Analysis: Form and Meter
Rhyming Lines in Iambic and Trochaic Tetrameter
Let's start with the way Tennyson breaks up the lines in this poem. The most basic division in the poem is the four big chunks (Parts 1-4). It might help to think of these like acts in a play – they each focus on a different part of the plot. Part 1 describes the landscape around Shalott. Part 2 describes the Lady and the things she sees in her mirror. Part 3 deals with the appearance of Lancelot and how cool he is. Part 4 covers the Lady's boat ride and her death. When you move to a new part, it's a signal that the poem's plot is shifting gears.
The next important things to notice are the stanzas, the smaller groups of lines, which are like the paragraphs of a poem. In this particular poem, Tennyson makes it easy on us, because the stanzas are always nine lines long. There are a total of nineteen stanzas in the whole poem. If we count up the stanzas, we can see that the Parts of the poem get longer as we go along. The first two parts have four stanzas each, Part 3 has five stanzas, and Part 4 (the longest) has six stanzas. You definitely don't have to memorize these details, but it's good to keep an eye out for them. Great poems are always carefully put together.
Now let's check out the way this poem rhymes. Tennyson made a big deal out of the rhyming lines in this poem, which are super-noticeable once you start to focus on them. Each stanza in this poem rhymes in exactly the same way, so once we show you how one of them works, you'll know everything there is to know. We'll demonstrate with the first stanza. To make it clearer, we'll put rhyming sounds in bold, and give each different sound a letter:
On either side the river lie A
Long fields of barley and of rye, A
That clothe the wold and meet the sky; A
And through the field the road runs by A
To many-towered Camelot; B
And up and down the people go, C
Gazing where the lilies blow C
Round an island there below, C
The island of Shalott. B
See how that works? We start out with four rhyming lines in a row (in this case: lie, rye, sky, by). Then in line 5 we get the word "Camelot." The rhyme in this poem is so steady that the fifth line of each stanza almost always ends with "Camelot." Then we get three more rhyming lines in a row (in this case go, blow, below). Finally, we end the stanza with the word "Shalott" which ends almost every stanza (and rhymes with "Camelot" in line 5). It might seem a little complicated at first, but like we say, once you have this down, it works for every stanza in the poem.
Finally, let's take a look at the rhythm of this poem (what English teachers call the meter). This one gets a little trickier than the rhyme. We won't bug you with all the details, but here's a quick overview:
Most of the lines in this poem have eight syllables, although there are a bunch with five or seven too. Tennyson uses two different basic rhythms for these lines. We'll show them to you so you can compare. Again, don't get freaked about these details, just think of them as a part of your poetry toolkit.
The first kind of meter is called iambic. In this meter, if you divide all the syllables in the line into groups of two, the emphasis falls on the second syllable (da DUM). That's how the poem starts out. We'll show you by dividing the syllables up with slashes and putting the stressed syllable in bold:
On ei|ther side | the ri|ver lie
Long fields | of bar|ley and | of rye,
Got that? Feel how the rhythm goes: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM? How about if we switch it around, and put the stress first? That's exactly what Tennyson does in the beginning of the second stanza:
Willows | whiten,| aspens | quiver,
Little | breezes | dusk and | shiver
Feel the difference there? Now it goes: DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da. We call this kind of meter trochaic. So in fancy English teacher terms, he's switched from iambic to trochaic tetrameter ("tetrameter" just means there are four groups of syllables per line). We're not so worried about the names, though. We just think it's worth tuning your ear a little so you can hear those shifts in rhythm. It's like learning to play your favorite song on a guitar. It helps you see how it's put together, and hopefully makes you love it even more.