On either side of the river are fields of barley and rye, and through them a road winds to Camelot. The people gaze at the way lilies blow around the island of Shalott. The willows “whiten,” and little breezes blow forever around the island. On the island are four gray walls and four gray towers, and within is the Lady of Shalott. Heavy barges followed by slow horses pass by the island, but no one has ever seen the Lady wave or stand at the window. Only early morning reapers hear her cheerful song that reaches down to the river that winds to Camelot. The reapers pile up their sheaves and whisper that it is the fairy Lady singing.
In the tower she weaves day and night her “magic web with colours gay.” She knows there is a curse upon her if she looks down at Camelot, although she does not know what the curse is. She weaves steadily and thinks of little else. Through her mirror she sees the shadows of the world, the highway and the river eddy and the young men and women passing onward from Shalott. Sometimes she will see an abbot, or a group of damsels, or a page clad in crimson, or knights riding in twos. She herself has no “loyal knight.”
Regardless, she weaves and delights in her creations of the mirrors’ “magic sights.” Sometimes there is a general procession or two young lovers newly wed. Then the Lady of Shalott says to herself, “I am half sick of shadows.”
Sir Lancelot rides through the barley sheaves; on his breast is the emblem of a knight forever kneeling to a lady. The bells on his bridle ring out merrily, and the silver bugle he carried shines brightly. He rides by Shalott in “blue unclouded weather,” and his helmet, helmet feather, and saddle-leather burn like “one burning flame together.” He is like a meteor shooting through the starry night sky. Sunlight glimmers on his brow, and his black curly hair flows from under his helmet. His image flashes into the mirror as he sings “Tirra lirra” by the river.
The Lady of Shalott leaves her loom and crosses the room in three paces. She looks down and sees the water lilies blooming and Lancelot’s helmet and plume. She looks down to Camelot, and as she does so, her web flies out the window and her mirror cracks from side to side. She cries out, “The curse is come upon me.”
Nature becomes stormy over Camelot. She leaves her tower and finds a boat. On its prow she writes, “The Lady of Shalott.” She looks out over the river as a seer with glossy eyes would be wont to do, seeing his own “mischance.” When the sun sets, she loosens her chain and lies down in the boat. The broad stream takes her far away down the river.
She is robed in snowy white, and her garments flutter from left to right. Leaves fall upon her softly. Through the “noises of the night” she travels in her boat down to Camelot. She sings her last song. Those who hear her hear a “carol, mournful, holy, / Chanted loudly, chanted lowly” until her blood freezes and her eyes darken. By the time she reaches the first house by the water side singing her song, she dies.
Under the tower, balcony, and garden wall she floats by as a “gleaming shape” silently into Camelot. Everyone—knight, burgher, lord dame—comes out to see her name written on the prow of the boat. In the palace nearby the noise has died down and people wonder and cross themselves for fear. Lancelot, though, muses a bit and says that she had a lovely face and asks for God to lend her grace.
This is one of Tennyson’s most famous and beloved poems. It was originally written in 1832 and was published in 1842. The poem has four parts, with the first and second parts containing four stanzas, the third part containing five stanzas, and the fourth part containing six stanzas. Each stanza has nine lines with a rhyme scheme of AAAABCCCB. The syntax is also line-bound, meaning that the lines do not carry over from one to the other.
Most critics believe the poem is based on the episode in Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astalot, or the Maid of Astalot, who died of her unrequited love for the famous knight. Tennyson’s engagement with Arthurian legend is, of course, most notably seen in his Idylls of the King. Tennyson complicated the origins of his poem by claiming his source was the Italian romance Donna di Scalotta. This may be true in some sense, but it is impossible to ignore the Arthurian components of Camelot, Lancelot, knights and ladies, and even the name Shalott, which sounds somewhat like Astalot.
In Part I, readers see the isle of Shalott with its tall towers and imprisoned, fairy-like Lady. The interior where she is embowered is “silent” and immovable, whereas the world outside hums along in a busy and cheerful way. The placement of the great city of Camelot by the river emphasizes the progress, purposefulness, and ever-present sense of movement and vitality of the men and women outside of the tower, in stark contrast to the Lady of Shalott. The fact that there exists a connection between the inhabitants of Camelot and the Lady but that it is mysterious and magical further emphasizes the distinction between the realms of the external world and the tower.
In Part II, readers are introduced to the Lady herself, who is under the spell of a mysterious curse that does not allow her to look out her window. She seems happy regardless, and she spends her days weaving her “magic web” and singing (alluding to Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, who weaves while her husband is away, and other myths that involve a woman’s weaving). Her web, a symbol of artistic fecundity but also of her enslavement, depicts the world outside, but only as reflected in her mirror. She sees knights and pages and boys and girls, and sometimes she sees the two great events of earthly life, funerals and weddings. This state of affairs is what causes her to assert her identity by claiming that she is sick of shadows, for her life is paralyzed and stagnant. She feels a sense of loss and exclusion.
In Part III, the handsome and courageous Sir Lancelot is introduced. The language is sensual and heroic, and the Lady of Shalott is as entranced as the reader. She breaks the stipulation in the curse and strides to her window to look down on the great knight. Some critics have noted that it is the song of Lancelot, “Tirra lira,” that breaks down the Lady’s resistance, for song is one of her means of expression. Thus, she feels an intense connection with the man below (“Tirra lirra” is a bawdy song from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale). Once the mirror cracks and the web flutters out the window, she and we know she is doomed.
Finally, in Part IV, when she lets the river carry her, Tennyson emphasizes the disruption of the Lady’s being through scenes of chaotic and mournful Nature: the wind is “stormy,” the “pale yellow woods were waning,” and the “low sky” was raining heavily, the banks of the river straining. The inhabitants of Camelot are frightened and curious as they hear her last song and see her pale shape. The poem ends with Lancelot looking down at her and commenting that she “has a lovely face” and that he hopes God will lend her grace. One might compare the famous death of Hamlet’s sister Ophelia and other scenes where a woman dies in a river or ocean.
Most critics approach the poem as expressing the tensions between art and life. It raises the question of whether or not artistic seclusion is necessary for achievement. In the beginning of the poem, despite her isolation, the Lady of Shalott experiences artistic fulfillment and accomplishment in her safe haven of Shalott. She works on her web and sings her song, blissful and happy. However, her art is doubly removed; it mimics the shadows glimpsed through a mirror and is far from direct observation of real life. This isolation finally prompts her to a gesture of passion and thus an embrace of her own death. The mirror cracks, symbolizing the end of her artistic abilities. Harold Bloom concludes that “the end of artistic isolation leads to the death of creativity. The artist’s intense loneliness is absolutely necessary, for all great art demands solitude and silent reflection.”
Another critic, Flavia M. Alaya, agrees, noting that the Lady is placed in an eponymously-named boat which is an extension of herself, and that Tennyson is suggesting through this lonely scene that “an essential loneliness is the one element of the artistic condition that cannot be revoked, even by love.” She even interprets Lancelot’s last words, commonly perceived as callously and regrettably ironic, as redemptive: “Lancelot, who earlier had provided the symbolic type of cosmic love and human sympathy, is the only knight to express the mystery of her presence in language we find so curiously appropriate, recognizing her beauty and providing the benediction which her act of renunciation and egoism have sought and required.”