The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson

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;
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.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
       The Lady of Shalott.

Underneath the bearded barley,
The reaper, reaping late and early,
Hears her ever chanting cheerly,
Like an angel, singing clearly,
       O’er the stream of Camelot.
Piling the sheaves in furrows airy,
Beneath the moon, the reaper weary
Listening whispers, ‘ ‘Tis the fairy,
       Lady of Shalott.’

The little isle is all inrail’d
With a rose-fence, and overtrail’d
With roses: by the marge unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken sail’d,
       Skimming down to Camelot.
A pearl garland winds her head:
She leaneth on a velvet bed,
Full royally apparelled,
       The Lady of Shalott.

Part II

No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmed web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
       To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be;
Therefore she weaveth steadily,
Therefore no other care hath she,
       The Lady of Shalott.

She lives with little joy or fear.
Over the water, running near,
The sheepbell tinkles in her ear.
Before her hangs a mirror clear,
       Reflecting tower’d Camelot.
And as the mazy web she whirls,
She sees 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, came from 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 flam’d 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 from 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 from Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
       Moves over green 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 from Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:’
       Sang Sir Lancelot.

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 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;
Outside the isle a shallow boat
Beneath a willow lay afloat,
Below the carven stern she wrote,
The Lady of Shalott.

A cloudwhite crown of pearl she dight,
All raimented in snowy white
That loosely flew (her zone in sight
Clasp’d with one blinding diamond bright)
       Her wide eyes fix’d on Camelot,
Though the squally east-wind keenly
Blew, with folded arms serenely
By the water stood the queenly
       Lady of Shalott.

With a steady stony glance—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Beholding all his own mischance,
Mute, with a glassy countenance—
       She look’d down to Camelot.
It was the closing of the day:
She loos’d the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
       The Lady of Shalott.

As when to sailors while they roam,
By creeks and outfalls far from home,
Rising and dropping with the foam,
From dying swans wild warblings come,
       Blown shoreward; so to Camelot
Still as the boathead wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her chanting her deathsong,
       The Lady of Shalott.

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:
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 pale, pale corpse she floated by,
Deadcold, between the houses high,
       Dead into tower’d Camelot.
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
To the planked wharfage came:
Below the stern they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

They cross’d themselves, their stars they blest,
Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest.
There lay a parchment on her breast,
That puzzled more than all the rest,
       The wellfed wits at Camelot.
‘The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not,—this is I,
       The Lady of Shalott.’

Summary and Analysis

Written in a simple style, The Lady of Shalott is a tragic story of a lady trapped between superstition, convention and individual impulses. It is also a narrative about the difference between Art and Reality. The world of art though self sustaining cannot be isolated from reality. Moreover, the force of convention is not absolute, and though the protagonist in the poem dies, the anticipation of her death is woven into the poem and the ballad like poem is a sad tale with a subtle comment on the social milieu in which the lady has lived out her prescribed existence.

The first thing that you would enjoy about the poem, is its rhythmic quality. The poem is divided into four sections. The first two sections with four stanzas each and the second of slightly varying number. The use of alliteration adds to the musical quality of the poem. Along with the musical quality of the verse the pictorial quality is also striking. This is followed by images from legend and history.

Tennyson, like many other Victorian poets, often based his poems on medieval stories. In this poem, the poet refers to the story of the legendary King Arthur. Developed in the middle ages, the story tells of the noble and generous king and his knights of the Round Table, all of whom are famous for their chivalry. But gradually the ideal scenario is somewhat disturbed by court intrigues and the illicit affair of Arthur’s wife Guinevere with his trusted knight Sir Lancelot. King Arthur was mortally wounded in a battle and carried away by fairy queens from where, according to legend, he will return when his country needs him. In this poem, reference is made to Camelot, the Court of King Arthur and to Sir Lancelot who was the most famous knight in Arthurian legends. The poem re-creates the medieval landscape, connects the present with the past through Camelot and Sir Lancelot, and finally the present is commented upon through the Lady’s apparent destiny. So, what is the poem about? The poem tells us of the life and death of the beautiful lady of Shalott, who lives all alone on a secluded island. In Part I, the background is described in some detail and we are told about the castle situated on an island in the middle of the river, in which the mysterious Lady of Shalot lives. Part II tells of how the lady spends her time observing the reflection of the outside world in a mirror and weaving her impression in a colourful magic web. There is a strange curse on the lady according to which she is forbidden from looking out of her window and observing the real world directly. However, temptation to break this rule and look out of the window comes in the splendid shape of Sir Lancelot who one day goes riding past towards Camelot.

The dreaded curse befalls the lady, her mirror ‘cracks from side to side’ and the magic web flies out of the window. The lady goes down to the riverside, writes her name ‘The Lady of Shalott’ on a boat, lies down in it, setting it adrift. By the time the boat passes by the palace of King Arthur, the lady is dead. Sir Lancelot and his merrymaking fellow knights merely watch the mysterious lady with interest and awe. This extremely moving poem must be read in full, if you wish to experience its full intensity.

This poem then tells us the story of the Lady of Shalott. It is a narrative poem. But as you will see, this poem has beautiful descriptions that make the scene come alive as in a brilliant painting. It is a word-picture.

Part I

The poem describes a secluded island full of flowers with a castle that has ‘four grey walls, and four grey towers’. It is here that the Lady of Shalott live. The first impression is one of mystery and a kind of serene beauty. An element of suspense is introduced when the poet asks ‘who hath seen her wave her hand?” Clearly the lady has never stood waving at her window. No one has ever seen her in the area. Is she young or old? Reapers reaping late at night have heard her melodious voice which seems to suggest an ageless youth. After giving us a panoramic view of the scene, by means of detailed description, contrast and suggestion, Tennyson has already established the mysterious atmosphere of the island.

Part II

The poet then takes us inside the castle. Here we can ‘see’, so evocative is the description, a lady weaving a colourful magic web. The figures and scenes in the web represent the reflections of the outside world that she can see in the mirror that hangs on the wall opposite her window. She is vaguely aware of the fact that a strange curse would befall her if she ventured to look out of her window. And so, she continues to weave ‘steadily’, having accepted her strange condition. But then, one day she bursts out : ‘I am half sick of shadows’.

Part III

This part describes in details the dazzling qualities of bold Sir Lancelot”. Each of the five stanzas focuses on either the knight, or his dress and shield or the horse which he rides creating a picture of Arthurian masculinity and the culture of vocation. His song “Tirra Lirra” and the image reflected in the mirror becomes the stimulus for the lady’s action which makes her look towards Camelot, conscious of what is in store for her, “The curse is upon me”. The lady has decided to shun her confined existence for the more dazzling public world, seeped in romance and movement of another kind.

Part IV

In this part notice how the atmosphere and the whole scenario of a beautiful countryside changes. Words like “stormy”, “waning”, “raining” create an atmosphere of gloom, in which the lady has decided to script her own destiny. The boat in which she drifts unrestrained has given birth to a new lady who ironically sings her course to a lifelessness which is merely looked at by the people of Camlot. Though the lady has become some bold seer in a trance but she is noticed finally only for her “lovely face”.

The poem, written in parts weaves a number of diverse elements – history, mythology, superstition, folk culture, woman’s art and position set against a real English countryside, overridden by multiple symbolic meanings of the mirror.

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