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A Short Analysis of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’

Notes towards a commentary on Tennyson’s allegory

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) wrote two versions of ‘The Lady of Shalott’. Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ exists as both a 20-stanza poem published in 1832, and the revised version of 19 stanzas – which is the one readers are most familiar with – which was published in 1842. The poem, partly inspired by Arthurian legend (hence the presence of the knight, Lancelot) and partly by the epic sixteenth-century poem The Faerie Queene written by Edmund Spenser, remains popular, although the precise meaning of the poem remains elusive. So, a few words of analysis about this enchanting poem may help to clarify things.

The Lady of Shalott

Part I

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;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers ” ‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.”

Part II

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed:
“I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

Part III

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.

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,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Part IV

In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over tower’d Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seër in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance—
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot.
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross’d themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

A short analysis of the poem

‘The Lady of Shalott’, on one level, is about growing up and exchanging the world of illusion for the (potentially damaging) world of reality – at least, in one interpretation. The Victorian critic R. H. Hutton (1826-97) argued that the poem’s meaning (if it can be said to have a ‘meaning’ in the straightforward sense) is that we must turn away from the world of illusion, however comforting that world may be, in favour of the real world – even if it ends up destroying you. As Hutton wrote, the poem ‘has for its subject the emptiness of the life of fancy, however rich and brilliant’.

But such an analysis, of course, could easily sit alongside another interpretation of the poem, namely one which sees ‘The Lady of Shalott’ as essentially being about love. Love may be dangerous and may destroy us, but it’s better to take that risk than to pine away, hiding yourself from the world. Or, as Tennyson put it more famously in his long poem In Memoriam in 1850, ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.’ After all, it is Lancelot, that dashing knight and adulterer, the queen’s paramour in Arthurian legend, who inspires the Lady of Shalott to leave the safety of her tower and descend into the ‘real’ world. Love is about taking risks: we are not fully alive without it, but we know that it has the power to destroy us, too.

Such an interpretation, in turn, folds into another analysis of the poem, which focuses on the fact that the Lady of Shalott is just that, a lady. Another Victorian critic, R. W. Croker, saw the whole poem as constituting an extended pun on the word ‘spinster’: the Lady of Shalott weaves or spins all day, because she is unmarried and locked away from the rest of the world, including the world of love embodied by Camelot and Lancelot. It’s a nice idea, but even if we acknowledge that the word spinster is an undercurrent to the poem, is that really all it is about?

Tennyson’s poem inspired several paintings, and a number of artists who formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood later in the 1840s would go on to paint scenes from ‘The Lady of Shalott’. The most famous of these is by John William Waterhouse, and depicts the scene near the end of the poem where the Lady of Shalott, in her boat, is floating along the river towards Camelot. However, William Holman Hunt also painted a scene from the poem – namely the crucial moment when the Lady of Shalott turns away from her mirror and looks out of her window down at Lancelot (and, in doing so, bringing down the mysterious ‘curse’ upon herself).

If you enjoyed this short analysis of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, we’ve put together some interesting Tennyson facts here. For a more detailed analysis of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, we recommend Christopher Ricks’s critical biography Tennyson.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on April 16, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Beautiful poem. I hadn’t read in a long time. Thanks for the reminder. Tennyson is one of my favourite poets. Interesting analysis too.

  2. Found a lovely video of the poem with a lookalike Tennyson who narrates it as live action. A fun poem to teach.

  3. Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt has written and recorded a gorgeous setting of this poem.

  4. When I teach this to my senior British Lit students, we always explore the concept of art vs nature. I liked the tie-in with Spenser because I remember that being a major theme throughout a lot of The Faerie Queene as well. Thanks!

  5. Alas, can’t help but think of Anne of Green Gables when reading this poem! I’m not sure if that’s ruined it for me or made it better :D

  1. Pingback: 10 Classic Tennyson Poems Everyone Should Read | Interesting Literature

  2. Pingback: A Short Analysis of John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ | Interesting Literature

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