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Lord Tennyson became a very famous and popular poet over the course of his long career. He was the Poet Laureate of England for more than 40 years, from 1850 until he died in 1892. That means that, for most of the Victorian era, he was the most important and famous poet in England. So yeah, Tennyson was a big deal at a time when England itself was a pretty big deal.
But let's dial things back a little. "The Lady of Shalott" was an early work, written before Tennyson hit it big. He first published this poem in an 1833 book, and then again in a much more successful 1842 version. The version we use here is from 1842, and it's pretty different from the earlier one (you can check both of them out in our "Best of the Web" section). It's one of a few poems that he wrote about the legends of King Arthur. There have been a lot of books and poems written about Arthur and his knights, but Tennyson based his poem on an Italian book from the thirteenth century called Donna di Scalotta.
It was just the right moment for a work about King Arthur. In the Victorian Era the English were crazy for stories about Arthur, and this poem was embraced not just by readers but also by painters, who used it as inspiration for a bunch of famous paintings (see "Best of the Web" for some examples). In fact, people are still pretty nuts about this poem; it's got a blend of fantasy and tragedy that still fascinates readers, painters, musicians, etc. If you don't believe us, take a look at the web. We've picked some choice examples for you in "Best of the Web," but there's a world of "Lady of Shalott" stuff for you to explore out there. All that interest goes to show how popular this poem still is, more that 150 years after it was written.
If you've watched Lord of the Rings or read Harry Potter, you really owe it to yourself to get to know "The Lady of Shalott." This poem is alive with the same sense of fantasy, adventure, and magic that you'll find in those works. Plus, this won't take you hours to get through. It's a compact and intense poem that manages to tell a big story in just over a hundred lines. "The Lady of Shalott" is exciting, sad, a little sexy, and plain old beautiful at the same time. We know that's a big sell for a little poem, but we're backed up by a whole bunch of "Lady of Shalott" fans, going back over more than 150 years. People have fallen in love with this poem over and over again, and it's inspired tons of paintings, songs, videos, etc. We're pretty sure that, once you dive into this poem, you'll see what all the fuss is about. This is the kind of poem that pulls you in fast and then sweeps you away. Have fun!
A Side-by-Side Comparison of the Two Versions of the Poem
Tennyson first published this poem in 1833. In 1842, he released a revised version of the poem. We used the 1842 version, but if you want a peek at the earlier one, here it is.
Lots of Good Material About the Poem
There's a ton of info about "The Lady of Shalott" on the web. VictorianWeb.org is a good place to start, and they have especially good stuff about the relationship between this poem and the painters who were inspired by it.
King Arthur Info
This site is packed with information and images about Arthurian legend, which is really vast and complicated, but also really important for this poem.
Loreena McKennitt's "Lady of Shalott"
A shorter version of the poem set to music by a Canadian singer who does a lot of Celtic stuff. It might be your style, or it might not, but it's definitely worth a look. As a bonus, it helped us to hear the rhythm of the poem.
Silent Film Interpretation of the Poem
There are a lot of really crummy "Lady of Shalott" videos out there – trust us, we looked. This one, on the other hand, is pretty good, a simple and elegant take on the poem.
Reading by an English Actress
Here's a reading of the poem by an English actress named Frances Jeater. See what you think of this one – we always think it's a good idea to listen to a few of these to get a feeling for the different choices a reader can make.
This has a gimmicky animated picture of Tennyson reading the poem. More importantly, though, it has a really classy English guy reading the poem.
Super-Famous Painting of the Lady of Shalott
The "Lady of Shalott" inspired a painting by John William Waterhouse that's just about as famous as the poem. If you've ever been to a college dorm, you've probably seen a poster of this hanging on someone's wall.
Out Flew the Web…
"The Lady of Shalott" was a really popular subject with Victorian painters. This painting shows the moment in the poem where the curse strikes the Lady of Shalott. If you look closely, you can see that her tapestry includes the Holy Grail, a huge part of Arthurian legend.
Another by Waterhouse
Here's another moment in the poem, showing the Lady bored and fed-up at her loom. Notice how different she looks in each painting – that's partly because the poem really says nothing about her physical appearance.