The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott

"The Lady of Shalott" is a Victorian poem or 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 twenty stanzas, the other in 1842 of nineteen stanzas. It was loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, as recounted in a thirteenth-century Italian novella entitled "Donna di Scalotta" (No. lxxxi in the collection "Cento Novelle Antiche"), with the earlier version being closer to the source material than the later.cite journal
last = Potwin
first = L.S.
title = The Source of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott
journal = Modern Language Notes
volume = 17
issue = 8
pages = 237–239
date = 1902
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-06
month = Dec
year = 1902
doi = 10.2307/2917812
] 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"."cite web
last = Zanzucchi
first = Anne
title = The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: Alfred Lord Tennyson
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-10


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

:And by the moon the reaper weary,:Piling sheaves in uplands airy,:Listening, whispers, " 'Tis the fairy:The Lady of Shalott."

Stanzas five through eight describe the lady's life. She has been cursed, and so must constantly weave a magic web without looking directly out at the world. Instead, she looks into a mirror which reflects the busy road and the people of Camelot which 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.

Stanzas nine through twelve describe "bold Sir Lancelot" as he rides past, 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 of seeing Lancelot on the lady; she stops weaving and looks out 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, 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."


"In a more general sense, it is fair to say that the pre-Raphaelite fascination with Arthuriana is traceable to Tennyson's work" (Zanzucchi). 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".

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. Others see the poem as concerned with issues of women's sexuality and their place in the Victorian world. The fact that the poem works through such complex and polyvalent symbolism indicates an important difference between Tennyson's work and his Arthurian source material. While Tennyson's sources tended to work through allegory, Tennyson himself did not.

Illustrations of the poem

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.

The 1857 Moxon edition of Tennyson's works was illustrated by William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Hunt depicted the moment when the Lady turns to see Lancelot. Rossetti depicted Lancelot's contemplation of her '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, finally painting 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.

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. 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.

Cultural references

*In D. H. Lawrence's novella, The Virgin and the Gipsy, the young and isolated Yvette fantasizes about the poem while looking at a river, wishing for someone singing "Tirra lirra" to rescue her from her lonely life.
*Libba Bray's book "A Great and Terrible Beauty" has a section of the poem as an introduction and is recited by several characters in the novel.
*Emilie Autumn recorded a song called "Shalott" based on this poem on her album "Opheliac".
*Loreena McKennitt recorded a fourteen-stanza version of the poem on her album "The Visit".
* The title of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novel "The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side" comes from the poem, and there are several references to the poem in the novel.
*In the 1985 miniseries "Anne of Green Gables", Anne recites the poem in the introduction and in a later scene in which Anne and her friends attempt to recreate the story of Elaine. The novel also includes a reference to the girls having recently studied "the Tennyson poem"; however, it appears from context that this poem is not "The Lady of Shalott", but the relevant part of the "Idylls of the King". (There are no father and brothers in "The Lady of Shalott", and she is alive when she lays herself in the boat.)
*John Wick's novel "No Loyal Knight" draws its title from the poem and makes many references to it.
*The poem is recited by Sandy Stranger in Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" for its oratorical content.
* In the 1970 TV Special: Raquel!, Raquel Welch recites parts of The Lady of Shallot, right before she finds Tom Jones (singer).
*In the film "V for Vendetta", V has the painting "The Lady of Shalott" by John William Waterhouse in his home, The Shadow Gallery. It can be seen behind him at one point during the scene when he is fencing his suit of armor.
*Domine recorded a song named "The Lady of Shalott" on their 2007 album "Ancient Spirit Rising".
*In Meg Cabot's "Avalon High" Ellie's mother writes a book on "The Lady of Shalott," and in the beginning of each chapter there is a short excerpt from it.
*Lisa Ann Sandell's Song of the Sparrow, is a retelling of the story of Elaine of Ascolat, The Lady of Shalott. Elaine is sixteen in the novel and holds a revered place as the only girl in Arthur's battle camp until the arrival of Guinivere.
*In the stage adaptation of Bel Kaufman's "Up the Down Staircase", the character young Alice Blake mentions the Lady of Shalott in her monologue about her love for her former English teacher, Paul Barringer.
*In the Indigo Girls song "Left Me A Fool", the first person of the song references the subject as reminding him/her of Shalott ("only made of shadows, even though you're not").
*Acclaimed Singer/Songwriter Rufus Wainwright almost rendered himself unrecognizable when he posed as The Lady of Shallot for the album cover of his 2004 album Want Two.


ee also

* Weaving (mythology)
* The Princess of the Tide
* Elaine of Astolat

External links

* [ The complete 1842 poem]
* [ Side-by-side comparison of the 1833 & 1842 versions of Tennyson's poem] (provided by The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester)
* [ The story as found in Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur"]
* [ "Lancelot and Elaine"]
* [ Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott": an overview] (includes e-text)
* [ Anne Zanzucchi, "Alfred Lord Tennyson"]
* [ Elizabeth Nelson, "The Embowered Woman: Pictorial Interpretations of 'The Lady of Shalott'"]
* [ "Why the Lady of Shalott was Cursed" by Alice Bowen]
* [ "Photo illustration (2006) of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" by Anja Cazemier]
* [ "The Lady of Shalott: an Art Appreciation Project."]
* [ "The Lady of Shalott" film adaptation by WAG Screen.]

Further reading

*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), 231-56.

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