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“The Lady of Shalott,” one of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s best-known poems, is a four-part lyrical ballad loosely inspired by the 13th-century Italian novella Donna di Scalotta. It makes use of vivid romantic language and heavy symbolism. Based on Arthurian legend and medieval sources, the poem tells the story of Elaine of Astolat, a fictional woman confined to a tower overlooking the fields surrounding Camelot. The Lady of Shalott falls in unrequited love with Sir Lancelot after seeing him ride by on a horse, decides to leave the tower, and ultimately dies. Tennyson published the original version of the poem in 1832 with 20 stanzas. In 1842, he published a 19-stanza version, which strayed further from its source material in Donna di Scalotta. The second version includes a different ending, altered to conform with Victorian social mores concerning gender and suicide. The Lady of Shalott has had a broad impact on western literature, music, and art, especially amongst the English Pre-Raphaelite painters. While the differences between the two versions will be addressed in this guide, all quoted lines reference the original 1832 version unless otherwise specified.
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The son of an Anglican clergyman, Alfred Tennyson was born in 1809 and raised in Somersby, Lincolnshire, England. He attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Louth and entered Trinity College in Cambridge in 1827. At Cambridge, Tennyson was awarded the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for his piece “Timbuktu” at age 20. Poems Chiefly Lyrical, his first collection, was published in 1830 and contains the celebrated poems “Claribel” and “Mariana.”
Tennyson returned to Lincolnshire after his father’s death in 1831 and published his second collection, which included “The Lady of Shalott,” in 1833. Arthur Hallam, Tennyson’s close friend and fiancé to his sister Emilia, died the same year. Hallam’s death impacted Tennyson profoundly and inspired the poems “In Memoriam A. H. H.” and “In the Valley of Cauteretz.”
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After losing much of his family fortune to bad investments and years of depression, Tennyson moved to London in 1840. He published Poems, a two-volume work of new and old lyrics in 1842, which soon met popular and critical success. Poems included the revision of “The Lady of Shalott,” along with “Locksley Hall,” “Ulysses,” and “Break, Break, Break.” “In Memoriam A. H. H.” was finally published in 1850, and Tennyson was appointed Poet Laureate following the death of William Wordsworth. Tennyson married Emily Sellwood and had two sons: Hallam and Lionel. As Poet Laureate, he wrote various lyrics in deference to the state, including a thrilling tribute to British cavalry during the Crimean War, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” in 1855. In 1884, he was appointed Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and took a seat in the House of Lords. He wrote and retained his position as Poet Laureate until his death in 1892.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “The Lady of Shalott.” 1832. Poetry Foundation.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “The Lady of Shalott.” 1842. Poetry Foundation.
The first four stanzas of “The Lady of Shalott” make up Part 1 and illustrate the poem’s setting. The Lady of Shalott lives in a castle on an island in the middle of a river that flows to Camelot. The river is surrounded by “fields of barley and of rye” (Line 2) and is adorned with aquatic flowers. The first and second stanzas establish the pastoral surroundings, describe the flora and fauna, and note the castle’s architecture: “four gray walls, and four gray towers” (Line 15). The “silent isle imbowers / The Lady of Shalott” (Lines 17-18), meaning that she is confined to the castle and cannot leave. The local peasants and farmers hear the Lady of Shalott singing while they harvest but know little about her. The castle is surrounded by roses, and small sailboats pass by on their way to Camelot. The Lady of Shalott rests “on a velvet bed” (Line 34), in fine, royal clothing.
Part 2 introduces the Lady of Shalott’s mysterious curse: She must weave on her loom all day long and cannot look directly out her window at Camelot. Instead, she watches a reflection of the outside world in her mirror and weaves what she sees into her tapestry. She sees “market girls” (Line 53), pilgrims, shepherds, and knights on their way to and from Camelot. At night, she sometimes hears music and sees lights coming from Camelot, and remarks, “I am half sick of shadows” (Line 71), after two newlywed lovers pass her tower under the moon.
The Lady of Shalott first sees the knight Sir Lancelot through her mirror as he is crossing the fields. The description of his horse and shining armor begin in the ninth stanza and continue through the 10th, 11th, and 12th stanzas, comprising the majority of Part 3. He has a “broad clear brow” (Line 100) and “coal-black curls” (Line 103), and carries a shield and a “mighty silver bugle” (Line 88). The Lady of Shalott falls in love with him and is compelled to leave her loom. She looks down at him through the window, breaking the conditions of her confinement and triggering the effects of the curse. Her weaving is destroyed, and the mirror cracks.
Part 4 depicts the aftermath of the Lady of Shalott’s actions. It begins to rain, and the Lady of Shalott leaves her castle. She finds a “shallow boat” (Line 123) and writes her name on the stern. Despite the heavy wind, the Lady of Shalott stands “with folded arms serenely” (Line 133) beside the river, clad in flowing, white robes “clasp’d with one blinding diamond bright” (Line 130). In a trance-like state, she climbs into the boat, unties it, and lies down. The boat is carried by the current toward Camelot as the Lady of Shalott sings “her deathsong” (Line 152). She dies before reaching Camelot. The boat lands in the harbor, and the townspeople crowd around it. “Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest” (Line 173) are puzzled by the words on a piece of parchment found with the Lady of Shalott: “The web was woven curiously, / The charm is broken utterly, / Draw near and fear not, —this is I, / The Lady of Shalott’” (Lines 177-80).
In the revised 1842 publication, the 15th stanza, describing the Lady of Shalott’s serene countenance, is dropped. The ending is also changed significantly. In the revision’s 19th and final stanza, the townspeople are too afraid to come near the boat. Lancelot pushes through the crowd and comments, “She has a lovely face; / God in his mercy grant her grace, / The Lady of Shalott” (Lines 169-71).
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson