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"The Lady of Shalott" is a Victorian ballad by the Englishmarker poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). Like his other early poems – "Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere" and "Galahad" – the poem recasts Arthurian subject matter loosely based on medieval sources.


Tennyson wrote two versions of the poem, one published in 1833, of twenty stanzas, the other in 1842 of nineteen stanzas. It was loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, as recounted in a thirteenth-century Italian novella entitled Donna di Scalotta (No. lxxxi in the collection Cento Novelle Antiche), with the earlier version being closer to the source material than the later. Tennyson focused on the Lady's "isolation in the tower and her decision to participate in the living world, two subjects not even mentioned in Donna di Scalotta."


The first four stanzas describe a pastoral setting. The Lady of Shalott lives in an island castle in a river which flows to Camelot, but little is known about her by the local farmers.

And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers, " 'Tis the fairy
:Lady of Shalott."

Stanzas five to eight describe the lady's life. She has been cursed, and so must constantly weave a magic web without looking directly out at the world. Instead, she looks into a mirror which reflects the busy road and the people of Camelot which pass by her island.

She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
:The Lady of Shalott.

Stanzas nine to twelve describe "bold Sir Lancelot" as he rides past, and is seen by the lady.

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.

The remaining seven stanzas describe the effect of seeing Lancelot on the lady; she stops weaving and looks out her window toward Camelot, bringing about the curse.

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.
She leaves her tower, finds a boat upon which she writes her name, and floats down the river to Camelot. She dies before arriving at the palace, and among the knights and ladies who see her is Lancelot and he thinks she is beautiful.

"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."


According to scholar Anne Zanzucchi, "[i]n a more general sense, it is fair to say that the pre-Raphaelite fascination with Arthuriana is traceable to Tennyson's work". Tennyson's biographer Leonée Ormonde finds the Arthurian material is "introduced as a valid setting for the study of the artist and the dangers of personal isolation".

Some consider "The Lady of Shalott" to be representative of the dilemma that faces artists, writers, and musicians: to create work about and celebrate the world, or to enjoy the world by simply living in it. Feminist critics see the poem as concerned with issues of women's sexuality and their place in the Victorian world. The fact that the poem works through such complex and polyvalent symbolism indicates an important difference between Tennyson's work and his Arthurian source material. While Tennyson's sources tended to work through allegory, Tennyson himself did not.

Critics such as Hatfield have suggested that The Lady of Shallot is a representation of how Tennyson viewed society and the distance from which the other people are in the lady's eyes are symbolic of the distance he is from society. And that the fact that she only sees them through a window pane is significant of the way in which Shallot and Tennyson see the world; in a filtered sense. This therefore links to the artistic licence Tennyson often wrote about.

Illustrations of the poem

The poem was particularly popular amongst artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who shared Tennyson's interest in Arthuriana; several of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood made paintings based on episodes from the poem.

The 1857 Moxon edition of Tennyson's works was illustrated by William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Hunt depicted the moment when the Lady turns to see Lancelot. Rossetti depicted Lancelot's contemplation of her 'lovely face'. Neither illustration pleased Tennyson, who took Hunt to task for depicting the Lady caught in the threads of her tapestry, something which is not described in the poem. Hunt explained that he wanted to sum up the whole poem in a single image, and that the entrapment by the threads suggested her "weird fate". The scene fascinated Hunt, who returned to the composition at points throughout his life, finally painting a large scale version shortly before his death. He required assistants as he was too frail to complete it himself. This deeply conceived evocation of the Lady, ensnared within the perfect rounds of her woven reality, is an apt illustration of the mythology of the weaving arts.

John William Waterhouse painted three episodes from the poem. In 1888, he painted the Lady setting out for Camelot in her boat; this work is now in the Tate Gallerymarker. In 1894, Waterhouse painted the Lady at the climactic moment when she turns to look at Lancelot in the window; this work is now in the City Art Gallery in Leedsmarker. In 1915, Waterhouse painted "I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott, as she sits wistfully before her loom; this work is now in the Art Gallery of Ontariomarker.

Elaine arrives at Camelot.

Because of the similarity in the stories, paintings of Elaine of Astolat tend to be very similar to paintings of the Lady of Shalott. The presence of a servant rowing the boat is one aspect that distinguishes them.

Cultural references

The poem is frequently recited, referenced, and depicted in other works. Some notable examples include D. H. Lawrence's novella The Virgin and the Gipsy, in which the young and isolated Yvette fantasizes about the poem while looking at a river. Libba Bray's book A Great and Terrible Beauty has a section of the poem as an introduction, as does Meg Cabot's Avalon High. The section "The Mirror" in Natsume Sōseki's 1905 novel Kairo-kō is directly based on the poem. In the novel the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, the title character recites the poem to her class (this is also done in the stage and film adaptations). An Agatha Christie novel entitled The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side has the plot hanging loosely on the line "... the curse is upon me cried the Lady of Shalott". A recent romance novel by Meredith Duran entitled The Duke of Shadows includes quotes and references (direct and thematic) to the poem.

The poem has been adapted for or set to music a number of times; Emilie Autumn recorded a song called "Shalott" based on it on her album Opheliac, while Loreena McKennitt recorded a fourteen-stanza version of the poem on her album The Visit. The Harper and The Minstrel recorded a shorter version of Loreena McKennitt's The Lady of Shalott for Harp and Voice on their album "The Circle of Fae", and Domine recorded a song named "The Lady of Shalott" on their 2007 album Ancient Spirit Rising.

The poem was recited by Raquel Welch to Tom Jones in her 1970 television special Raquel!. Accompanying the voiced over reading, Raquel appears in period dress suggesting she is the Lady of Shalott.

The poem was included in the 1985 TV movie Anne of Green Gables. WagScreen is making a film dramatisation of Tennyson's poem to be shown at the Collection in Lincoln from May 2009.

See also

  • Weaving
  • The choral setting of The Lady of Shalott by Cyril Rootham, composed in 1909-10 but not performed until 1999 in Eton College School Hall by the Broadheath Singers (conductor Robert Tucker)



External links

Further reading

  • Thomas L. Jeffers, “Nice Threads: Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott as Artist,” Yale Review 89 (Fall 2001), 54-68.
  • Thomas L. Jeffers, “Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and Pre-Raphaelite Renderings: Statement and Counter-Statement,” Religion and the Arts 6:3 (2002), 231-56.

"Shalott" by Emilie Autumn, music track

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