In Tennyson’s poem ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ we see a mysterious maiden who is imprisoned by the fear of a curse in the days of King Arthur. In this lesson, we will see how her story unfolds.
The Setting of the Poem
‘The Lady of Shalott’ is one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s most famous poems. Its setting is medieval, during the days of King Arthur. Near Camelot is the Island of Shalott, where a beautiful young maiden is imprisoned. She, the Lady of Shalott, must not look at Camelot but can only see what is reflected in a mirror as she works on weaving a magical web. If she looks at Camelot, she will be cursed.
The Format of the Poem
The poem is written in four parts. Each stanza has nine lines that are written with a rhyme scheme of a-a-a-a-b-c-c-c-b.
In many of the stanzas, the last line reads, ‘The Lady of Shalott.’ Tennyson repeats her name over and over to emphasize both her person and tragic circumstances. When we finish reading the poem, we remember her name and the hauntingly beautiful image she portrays.
Part One of the Poem
In part one, we are introduced to the mystery of the young lady who is imprisoned on the Island of Shalott, in the middle of a river that flows down to Camelot. Few know of her, but early in the morning, reapers can hear her sing a cheery song; they call her ‘the fairy Lady of Shalott.
Part Two of the Poem
The Lady of Shalott spends her time weaving a ‘magic web with colours gay.’ She has heard a whisper telling her that if she looks at Camelot, she will be cursed. She doesn’t know what the curse will be, but she takes care not to look. However, as she weaves, she looks into a clear mirror in front of her that somehow reflects the comings and goings of Camelot.
The mirror is her only link to the outside world. But what she sees — funerals, young lovers — makes her discontent with the ‘shadow’ images in the mirror. She longs for something that is real, saying, ‘I am half-sick of shadows.’
Part Three of the Poem
In this section, we see a lengthy description of Sir Lancelot. He is described as bold, with shield and armor, almost like a star in a galaxy.
His helmet has a feather, and his saddle, jewels. He is astonishingly handsome, with ‘coal-black curls’, and he catches the eye and heart of the Lady of Shalott as he rides by the banks of the river singing ‘Tirra Lirra.’ This is how she responds: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.
This young woman is so taken by Sir Lancelot that she stops her work and looks at Camelot, though she risks the mysterious curse. The mirror actually breaks, and her web is either thrown out of the window where it floats down the river or magically floats out of the window on its own. The Lady of Shalott realizes she is cursed.
Part Four of the Poem
The weather is extremely bad and stormy, but the Lady of Shalott races down to the banks of the river, finds a boat, and scribbles her name around the edge of it. She then enters the boat, wearing a flowing white dress, and begins to float downstream toward Camelot, at sunset.
She sings as she floats onward; others hear a ‘carol, mournful, holy’ that she ‘chanted loudly, chanted lowly’. It must have been terribly cold out, because the poor woman freezes to death before she reaches the first house in Camelot.The lords and ladies of Camelot all come out and look at her, dead and lovely in the boat. They read her name and ‘cross themselves’ in fear.
Who is this woman? What happened? Then, in a moment of irony, Sir Lancelot himself bows down next to her and says, ‘She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott.’
Analysis of the Poem
This poem can be and has been interpreted in many different ways, but let’s first take a look at the story at face value. The Lady of Shalott is mysteriously imprisoned on a remote island in the middle of a river. She knows she will be cursed unless she fulfills what she has been given to do — weave a magic web and ignore the world beyond, except to view it in shadows. But she becomes restless of the shadows.
She longs for real relationships, particularly love, and then she sees Sir Lancelot.She experiences unrequited love. In all fairness, Sir Lancelot literally does not know she exists! The young woman chooses to risk everything for love, and dies in the process. All who see her know this is a tragedy, but they can’t put the pieces together. They simply know her name because she chooses to reveal it by writing it on the boat. Her desire to experience a life of real relationships instead of shadows costs her everything.
Interpretation of the Poem
We can take this story for what it is, a tragedy.
But we can look a little bit underneath the plot and try to gain understanding of the Lady’s motivations. This young lady comes of age and wants a life and love of her own. But there are obstacles to overcome.
Although she knows that leaving her imprisonment might kill her, she risks it anyway for a chance to be free and to choose the life she desires. That life, if she can reach it, will bring her real relationships and love. She no longer wants to live in the shadow of genuine life. But, she dies before she sees her dreams fulfilled.Some see ‘The Lady of Shallot’ to be about the tragic struggle of the artist who needs to focus on his or her calling or passion, but is pulled away by the demands and enticements of life. The Lady is working on her weaving in isolation in the tower, removed from the world going on around her. When she does become involved in that world, she loses her art – and her life.
So, this conflict between an artist’s need to concentrate on her work and the desire to be involved in the real world is played out in the poem.Tennyson magically paints a tragedy for his readers and captures the lure of Camelot in this poem. Although the Lady of Shalott does not see her dreams fulfilled, she is immortalized and loved for her mystery and courage.
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s four-part poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ tells the story of a young medieval woman mysteriously imprisoned on an island near Camelot. She must weave a colorful web and only watch the outside world through a mirror.
If she looks at Camelot directly, she will be cursed. After seeing Sir Lancelot and falling in unrequited love with him, she risks the curse; she no longer wants to live in the shadow of genuine life. Because of this conflict between the need to concentrate on work and the desire to be involved in the real world, the poem is sometimes interpreted to be about the struggle of an artist.
The Lady of Shalott does not fulfill her dreams of love and freedom, as she ultimately freezes to death while trying to reach Camelot. The people of Camelot see her name written on the side of her boat and wonder who she is and what happened. Many lines of the poem repeat her name, the Lady of Shalott, in order to emphasize both her identity and her tragic circumstances.
View this lesson on ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and then subsequently:
- Provide a summary of Parts 1-4 of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s work
- Analyze the poem at face value
- Discuss and interpret the underlying themes of ‘The Lady of Shalott’