The Lady of Shalott

For the Waterhouse painting, see The Lady of Shalott (painting).
"Shalott" redirects here. For other uses, see Shalott (disambiguation).

"The Lady of Shalott" is a ballad by the English 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 20 stanzas, the other in 1842, of 19 stanzas.


Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot, 1894

The poem is loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, as recounted in a thirteenth-century Italian novella titled Donna di Scalotta (No. LXXXII in the collection Cento Novelle Antiche); the earlier version is closer to the source material than the latter.[1] 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."[2]


The first four stanzas of the 1842 poem describe a pastoral setting. The Lady of Shalott lives in an island castle in a river which flows to Camelot, but the local farmers know little about her.

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 suffers from a mysterious curse and must continually weave images on her loom without ever looking directly out at the world. Instead, she looks into a mirror, which reflects the busy road and the people of Camelot who 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.

The reflected images are described as "shadows of the world", a metaphor that makes it clear they are a poor substitute for seeing directly ("I am half-sick of shadows").

Stanzas nine to twelve describe "bold Sir Lancelot" as he rides by 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 on the lady of seeing Lancelot; she stops weaving and looks out of her window toward Camelot, bringing about the curse.

Illustration by W. E. F. Britten for a 1901 edition of Tennyson's poems
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. Among the knights and ladies who see her is Lancelot, who thinks she is lovely.

"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, "in a more general sense, it is fair to say that the pre-Raphaelite fascination with Arthuriana is traceable to Tennyson's work".[2] 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".

Feminist critics[3] see the poem as concerned with issues of women's sexuality and their place in the Victorian world. Critics argue that "The Lady of Shalott" centers around the temptation of sexuality and her innocence preserved by death.[4] Christine Poulson discusses a feminist viewpoint and suggests: "the Lady of Shalott's escape from her tower as an act of defiance, a symbol of female empowerment...". Based on Poulson's view, escaping from the tower allows for the Lady of Shalott to emotionally break free and come into terms with female sexuality.[4]

The depiction of death has also been interpreted as sleep. Critic Christine Poulson says that sleep has a connotation of physical abandonment and vulnerability, which can either suggest sexual fulfillment or be a metaphor for virginity. Fairytales, such as Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, have traditionally depended upon this association. So, as related to the Lady of Shalott, Poulson says: "for in death [she] has become a Sleeping Beauty who can never be wakened, symbols of perfect feminine passivity."[4]

Critics such as Hatfield have suggested that The Lady of Shalott is a representation of how Tennyson viewed society; the distance at which other people are in the lady's eyes is symbolic of the distance he feels from society. The fact that she sees them only reflected through a mirror signifies the way in which Shalott and Tennyson see the world———in a filtered sense. This distance is therefore linked to the artistic license Tennyson often wrote about.

Cultural influence


Hunt's Lady of Shalott (1905)
Waterhouse's "I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott

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. Two aspects, in particular, of "The Lady of Shalott" intrigued these artists: the idea of the lady trapped in her tower and the dying girl floating down the river towards Camelot.[5]

In Moxon's 1857 edition of Tennyson's works illustrated by William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Hunt depicted the moment when the Lady turns to see Lancelot. In the background of the illustration, Hunt juxtaposes the window facing Lancelot with a painting of Christ's crucifixion. According to Christine Poulson, the Crucifixion is the archetype of self-sacrifice and further emphasizes the ideal that the Lady of Shalott fails to represent.[4] Poulson also considers this representation of the subject in the context of changing women's roles in the 1880s and 1890s, suggesting that it served as a warning of imminent death to women who stepped from their restricted roles and explored their desires.[6]

Rossetti depicted Lancelot's contemplation of the Lady's "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 and finally painted 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. This work is now in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.

Elaine arrives at Camelot.

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 Gallery. 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 Leeds. Poulson argues that Waterhouse's impressionistic painting style in his 1894 rendering of The Lady of Shalott evokes a "sense of vitality and urgency".[4] 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 Ontario.

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.



Music videos

Sink me in the river, at dawn

Send me away with the words of a love song

The boat in the Perry video is similar to some illustrations, such as the image by W. E. F. Britten. The very last scene of the video shows a close-up of two pages of the poem.[17]

Tarot cards


See also


  1. Potwin, L.S. (December 1902). "The Source of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott". Modern Language Notes. Modern Language Notes, Vol. 17, No. 8. 17 (8): 237–239. doi:10.2307/2917812. JSTOR 2917812.
  2. 1 2 Zanzucchi, Anne. "The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: Alfred Lord Tennyson". Retrieved 10 January 2008.
  3. Brownbridge, Joshua (2016). "The Lady of Shalott is an allegory for female oppression in the Victorian era and serves as Tennyson's argument against the established gender roles.".
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Poulson, Christine. Death and the Maiden: The Lady of Shalott and the Pre-Raphaelites. pp. 173–194.
  5. Poulson, Christine (1995). Reframing the Pre-Raphaelites. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press. p. 173.
  6. Poulson, Christine. "Death and the Maiden: The Lady of Shalott and the Pre-Raphaelites". Reframing the Pre-Raphaelites: 183.
  7. Fellows Johnston, Annie (1903). The Little Colonel at Boarding-School.
  8. Mitford, Nancy (1954). Love in a Cold Climate (Print ed.). London: Penguin Books. p. 138.
  9. Spark, Muriel (1961). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Print ed.). London: MacMillan and Company Limited. pp. 4, 23–24.
  10. McCrumb, Sharyn (1984). Sick of Shadows. Avon Books. ISBN 978-0-380-87189-6.
  11. Duncan,Isla Duncan (2011). Alice Munro's Narrative Art (ebook ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 85–86. ISBN 978-1-137-00068-2.
  12. "Camelot Garden (キャメロット・ガーデン Kyamerotto Gāden?)". Bessatsu Hana to Yume. Hakusensha. 2008. (one-shot)
  13. "Kaori Yuki Creates Camelot Garden One-Shot Manga". Anime News Network. January 28, 2008. Retrieved March 1, 2009.
  14. Griffiths, Elly (2010). The House at Sea’s End. Quercus Publishing. ISBN 978-1849163675.
  15. "Sarah Gridley".
  16. Gridley, Sarah (2013). Loom.
  17. The Band Perry (2010). "If I Die Young". YouTube. Republic Nashville Records.
  18. "The Ravens, Half Sick of Shadows". Chrysalis Tarot. April 2014.

Further reading

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