Enjoying "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred Tennyson

Ed Friedlander MD

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If you are approaching Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shalott", this page will help you get started. It is intended especially for students (high-school age and older) who have read the poem in class.

The Story

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott 1888 The Lady of Shalott is a magical being who lives alone on an island upstream from King Arthur's Camelot. Her business is to look at the world outside her castle window in a mirror, and to weave what she sees into a tapestry. She is forbidden by the magic to look at the outside world directly. The farmers who live near her island hear her singing and know who she is, but never see her.

The Lady sees ordinary people, loving couples, and knights in pairs reflected in her mirror. One day, she sees the reflection of Sir Lancelot riding alone. Although she knows that it is forbidden, she looks out the window at him. The mirror shatters, the tapestry flies off on the wind, and the Lady feels the power of her curse.

An autumn storm suddenly arises. The lady leaves her castle, finds a boat, writes her name on it, gets into the boat, sets it adrift, and sings her death song as she drifts down the river to Camelot. The locals find the boat and the body, realize who she is, and are saddened. Lancelot prays that God will have mercy on her soul.

This is one of Tennyson's most popular poems. The Pre-Raphaelites liked to illustrate it. Waterhouse made three separate paintings of "The Lady of Shalott". Agatha Christie wrote a Miss Marple mystery entitled "The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side", which was made into a movie starring Angela Lansbury. Tirra Lirra by the River, by Australian novelist Jessica Anderson, is the story of a modern woman's decision to break out of confinement.

The Poem

        The Lady Of Shalott
             1842 Version
1832 Version


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-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
    The island of Shalott.

The yellowleavèd waterlily,
The greensheathèd daffodilly,
Trembled in the water chilly,
    Round about Shalott

    Tennyson changed a copy of the 1832 version to "The yellow globe o' the waterlily". Probably the water lilies had green leaves and yellow flowers.
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 grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle embowers
    The Lady of Shalott.

The sunbeam-showers break and quiver
In the stream that runneth ever
By the margin, willow-veil'd,
Slide the heavy barges trail'd
By slow horses; and unhailed
The shallop flitteth, silken-sail'd
    Skimming down to Camelot
Yet who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she know in all the land,
    The Lady of Shalott?

Underneath the bearded barley,
The reaper, reaping late and early
Hears her ever chanting cheerly,
Like an angel, singing clearly,
    O'er the stream of Camelot.
Piling the sheaves in furrows airy,
Beneath the moon, the reaper weary
Listening, whispers, "'Tis the fairy
    Lady of Shalott."
Only reapers, reaping early,
In among the beared 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."

The little isle is all inrailed
With a rose-fence, and overtrailed
With roses: by the marge unhailed
The shallop flitteth silen-sailed
    Skimming down to Camelot:
A pearlgarland winds her head;
She leaneth on a velvet bed,
Fully royally apparelèd,
    The Lady of Shalott.


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.

No time hath she to sport and play:
A charmèd web she weaves alway.
A curse is on her, if she stay
Her weaving, either night or day,
    To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
Therefore she weaveth steadily,
Therefore no 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.

Howard Pyle, The Lady of Shalott Weaving
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd lad,
Or long-hair'd page in crimson clad,
    Goes by to tower'd 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.

William Holman Hunt, 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.

John William Waterhouse, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, 1916


A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro' 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.

Howard Pyle, Lancelot
The gemmy bridle glitter'd 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 blazon'd baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armor rung
    Beside remote Shalott.

    As he rode down from Camelot:
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.
As often thro' the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
    Moves over still Shalott.

    As he rode down from Camelot:
    Moves over green Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
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.

    As he rode down from Camelot:
"Tirra lirra, tirra lirra"
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 look'd down to Camelot.
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.

John William Waterhouse 1895 ...
She saw the waterflower bloom


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

Outside the isle a shallow boat
Beneath a willow lay afloat
Below the carven stern she wrote
A cloudwhite crown of pearl she dight
All raimented in snowy white
That loosely flew, (her zone in sight,
Clasped with one blinding diamond bright,)
    Her wide eyes fixed on Camelot
Thought the squally eastwind keenly
Blew, with folded arms serenely
By the water stood the queenly
    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.

And down the river's dim expanse
With a steady, stony glance
Beholding all her own mischance
Mute, with a glassy countenance
    She looked down to Camelot
It was the closing of the day,
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right --
The leaves upon her falling light --
Thro' 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.

As when to sailors while they roam,
By creeks and outfalls far from home,
Rising and dropping with the foam,
From dying swans wild warblings come,
    Blown shoreward; so to Camelot
Still as the boat--head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her chanting her deathsong
    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,
    Turn'd to tower'd Camelot.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
    The Lady of Shalott.

A longdrawn carol, mournful, holy,
She chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her eyes were darkened wholly,
And her smooth face sharpened slowly.
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 around the prow they read her name,
    The Lady of Shalott.

A pale, pale corpse she floated by,
Deadcold between the houses high,
    Dead into towered Camelot
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
To the plankèd wharfage came:
Below the stern they read her name,
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."

They crossed themselves, their stars they blest,
Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire and guest,
There lay a parchment on her breast,
That puzzled more than all the rest,
    The wellfed wits at Camelot.
"The web was woven curiously,
The charm is broken utterly,
Draw near and fear not -- this is I,
    The Lady of Shalott."


The story of the Lady of Shalott is a version of "Elaine the fair maid of Astolat", from Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur. Elaine's naive love for Lancelot was unrequited. She died of a broken heart (i.e., committed suicide -- Malory's book contains her justification of suicide). Her dead body (with suicide note between her hands) was floated down the Thames to Camelot. Eventually Tennyson wrote a long poem about "Lancelot and Elaine". It contains the line which I have found helpful, "He makes no friend who never made a foe."

However, Tennyson claimed he did not know the English version of the story in 1832, when he wrote the first draft of the poem. He took it from an early renaissance Italian story "Quì conta come la Damigella di Scalot morì per amore di Lancialotto de Lac." The body ends up on the Camelot beach, with a letter, and is examined by a crowd.

I met the story first in some italian novelle: but the web, mirror, island, etc., were my own. Indeed, I doubt whether I should ever have put it in that shape if I had been then aware of the Maid of Astolat in "Morte Arthur".

Tennyson found the basic story in the Italian source, including the death-letter (which he eliminated from the 1842 version). But he made up the curse, the mirror, the song, and the weaving. Tennyson also explained,

The Lady of Shalott is evidently the Elaine of the Morte d'Arthur, but I do not think that I had ever heard of the latter when I wrote the former. Shalott was a softer sound than "Scalott".

William Maw Egley, The Lady of Shalott

Like many other famous poems, this one deals (on one level) about writing poetry. Tennyson's son Hallam quoted his father as saying it's about:

the new-born love for something, for some one in the wide world for which she had been so long excluded, takes her out of the region of shadows into that of realities.

Hallam also said:

The key to this tale of magic symbolism is of deep human significance and is to be found in the lines

Tennyson likes to write poems about creatures lost in half-life, and/or people taking decisive, heroic action that leads to their doom.

Here are some more interesting things to notice about "The Lady of Shalott":

What's It All About, Alfie?

Archaic words: John ATkinson Grimshaw, The Lady of Shalott

The Culture War:

I hope you like The Lady of Shalott, and that I've been of some help.

To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred Tennyson Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/shalott.htm

For Modern Language Association sticklers, the name of the site itself is "The Pathology Guy" and the Sponsoring Institution or Organization is Ed Friedlander MD.

Tennyson: Sidney Harold Meteyard, I Am Half Sick of Shadows

More by Ed

Malory's Elaine argues that suicide is justifiable. But if you are reading this, suicide is almost certainly a bad idea. Among young people who made serious attempts and failed, 99% said a year later that they are glad they failed.

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Brown University, Department of English -- my home base, 1969-1973.

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