The Lady of Shalott

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The Lady of Shalott by John Atkinson Grimshaw (c. 1875)

"The Lady of Shalott" is a lyrical ballad by the English poet Alfred Tennyson. Based on the medieval La Damigella di Scalot, it tells the story of Elaine of Astolat, a young noblewoman imprisoned in a tower on an island near Camelot. One of the poet's best-known works, its vivid medieval romanticism and enigmatic symbolism inspired many painters, especially the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers.

Like his other early poems – "Sir Launcelot 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. The revised version has a significantly different ending. This revision was designed to match Victorian morals regarding gender norms and the act of suicide.


The poem is loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, as recounted in a 13th-century Italian novellina titled La Damigella di Scalot (No. LXXXII in the collection Il Novellino: Le ciento novelle antike)[1]; the earlier version is closer to the source material than the latter.[2] 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."[3]


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").

The Lady of Shalott by William Maw Egley (1858)

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.

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".[3] 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".[citation needed]

Feminist critics[4] 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" centres on the temptation of sexuality and her innocence preserved by death.[5] 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.[5]

The Lady of Shalott by Walter Crane (1862)

The depiction of death has also been interpreted as sleep. Poulson says that sleep has a connotation of physical abandonment and vulnerability, which can either suggest sexual fulfillment or be a metaphor for virginity. Fairy tales, 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."[5]

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 licence Tennyson often wrote about.[citation needed]

Cultural influence[edit]


Tennyson's early poetry, with its medievalism and powerful visual imagery, was a major influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1848, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt made a list of "Immortals", artistic heroes whom they admired, especially from literature, some of whose work would form subjects for PRB paintings, notably including Keats and Tennyson.[6] "The Lady of Shalott" was particularly popular with the Brotherhood, which shared Tennyson's interest in Arthuriana; several of the 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]:173

In Edward Moxon's 1857 edition of Tennyson's works, illustrated by Hunt and 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 emphasises the ideal that the Lady of Shalott fails to represent.[5] 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.[5]:183 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.[7]

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 in The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot; 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".[5] 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.[8]



  • The first musical setting of the poem was probably a work for mezzo-soprano soloist, chorus and orchestra by the English composer Cyril Rootham, composed in 1909–10. The only known performance of Rootham's op 33 The Lady of Shalott was given in the School Hall at Eton College on 18 September 1999, with the Broadheath Singers and the Windsor Sinfonia conducted by Robert Tucker.
  • French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote a piece for solo piano La dame de Shalotte in 1917 based on Tennyson's poem.
  • In 1946 Phyllis Tate composed a setting of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott, written for the 10th anniversary of the BBC Third Programme.
  • In 1957-58 Arthur Bliss (once a pupil of Cyril Rootham, above) composed a 40-minute ballet suite titled The Lady of Shalott.
  • Popular folk duo the Indigo Girls refer to the Lady of Shalott in the song "Left Me a Fool" (first released on their 1987 album Strange Fire). Lamenting the lack of depth and substance she finds when getting to know a beautiful lover, the singer sings "you remind me of Shalott, only made of shadows, even though you're not."
  • Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt adapted the poem to music, and featured it on her 1991 album The Visit.
  • British musician and singer, Richard Thompson, took the title for his 1994 album Mirror Blue from the poem: 'And sometimes thro' the mirror blue/ The knights come riding two and two.'
  • Composer Jon Parr Vijinski wrote a symphonic tone poem entitled The Lady of Shalott (2001).[18] His use of thematic material, complex harmonies, and rich orchestral colour seek to link the story to its mediaeval source, and the spirit of chivalry – such as de Troyes, von Eschenbach and Malory.
  • Israeli progressive rock group Atmosphera recorded a 16-minute epic named "Lady of Shalott" about the ballad. The recording was released in 2002.
  • Dutch gothic metal band Autumn also refer to the Lady of Shalott in the songs "Who Has Seen Her Wave Her Hand", "Mirrors Magic Sights", "When Lust Evokes the Curse", "Floating Towards Distress" and, arguably "Behind the Walls of Her Desire" from their 2002 album When Lust Evokes the Curse. Each song retelling parts of the story from the poem.
  • The song titled "Shalott" on Emilie Autumn's 2006 album Opheliac tells the poem from her own perspective, where she quotes the Lady of Shalott as saying "But then, I could have guessed it all along, 'cause now some drama queen is gonna write a song for me." She uses imagery from the poem, and quotes it directly: "I'm half sick of shadows".
  • Swedish pop band The Cardigans refer to the poem with the line 'Mirror cracked from side to side' in a bonus track on the UK edition of Super Extra Gravity, entitled "Give Me Your Eyes".
  • Danish Composer Bent Sørensen composed a piece for viola solo, based on John William Waterhouse's painting The Lady of Shalott at the Tate Gallery in London. The work has been also transcribed for solo violin and recorded by Dacapo Records, 8.226134.
  • The Band Perry's country music video "If I Die Young" makes clear visual references to the "Lady of Shalott". Lead vocalist Kimberly Perry holds a book of poems by Tennyson as she lies in a boat, floating down a river like the Lady of Shalott. As her recumbent form within the boat drifts downstream, Perry sings: '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 of the poem, 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.[19]


  • Read aloud in an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs titled "The Understudy" (1975).
  • A portion of the poem is quoted by Guy Burgess (Alan Bates) in the 1983 BBC film An Englishman Abroad.
  • In the 1985 television adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley (Megan Follows) reads various stanzas of the poem and acts out the Lady of Shalott's tragic end as she floats down the river; lines from Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine" are also referred to. In the book, the poem enacted is consistently "Lancelot and Elaine".
  • In Episode 1 of the 1995 BBC production of The Buccaneers, Laura Testvalley (Cheire Lunghi) reads part of it to Annabel St. George (Carla Gugino). "The Lady of Shalott" does not appear in the original book by Edith Wharton.
  • In the Lewis episode "Old, Unhappy, Far Off Things" (2011), D.S. Hathaway quotes the line "Out flew the web and floated wide".
  • This poem forms the backbone of voice-over for the episode "Tracie's Story" (2012) of Accused starring Sean Bean as a transgender woman in a highly destructive relationship with a married man.
  • In Endeavour, the eponymous Endeavour Morse is heard reading part of the poem aloud in "Girl" (2013).
  • In V for Vendetta (2005), Waterhouse's painting appears in V's gallery along other masterpieces.
  • In My Mother and Other Strangers (2016), Tennyson's poem plays an important role.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Il Novellino: Le ciento novelle antike
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ a b Zanzucchi, Anne. "Alfred Lord Tennyson". The Camelot Project. University of Rochester. Retrieved 10 January 2008.
  4. ^ 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".
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Poulson, Christine (1996). "Death and the Maiden: The Lady of Shalott and the Pre-Raphaelites". In Harding, Ellen (ed.). Re-framing the Pre-Raphaelites: Historical and Theoretical Essays. Aldershot: Scolar Press. pp. 173–194. ISBN 1-85928-314-4.
  6. ^ Roe, Dinah (15 May 2014). "The Pre-Raphaelites". Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians. British Library.
  7. ^ "Lady of Shalott". Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
  8. ^ ""'I am half sick of shadows,' said The Lady of Shalott"". Art Gallery of Ontario.
  9. ^ Fellows Johnston, Annie (1903). The Little Colonel at Boarding-School.
  10. ^ Mitford, Nancy (1954). Love in a Cold Climate (Print ed.). London: Penguin Books. p. 138.
  11. ^ Spark, Muriel (1961). The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Print ed.). London: MacMillan and Company Limited. pp. 4, 23–24.
  12. ^ McCrumb, Sharyn (1984). Sick of Shadows. Avon Books. ISBN 978-0-380-87189-6.
  13. ^ "Camelot Garden (キャメロット・ガーデン Kyamerotto Gāden?)". Bessatsu Hana to Yume. Hakusensha. 2008. (one-shot)
  14. ^ "Kaori Yuki Creates Camelot Garden One-Shot Manga". Anime News Network. 28 January 2008. Retrieved 1 March 2009.
  15. ^ Griffiths, Elly (2010). The House at Sea’s End. Quercus Publishing. ISBN 978-1849163675.
  16. ^ "Sarah Gridley".
  17. ^ Gridley, Sarah (2013). Loom.
  18. ^ Jon Parr Vijinski The Lady of Shalott – A Symphonic Tone Poem on YouTube
  19. ^ The Band Perry (2010). "If I Die Young". YouTube. Republic Nashville Records.
  20. ^ Rampton, James (9 November 2016). "Hattie Morahan interview: 'There were a few hitches, I was pregnant during the shoot'". The Independent.

Further reading[edit]

  • 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-

External links[edit]