Lady of Shalott

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) had to wait some time before he made a name for himself. With the publication of works such as Morte d’ Arthur, Ulysses and In Memoriam (a collection of lyrical poems lamenting the death of a close friend), however, his reputation as a poet became firmly established. In 1850 he succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate. He held this title for nearly half a century. In his poems, many of which are based on legends and myths, Tennyson was concerned with most of the critical questions of the 19th century: women’s rights, economics, politics, science and religion.

From the time of Dryden (1631-1700) the poet laureate was a poet who was given a stipend as a member of the royal household. In exchange he had to write poems marking state occasions. The title of poet laureate could be held by only one person and, once appointed, he (so far never a she) held the office until his death.

Tennyson first published “The Lady of Shalott” in 1832 but revised the poem extensively before reprinting it in 1842. Before working with the poem, study the illustration and write a short text describing what you see. Try to explore answers to questions beginning with who, what, where, when and why. What is the mood of the painting? How do the colours contribute to this mood? Do you think, looking at this painting, that the story of the Lady of Shalott will have a happy ending or a tragic one? Why?


Copyright: Getty Images

Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;
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,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for 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.

By the margin, willow-veiled,
Slide the heavy barges trailed
By slow horses; and unhailed
The shallop flitteth silken-sailed
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to towered Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers “Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.”

Part II

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
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.

And moving through 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:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there 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-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Camelot;
And sometimes through 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 through 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;
“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 through the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of  bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneeled
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glittered free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazoned baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewelled shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burned like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often through the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

Part VI

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 towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance –
With a glassy countenance
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.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right –
The leaves upon her falling light –
Through the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
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,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot.
For ere she reached 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 gleaming shape she floated by
Dead-pale between the houses high
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
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 crossed themselves for fear,
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.”




Sit in groups and retell the story in your own words. Then discuss briefly the following questions.

a) What do we find out about the Lady of Shalott? How does she spend her time?
b) What is the importance of the mirror in the poem?
c) What role does Lancelot play in this poem?
d) What causes the mirror to break?
e) How does the poem end?
f) Which lines are repeated in this poem? What is the effect of this repetition? Do you think the poem could easily be set to music? Why or why not?
g) What is your response to the rhythm and rhyme in the poem? Would you have preferred to read a prose version of the same story? Why or why not?


a) Describe the setting of the poem. Remember to comment on both the island and the surrounding countryside, and on the time in which the poem is set.
b) Make two lists of the Lady of Shalott’s life. On the first list write down all the good things in her life. On the second list, note all the bad things. How does her life contrast to the life of people in the outside world.
c) Why is the mirror so important to her? Do you think the mirror might have any symbolic significance? If so, what?
d) What is the curse that lies upon the Lady? Does she know what the curse is?
e) How is Lancelot described in the poem? Look at the words used to describe him. What does this suggest about his character? In what way is he a contrast to the Lady of Shalott?
f) In what way does the Lady bring about the curse? Why does she do this, in your opinion? Why does she leave her tower?
g) What happens to the Lady? How does Lancelot react to her death?


What do you think the theme of the poem might be?

Below you will find five statements about possible themes. Divide the class into groups of five and assign one of the statements to each group.  Then work together as a group and reread the poem with an eye to finding as much support for your statement as possible. Present your group findings in class afterwards.

a) The poem is a commentary on the position of women in Victorian society.
b) The poem is an allegory of the artist striving to create an image of the real world through his art. (Look up the word allegory if you are unsure what it means or see page 00.)
c) The poem is a comment on the gap between the rich and the poor.
d) The poem is a commentary on the power of love.
e) The poem is about isolation.


a) What can you identify as Romantic features in the poem?
b) Some people have claimed that the poem is a comment on women’s position in Victorian society. If this is so, what can you infer about women’s relative freedom in Victorian England?

a) Reread the text you wrote before you listened to the poem. How many of your predictions based on the painting of the Lady of Shalott were at all accurate? Why do you think the artist has chosen to paint this particular moment in the poem? Which moment would you choose? Why?
b) Other painters of the period have also painted The Lady of Shalott, choosing to depict other moments in the poem. These illustrations are available on the Access website at Look at and compare these paintings and discuss which you prefer, and why.


Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 28.03.2008

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