds a boat. She writes “The Lady of Shalott” around the bow of the boat. She looks downstream to the town of Camelot as if the prophet is foreseeing his misfortunes. She lies in the boat in the evening, and the stream carries her to Camelot.
The Lady wears a white shawl and sings her last while sailing down to Camelot. She continues singing until her blood freezes, and she dies. All the lords, knights, and ladies emerge to see the Lady when her boat sails silently to Camelot. They read her name and start fearing.
Lancelot, the brave knight, is only able to push aside the crowd and closely look at the dead maiden. He remarks: “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace.”
Characters in Lady Shalott
The Lady of Shalott
The title character of the poem, the Lady of Shalott is a dynamic character in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem. Over the course of the poem, she grows as a person. When the poem opens, the Lady is living a routine life isolated in a tower on the island of Shalott.
Even though she is isolated, she is stuck in one place that it is not possible for her to come to the window of a tower. No one can see her. However, people can hear her singing.
The Lady of Shalott is constantly weaving the web. She is under the curse, and if she stops weaving, the curse will take effect. Moreover, she is not permitted to look at the world outside or look down at Camelot as a part of the curse. She is given a lot to deal with. She has a mirror that reflects the shadows of the world beyond the window.
She weaves the sights of the shadows she sees into the tapestry. She appears to be satisfied to do so. However, one night she sees a newlywed couple in the mirror. This frustrates her and says that “I am half sick of shadows.”
She soon sees and hears a passerby who makes her more frustrated with her imprisoned condition. A knight, Sir Lancelot, passes by singing and shining. She leaves weaving to look at the handsome man. The mirror cracks as the look breaks. She instantly perceives that the curse has started its effect. Instead of lamenting her fate, she decides to make use of the time left to her.
The Lady instantly leaves the tower and gets a boat. She inscribes the bow of the boat with her name and starts floating towards Camelot. She has a glassy stare because she knows that he is doomed. While drifting along, she is singing “a carol, mournful, holy, chanted loudly, chanted lowly.”
The holy chant of the Lady is suggestive of a nun. This chant is significant in two ways: she never married, and she is considered as a virtuous woman. She sings until she is dead. The residents of the Camelot, particularly the knight Lancelot, pays her respects, which shows that she had taken a noble and brave choice.
The complete information to fully analyze the character of the Lady of Shalott is not given. Some readers can consider that she has made a reckless decision to risk her life by looking at the knight. However, other readers can appreciate her for the decision she has taken and risk her life to grab whatever joy she could get out of life.
The way Lancelot honors the Lady of Shalott, it implies that Tennyson wants his readers to think positive of the heroine. She defies her unjust imprisonment.
Lady Shalott Themes
The Victorian Ideal of Womanhood
The situation of the Lady of Shalott, in many ways, is evocative of the status of women in the Victorian period. The poem subtly criticizes the lack of agency in Victorian England. The image of the tower is a metaphor for the woman who is locked in their homes away from society to protect their purity. The options available to the Lady is either to confine herself in the tower or to die while interacting with society.
The scene in which the Lady of Lancelot looks out from the window to Lancelot can be taken as her “fall from grace.” The same is the case with the women in the Victorian era. The slightest rumor can result in their fall from grace and social ruin. The Lady of Shalott dies because she shows curiosity and choice.
The Isolated Artist and Society
Throughout history, the place or artist has been long debated. One of the recurring arguments that the scholars give is that art flourishes in isolation and damaged by obligation and interaction. In the poem, the title character, the Lady of Shalott, can be taken as an artist as she is constantly creating a magic web-based on the shadows she sees in the mirror.
When the poem opens, she is happy in her work. She doesn’t care about anything but her art. However, with the progress of the story, she expresses her frustration with the shadows, her isolation, and grows half-sick of these shadows. She is sick of creating images of life without experiencing it or being a part of it.
She, ultimately, looks out at Camelot, and her art flies out of the window. It symbolizes the central conflict between the human desire for connection and the need for artists for isolation and solitude.
The poem contains certain supernatural elements, even though the source is not acknowledged or defined. The life of the Lady of Shalott is ruled by an unknown curse. The curse forbids her from interacting with the outside world. She spends her time and days weaving a magic web-based on the sights of the shadows she sees in the mirror. Thus, the craft is a kind of supernatural,
In the instances in which someone tries to directly react to the Lady, it is only with the sense of awe or fear. The reapers consider her as a “fairy,” and the knights of Camelot cross the river out of fear. This supernatural perception is a barrier between the Lady and her connection with humans. Thus, it isolates her not only physically but also conceptually.
Freedom Comes at a Cost
Despite the lens with which the readers read the poem “The Lady of Shalott,” there is a recurrent theme of freedom. The Lady is imprisoned in an isolated tower. She is subject to the curse and is forbidden to look at Camelot except in the mirror. The Lady of Shalott is restricted to pursue what she wants.
The Lady finds out that the price she pays for looking out of the window is death. The choice is the same, whether it is an artist looking for human connection, Victorian women trying to seek social agency, and an ostracized person who is looking for social acceptance. When they are ensconced in an isolated tower, they are safe. However, when they chase freedom, they cost their own life.
Lady Shalott Analysis
In part one of the poem, the poet gave the description of the Isle of Shalott with a tall tower and imprisoned Lady, who is fairy-like. The building in which the Lady is imprisoned is immovable and silent while the rest of the world outside the building hums along in a cheerful and busy way.
There is a great city of Camelot beside the river. This emphasizes the purposefulness, progress, and ever-present sense of movement and the significance of people outside of the tower. The setting is in sharp contrast to the Lady of Shalott. There is a connection between the Lady and the inhabitants of Camelot. However, the connection is magical and mysterious. This highlights the distinction between the realms of the tower and the external world.
In Part Two of the poem, the readers are introduced to the Lady of Shalott. The Lady is under the spell of an unknown curse, which forbade her to look outside the window. Regardless of her isolation and loneliness, the Lady is happy with her condition.
She spends her time and days weaving her magic web and singing. This alludes to the wife of Odysseus, Penelope. When her husband is away, she weaves.
The web of the Lady is symbolic of artistic fecundity and her enslavement. The web depicts the outside world only reflected in the mirror. The Lady sees pages, knights, girls and boys, and sometimes the weddings and funerals, the two great events of life, as well. The scene of the wedding and funeral make her assert her identity by saying that she is sick of shadows. Her life has become stagnant and paralyzed. She feels a sense of exclusion and loss.
Part Three of the poem introduces the courageous and handsome Sir Lancelot. The language of Part Three is heroic and sensual. The Lady of Shalott appears to be as entranced as the readers. She breaks the condition of the curse and looks outside the window to see the great knight.
Some critics mention that it is because of the song of Lancelot that makes the Lady break her resistance as the song is one of the means of expression. Through the song “Tirra liraa,” the Lady feels an intense connection with the man as it is one of the bawdy songs from The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. When the wed flutters out of the window and the mirror cracks, she learns that now she is doomed.
In the last part of the poem, the Lady of Shalott takes the boat and goes down to the city of Camelot. In this part of the poem, Tennyson emphasizes on the troubles of the scenes of mournful Nature and chaotic Nature in which the Lady is in.
The poet describes the wind as stormy, and the yellow woods were waning. It is heavily raining, and the bank of the river is straining. When she reaches the town, the inhabitants are curious and fearful as they have heard her last song and seen her paleness.
The poem ends with Lancelot paying tribute to her. He hopes that God will offer her grace. The scene can be compared with the death of Ophelia in Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
Form and Meter
The poem is written in iambic and trochaic tetrameter. Each section of the poem focuses on different plots.
The poem is divided into four sections into isometric and discrete stanzas. The first two sections of the poem contain four stanzas, while the last two parts of the poem contain five stanzas each.
Each section of the poem ends at a moment when the description yields to the directly quoted speech. For instance, the first section ends at the speech of the reaper while the second and third end at the speech of the Lady. The Fourth section ends at the speech of Lancelot.
Each stanza of the poem has nine lines with the rhyming scheme AAAABCCCB. The A and C lines are written in tetrameter while the B lines are written in a trimester. The syntax of the poem is line-bound. For instance:
On either side, the river lie A
Long fields of barley and of rye, A
That clothe the wold and meet the sky; A
And through the field the road runs by A
To many-towered Camelot; B
And up and down the people go, C
Gazing where the lilies blow C
Round an island there below, C
The island of Shalott. B
The title of the poem refers to the main character of the poem. The Lady of Shalott is the heroine of the poem. The main focus of the poem is the significance of the Lady. Even though the poem points out to Lancelot and Camelot as well, the poem is mainly the account of the Lady of Shalott.
The name of the Lady comes from the legend of Elaine of Astolat. She is the woman who died for the love of the knight, Lancelot. For the poem, the name of the Lady is changed to Shalott.
The setting of the novel is just like that of the ordinary world; however, it is more bright, intense, and magical than the real one. Everything in the poem is soaked in a beautiful and weird kind of magic. The immobile and stationary trees appear to be more alive than usual as the shiver and danced. The river suddenly carries a voice and starts complaining.
The readers never find out who really put the curse on the Lady of Shalott. This makes the readers curious. What if it is the speaker of the poem who curses the beautiful heroine of the poem. Though the speaker of the poem is not obvious, he or she can be imagined through various things.
The speaker of the poem is an omniscient narrator who has a birds-eye-view of the things and events. The speaker of the poem can see and know things that nobody else could see and know. There is little coldness in the voice of the speaker and hints that the speaker feels pleasure when the Lady suffers.
Moreover, the speaker of the poem hides the details of the curse as if she is keeping secret from the readers. The whole poem is like a magical spell that is meant to draw the readers into a magical world.
Symbols and Imagery
The river is the first prominent and big image in the poem. The image of the river reoccurs in the poem time and again. It is just like the backbone of the poem as it runs through the whole poem and holds it up. The river pulls along the whole poem, particularly at the end of the poem, when the Lady starts her final journey. The floe, movement and the strength of the river is the key element in the poem.
The image of the river appears in the following lines:
The first image of the river appears in the first line of the poem. Everything is put in relation to the river. The city of Camelot is down to the river. The island of Shalott is in the middle of the river. Besides the river, there are fields.
In the line 12, the speaker tells the reader about the forever running wave down the river. The readers are made to imagine the forever running wave. In this line, the river is shown as pretty and peaceful. However, it also gets scary sometimes.
The curse started affecting the Lady. The situation gets serious. The river appears to pick the Lady up on her distress. The river appears to be complaining. The poet employed personification as he attributes human qualities (complaining) to a non-living entity. The personification appears to emphasize the fate of the Lady, which is so tragic that it even makes the river sad.
The name of Camelot creates the imagery of kings, knights, castles, and people living in peace and harmony. The place seems too far away, untouchable until the end of the poem. Camelot is a place of beauty and joy. It is put in comparison to the island of Shalott, which is lonely and sad, while every bit of Camelot is splendid and social.
The word Camelot appears in every fifth line of each stanza. The word is used as a refrain in every stanza. The repetition of the word makes it a far-off dream than the actual place. The place appears to be like heaven. It is the place of which the Lady dreams but is unable to see it.
The island of the Shalott is the cut off place from the outside world and from the rest of the land. The island is the great symbol of the loneliness and isolation of the Lady.
The island is in the middle of all the natural description that the poet gives, the island appears to be a nice place which is surrounded by flowers. The island is isolated, but it is peaceful.
After the second part of the poem, the speaker does not use the word island. Instead, he used the word “remote Shalott.” The phrase is interesting as it changed the whole image of Shalott. The place appears to be lonely and weird. As long as the Lady stays there, she will be separated from Lancelot. The island is a kind of prison for the Lady of Shalott.
The Magic Web
The magic web is one of the most fascinating and memorable images in the poem. The imagery of the magic web appears to be more fascinating because of the use of the word web. The word literally means something that looks like a tapestry.
However, in the poem, the Lady appears to be like a spider who is continuously weaving the web. There is irony. The Lady appears to be in control. She is also caught in the web of someone else. The Lady is a web-weaving predator. She is also prey to some mysterious force.
The imagery of the web is powerful in many ways. The web has an enchanted life, just like the brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Moreover, the idea weaving refers to the older stories, particularly Odyssey. The wife of the hero, in the epic poem, is weaving while she is waiting for her husband.
The weaving the web appears to be an expression of talent that the Lady possesses rather than a terrible curse. In the poem, it is specifically mentioned that the Lady enjoys weaving. The weaving the web could be a symbol of creative possibility and freedom, a symbol of imprisonment and slavery, and of a boring and endless chore.
In order to end her imprisonment, the Lady has to step away from the loom where she is sitting and weaving the web. The loom is of few steps. However, the outcome of stepping away from the loom is very great.
Her turning away from the web shows the Lady’s refusal to continue to stay in imprisonment and her decision to pursue the outside world and life. She doesn’t care if her choice results in death.
The web is the symbol of the weird and pseudo-life on the island of the Lady. Thus, when the web is no more, her life on the island also ends. The fling away of the web is the image of destruction that gives the hint of Lady’s approaching death.
The image of a magical mirror appears to be the same as the magical web. It is the other half of the pair magical props of the Lady. Even though the mirror is a source through which the Lady can view the world, it is not like a real mirror. The Lady sees the images, shadows, and kind of half-world.
The mirror appears to be someone who is imprisoned in a place with a TV for a year. The Lady is able to see the world through a mirror, but she cannot interact with the world. Thus, the mirror becomes a symbol of the Lady’s terrible, intense isolation and remoteness from the world.
When the speaker introduces the mirror in the poem, he or she calls it a “mirror clear.” Then the speakers say that the mirror shows the “shadows of the world” to the Lady. The poem employed a paradox with the image of a clear mirror showing shadows. How is it possible to be clear and shadowy at the same time?
It appears that the mirror shows bright colors and people of all kinds; however, to the Lady it does not appear to be real, the images shown by the mirror do not have the intensity of real life. The images in the mirror are shadowy imitations.
The Lady, with her talent, can weave the images into the web that she sees in the mirror. The web and the mirror, in this case, appear to be metaphors for the life of the artist. Both of them show life, but the Lady cannot be a part of that life. Moreover, Artists approach things with a bird’s eye view and reproduce life from some remoteness.
When an artist goes too far, he may become lonely and alienated. The poem appears to be a therapy session for Tennyson to moan about life.
Ironically, the mirror shows the thing to Lady that breaks its spell on her. Everything changes in the life of the Lady, when the knight Lancelot comes in the mirror. The shadow of Lancelot is enough to tell the Lady that she has to change her life.
Literary Devices in the Poem
In order to bring richness and clarity in the texts, poets use literary devices. With the use of literary devices, texts become more appealing and meaningful. In his poem “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson uses some literary devices to communicate his fears and worries. Following are the literary devices used in the poem:
Writer’s emotions, feelings, and ideas become apparent to the readers with the use of imagery. The images used in this poem are:
“There lay a parchment on her breast”;
“She loos’d the chain, and down she lay”
“The pale yellow woods were waning.”
The repetition of consonant sounds in a row is known as Consonance. For example, in this poem, the sound of /r/ repeats in “Till her eyes were darken’d wholly” and /l/ repeats sound in “His coal-black curls as on he rode.”
When two or more words in the same row start with the same sound, it is called alliteration. For example, the /th/ repeats in the line “They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest” and the sound of /w/ repeats in the line “he pale yellow woods were waning.”
When two different objects are compared to one another to understand the meaning, the use of the word “like,” “as,” etc. is called a simile. In the line “The gemmy bridle glitter’d free, Like to some branch of stars we see Hung in the golden Galaxy,” horse’ bridle is compared with the star constellation.
Attributing human qualities to non-living things is known as personification. In the last part of the poem, the river is shown as complaining.
The reiteration of vowel sounds in the same row is known as assonance. In this poem /i/ sound is repeated in the line “The willowy hills and fields among.”
The repetition of two or more words at the beginning of two or more lines in poetry is called anaphora. In the poem, the poet says:
“She left the web, she left the loom.
She made three paces thro’ the room.
She saw the water-flower bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.”
The clause or phrase that continues to another line. For example:
“Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.”
The analysis of literary devices shows that Tennyson has creatively outlined the account of the Lady of Shalott in the poem with the assistance of these literary devices.