Tennyson’s Poetry

by: Alfred Lord Tennyson

The Lady of Shalott

Only reapers, reaping early In among the bearded barley, Hear a song that echoes cheerly From the river winding clearly . . . Listening, whispers, “’Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott.”

In “The Lady of Shalott,” readers learn that the Lady lives alone on an island. Farmers working near her island never see her but do hear her singing cheerfully. So although she serves as a source of mystery to the people around her, who believe she may be somehow supernatural, unlike the subject of Tennyson’s poem “Mariana,” the Lady of Shalott doesn’t appear as a tragic figure from the poem’s onset.

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.

These lines in “The Lady of Shalott” explain why the Lady remains unseen for years by her neighbors: She has been cursed. The curser prohibits her from looking directly down the river at Camelot. Cleverly, the Lady uses a mirror to view the outside world. What she sees in the mirror’s reflection, she weaves into a tapestry. Between using the mirror and her constant weaving, she keeps herself both safe and occupied and as such feels content. Readers might infer that the Lady represents the happiness and tranquility artists experience in their solitude.

But in her web she still delights To weave the mirror’s magic sights, 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: “I am half sick of shadows,” said The Lady of Shalott.

In these lines from “The Lady of Shalott,” readers learn that the Lady enjoys watching life go by using the mirror, but weddings and funerals give her a pang of discontent. A medieval mirror would not provide a perfect reflection as a modern mirror does but would instead reflect images dimly, like a shadow of reality. The Lady declares that she wants to see reality instead of shadows. The thought of marriage or of time passing makes her wish to not just see but experience real life.

“Tirra lirra,” by the river Sang Sir Lancelot. 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, She look’d down to Camelot.

The narrator in “The Lady of Shalott” explains how Sir Lancelot rides by the Lady’s island, singing. Although people have passed by her island for years without causing her to abandon her practice of using the mirror to view the outside world, something about Lancelot’s voice compels the Lady to now change her practice. She immediately looks out her window, using nothing but her eyes, and sees Sir Lancelot as he truly appears, not as a shadow of a man. Readers soon learn that the Lady finds him, literally, irresistibly attractive.

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 prow she wrote The Lady of Shalott.

Here, the narrator explains how the Lady of Shalott responds after her curse comes true. After she looked upon Sir Lancelot and Camelot without the use of her mirror, both the mirror and her tapestry—her life’s work—were destroyed. The Lady seems to understand that she has nothing left to do but die; however, she refuses to die as an unknown entity. To ensure others know her identity, she scrawls her name upon a boat, climbs in, and sends herself toward Camelot. While she will die before arriving, Camelot’s denizens will remember her, if only in death.