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The Lady of Shalott
A Poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) 
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Source
Theme
Rhyme
Meter
Summary of the Poem
Poem Text and Notes
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Tennyson Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2010
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Type of Work and Publication Years

......."The Lady of Shalott" is a ballad set in the romantic age of King Arthur and Camelot. The first version of the poem was published in London by Edward Moxon in 1833. The revised, final version was published in London by Moxon in 1842. 

Setting

.......The poem is set in England in the Dark Ages during the reign of the legendary King Arthur. The action takes place not far from the town of Camelot, Arthur's seat of government and the abode of his famous Knights of the Round Table. 

Characters

Lady of Shalott: Young woman confined to a building on the Island of Shalott in a river flowing toward Camelot. 
Reapers: Farmers working in the fields near Shalott.
Passers-By: People who pass the Island of Shalott on their way to or from Camelot. They include peasants, market girls, an abbot, knights, shepherds, and pages.
Sir Lancelot: Knight of the Round Table. After he passes Shalott, the lady makes a decision to escape her confines.
Residents of Camelot

Source

.......Tennyson based "The Lady of the Lake" on an Italian story of the late thirteenth century entitled "Qui conta come la Damigella di Scalot mori per amore di Lancialotto de lac," ("How the Lady of Scalot Died for Love of Lancelot of the Lake"). This story was part of a collection, Cento Novelle Antiche (One Hundred Ancient Tales). It tells of a young woman who falls in love with Sir Lancelot, a knight of the Round Table. He does not respond to her love, however, because he is in love with Queen Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur. Pining for Lancelot, the lady declines in her health and, before dying, directs that her body be placed on a boat to be floated to Camelot. Tennyson changed Scalot to Shalott for the sake of poetic euphony and altered the story to suit his purposes. 

Theme

.......The theme of the poem depends on how one interprets it. For example, if the reader takes into account Tennyson's source material and thus assumes that the lady seeks the attentions of Lancelot, unrequited love and its tragic result become the theme. On the other hand, if the reader interprets the poem as a commentary on the plight of women in Tennyson's time, the confining role of women becomes the theme. In Europe in the early 1830s, when Tennyson completed the first version of the poem, unmarried women were expected to remain passive in the home or at social events as they awaited the overtures of suitors. Married women were expected to domesticate themselves, overseeing household management and the rearing of children. Venturing into the male-dominated world to pursue one's desires was considered anathema. If Tennyson had the latter theme in mind, the reader can only speculate on whether he was defending or condemning the Lady of Shalott's decision to abandon her sanctuary and enter the world.
Some scholars maintain that the theme is the conflict an artist (writer, painter, sculptor, composer of music, etc.) faces in his attempt to remain aloof from the world and his desire to enter it. As Natalie Lewis says, 

The lady working on her tapestry in a secluded tower represents the contemplative Victorian artist isolated from daily social life . . .  There is a tragic ambivalence between the artist's desire for social involvement and his fear that such an involvement will destroy his poetic inspiration. In order to objectively transform life into art, the artist needs a distance from the turbulences of life. Disillusioned from their social environment, many Victorian artists retreated into dream worlds of the past. Although they often felt the urge to make statements on contemporary social and political problems, they tried to avoid a direct approach to such topics and rather chose to address those issues under the disguise medieval legend or Christian allegory. (Tennyson's Poetry as Inspiration for Pre-Raphaelite Art. Norderstedt, Germany: Druck und Bindung, Books on Demand GmbH, 2003, page 12)
Rhyme

.......The end rhyme in each stanza follows this pattern: AAAABCCCB. Internal rhyme also occurs. Following are examples.

On either side the river lie (line 1)
That clothe the wold and meet the sky (line 3)
the silent isle imbowers (line 17)
moving thro' a mirror clear (line 46)
there the surly village-churls (line 52)
round the prow they read her name (line 125)
Meter

.......The longer lines in the poem alternate between iambic tetrameter and trochaic tetrameter with catalexis. For example, the first two lines in the poem are in iambic tetrameter. 

...1..............2...............3............4
on EI..|..ther SIDE..|..the RIV..|..er LIE

.........1.................2..............3.............4
long FIELDS..|..of BAR..|..ley AND..|..of RYE

Lines 7 and 8, on the other hand, are in trochaic tetrameter with catalexis (an incomplete foot).
.....1.................2.................3.............4
GAZ ing..|..WHERE the..|..LIL ies..|..BLOW

......1.................2...............3...............4
ROUND an..|..IS land..|..THERE be..|..LOW

Note that the fourth foot in line 7 and the fourth foot in line 8 each contain only one syllable and therefore are incomplete (catalexis). 
.......IIn lines of six syllables (three feet) iambic trimeter occurs, as in lines 9, 54, and 77. 
....1..............2...............3
The IS..|..land OF..|..Shal OTT

......1..................2...............3
Pass ON..|..ward FROM..|..Sha..LOTT.

.......1...............2..............3
Of BOLD..|..Sir LANC..|..e LOT

Summary

.......Through fields of barley and rye runs the road to Camelot, the home of King Arthur. Parallel to the road is a river. As travelers come and go on the road, they turn their gaze to an island in the middle of the river, the Island of Shalott. There they see a gray, four-towered building that confines a young lady. 
.......Horse-drawn barges and small sailboats pass the island. But no one on the road or the river ever sees the lady standing at a window. However, those who harvest the crops hear her singing from time to time, saying, " 'Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott" (line 35).
.......This lady spends her time weaving a colorful magic web. She has heard someone say that she is under a curse. It dictates that she must never look out a window or venture forth from her abode. What will happen to her if she abandons her weaving and gazes upon the world, or joins it, she does not know. To avoid provoking fate, she weaves on. However, a mirror in front of her enables her to see reflections from the outsidean ambling abbot, farmers, red-cloaked market girls, an ambling abbot, a shepherd boy, a page, knights. 
.......The Lady of Shalott has no knight to call her own. Her only pleasure is to weave into her web the scenes she sees. At night, she sometimes sees the end of life, a candlelit funeral; and sometimes the beginning of life, newlyweds under a bright moon. 
......."I am half-sick of shadows," she laments (line 71).
.......One day, just an arrow shot away, Sir Lancelot rides by, the sunlight glinting off his greaves. On his resplendent shield, a knight kneels to a lady. Lancelot's armor and his steed's bridle bells ring as he rides, and his helmet and the jewels of his saddle burn bright like the stars of the night or a meteor blazing forth. As he rides on to Camelot, his black curls flowing from beneath his helmet, he sings a song.
.......Immediately, the lady abandons her weaving and stands at the window, looking toward Camelot and the horseman riding toward it. The mirror cracks. The curse takes hold. 
.......The lady goes outside, finds a boat, writes her name on it, and lies down in it, allowing the current to take her down toward Camelot. She sings a songher lasta mournful melody. By and by, her blood freezes and her eyes darken. By the time she reaches Camelot, she is dead.
.......The people come outknights, burghers, lords and ladiesand read her name on the prow of the boat. The cheerful sounds of Camelot stop, and the knights of the realm make the sign of the cross. Lancelot comments on her beauty and says, "God in his mercy lend her grace, / The Lady of Shalott" (lines 169-170).
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Text of the Poem

Part 1
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On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold1 and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
   To many-tower'd Camelot;...............................5
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,............................10
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,..................15
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers2
   The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veil'd
Slide the heavy barges trail'd...............................20
By slow horses; and unhail'd
The shallop3 flitteth silken-sail'd
   Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement4 seen her stand?...................25
Or is she known in all the land,
   The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers,5 reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly..........................30
From the river winding clearly,
   Down to tower'd Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves6 in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy..........................35
   Lady of Shalott."

Part 2
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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.................................40
   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...........................................45

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:.................................50
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,7
And the red cloaks of market girls,
   Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,......................55
An abbot8 on an ambling pad,9
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.......................60
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,........................65
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;.........................70
"I am half-sick of shadows," said
   The Lady of Shalott.

Part 3
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A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,10
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves,...................75
And flamed upon the brazen greaves11
   Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A redcross knight12 for ever kneel'd
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,.............................80
   Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy13 bridle glitter'd free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle-bells rang merrily.....................................85
   As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon'd baldric14 slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
   Beside remote Shalott..........................................90

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..................................95
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;.......................100
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.................................105
He flash'd into the crystal mirror,
"Tirra lirra,"15 by the river
   Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,..........................110
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;.............................115
"The curse is come upon me," cried
   The Lady of Shalott.

Part 4
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In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale-yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,...................120
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 prow16 she wrote............................125
   The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river's dim expanse
Like some bold ser in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance
With a glassy countenance............................................130
   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.....................................................135

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:.......................................140
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,..........................................145
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.....................................150
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,..............................................155
A gleaming shape she floated by,
A corse between the houses high,
   Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher,17 lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,............................160
   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,.................................165
   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........................................................170

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Notes

1....wold: Elevated tract of land without trees. 
2....imbowers: Confines to a building or bedroom.
3....shallop: Small boat with sail and/or oars. 
4....casement: Window with a frame that opens on hinges.
5....reapers: Harvesters, farmers.
6....sheaves: Cut grain stalks that are bundled and bound.
7....churls: peasants, farm workers; rude, ill-bred persons.
8....abbot: Roman Catholic priest who oversees an abbey of monks.
9....pad: path, walkway; footfall.
10..bow shot . . .bower-eaves: Distance a shot arrow travels from the edge of the roof over the lady's bedroom.
11..brazen greaves: Brass or brass-like armor pieces covering the shins.
12..redcross knight: Reference to Saint George, a Roman soldier and Christian martyr during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. After his death in AD 303, he lived on in legends as a warrior and dragonslayer and became the patron saint of England. Paintings depict him as a mounted knight. His symbol is a white flag with a red crossl.
13..gemmy: Decorated with gems.
14..blazon'd baldric: Belt displaying a coat of arms (blazon). The belt is worn across the chest from a shoulder down to the opposite side and around the back.
15..Tirra lirra: Part of a song in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Autolycus sings the song (line 9 of which says, "The lark, that tirra-lirra chants") in the opening scene of Act 4. 
16. prow: Front of a boat.
17: burgher: Merchant in a medieval town.

Figures of Speech

Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.

Alliteration

Willows whiten
silken-sail'd
bearded barley
moving thro' a mirror
crimson clad,
no loyal knight
blazon'd baldric
Anaphora
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
Assonance
clothe the wold
Metaphor

Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold
Comparison of grain fields to clothing

Metaphor/Personification

The broad stream in his banks complaining
Comparison of the stream to a speaking human
Simile
The gemmy bridle glitter'd free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
Comparison of the gems on the bridle to stars

The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn'd like one burning flame together
Comparison of the appearance of the helmet and the feather to a flame

Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • What is the young lady weaving?
  • When does the weather in the poem change? Does the change reflect a key development?
  • The poem does not specify why the young lady is under a curse. In your opinion, what is the reason for it?
  • Write a short essay informing the reader of who Lancelot was and what some of his exploits were.
  • Until she saw Lancelot ride by, the lady was living in complete isolation from the world. In an essay, explain the psychological effects of total isolation on a person. 

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