The Lady of Shalott

Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse

'The Lady of Shalott', a romantic poem by the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (18091892).

'The Lady of Shalott' (of which Tennyson wrote two versions: one in 1833, of twenty verses, the other in 1842 of nineteen verses) is loosely based upon a story from Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur concerning Elaine of Astolat, a maiden who falls in love with Lancelot, but dies of grief when he cannot return her love.

Tennyson returned to the story in 'Lancelot and Elaine' (in his 1859 Idylls of the King). However the original story of Elaine is quite different from that of the Lady, whose name is never mentioned and who is, it seems, not quite human.

The Lady of Tennyson's poem lives in a tower on the island of Shalott, in a river near Camelot. She is under a curse: if she looks directly at Camelot, some unknown doom will befall her. Thus she watches the world through a mirror, and weaves what she sees in a magic web. The shadowy glimpses of life beyond the tower tempt her to look, although she knows that to do so will bring the curse to its unknown end. One day, however, seeing Lancelot in her mirror, she realises more than ever how sick she is of her life, of seeing the world only through shadows and reflections.

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.

She finally succumbs to temptation and looks directly out when Sir Lancelot rides past the tower singing, and as she looks towards 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.

She leaves her tower, finds a boat upon which she writes her name, and floats down the river to Camelot, chanting a mournful song, dying as she sings. She arrives frozen to death, and among the knights and ladies who see her is Lancelot:

"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."

Some consider 'The Lady of Shalott' to be representative of the dilemma that faces artists, writers, and musicians: to create work about and celebrating the world, or to enjoy the world by simply living in it.

'The Lady of Shalott' was a favourite work for artists.

Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse's hangs in the Tate in London.

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

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 imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veiled,
Slide the heavy barges trailed
By slow horses; and unhailed
The shallop flitteth silken-sailed
Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded 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."

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.

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.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered 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.

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

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

The gemmy bridle glittered 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 blazoned baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewelled shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burned like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
As often through the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flowed
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.

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 looked down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.

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 towered Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The 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.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right--
The leaves upon her falling light--
Through 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.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot.
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

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 round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

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."

To celebrate the Tennyson Bicentenary, a film was made of 'The Lady of Shalott', with Victoria Rigby as the Lady of Shalott. It had its world premier in Lincoln on 15 May 2009, with showings at The Collection throughout 2009. Stills from the film show an uncanny likeness to the painting by John William Waterhouse. June 2009, Lincoln Central Library had an exhibition of 'The Lady of Shalott'.

The Water Rail Way, a cycle route (part of the National Cycle Network), which runs from Lincoln to Boston along the River Witham following the disused Lincoln to Boston railway line has public works of art along the route by Anwick Forge, Griffin Memorials and Nigel Sardeson commissioned to create a sculpture trail inspired by the poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson and to commemorate the 200th anniversary of this former Poet Laureate who was born in Lincolnshire.

Lady of Shalott by Anwick Forge takes as its reference the opening lines of 'The Lady of Shalott': "On either side the river lie / Long fields of barley and of rye / That clothe the wold and meet the sky / And thro' the field the road runs by ..."


Literature ~ Alfred Lord Tennyson
(c) Keith Parkins 2005-2009 -- July 2009 rev 2