This poem is about a lady and a knight, for sure, but isn't it also about a river? Everything we see here – islands and trees and castle and fields – is stretched out along the river. It's like the poem's spine. We even think this poem sounds like a river. It burbles and swirls and gushes and roars like a river.
No really, think about it. A river doesn't just have one sound, it has many, and so does this poem. We start the poem with a quiet, lazy, open sound, like a river running flat and wide: "On either side the river lie/ Long fields of barley and of rye" (lines 1-2). Do you feel how relaxed and calm the river sound is here? No hurry, just smooth water and soft sounds.
Then in the next stanza, things start to pick up speed, and so does the sound. Now it's like a river rushing down the rapids: "Willows whiten, aspens quiver,/ Little breezes dusk and shiver" (lines 10-11). Can you hear how those words hurry and dance along the line? We're in a different part of the river, and the sound has changed completely.
The poem does this again, and again, speeding up, rushing and crashing, and then slowing down again, at the end of the stanza, where the short little refrain bubbles along: "The Lady of Shallot." See that? Just like a river, speeding up slowing down, loud, quiet, fast, slow, over and over.
On the surface, this is a pretty easy one. The Lady of Shalott is the heroine of the poem and the heroine of the title. Tennyson focuses us right away on the importance of the Lady. For all the poem has to say about Lancelot and Camelot, this is really her story.
For extra English lit. bonus points, we'll tell you that the Lady's name comes from the legend of Elaine of Astolat, a woman who died for the love of Lancelot. Tennyson changed her name to Shalott for this poem, and created a lot of the details himself.
The setting is like our world, only more so. Have you ever looked at something, and then put on a pair of sunglasses and looked again? You know how they can make something like a sunset seems more intense, brighter, more real than real? That's how we see the setting of this poem. It's not like you don't recognize the things you see, it's just that everything has been soaked in a weird and beautiful kind of magic. Things like trees that might ordinarily just stand there are suddenly almost alive; they dance and shiver. The river suddenly has a voice. It doesn't just burble along, it complains (line 120).
It's not like Tennyson just threw a few magic props into our world. There's something completely, mysteriously different about it. You imagine the sun would be brighter, the songs would be sweeter, and the knights would be taller and stronger. That magic mirror has a little bit of a "through-the-looking glass" feel to it already, and that's what we see everywhere around here: a world like ours, but a little distorted, richer and deeper and more fascinating.
We never find out who put that curse on the Lady of Shalott. This made us a little bit curious. What if it turned out that it was the speaker of this poem? There are a lot of ways that you could picture the speaker of the poem, and we imagine an old witch telling this story, looking down into her crystal ball where she can see the images of the Lady and Lancelot.
Where do we get this? Well, there's the bird's-eye-view thing, right? This speaker sees and knows things no one else could. More than that, though, we think there's something a little cold in the sound of this speaker's voice, just a hint of pleasure at the way the Lady suffers, at the irony of her last meeting with Lancelot. Plus, there's the way the speaker hides the details of the curse, almost like she was keeping a secret. Finally, isn't this whole poem a little like a magical spell, meant to draw you into this world and hold you there? The rhythm of the poem, the way we come back again and again to the same refrain – it's almost like we are being hypnotized, put under a curse ourselves by the sneaky magic of the speaker.
"The Lady of Shalott" tells a really great, engaging story, so that should make this climb exciting. Still, there's some tough vocab, and it's a pretty long climb, so it might take a little sweat to reach the top. It's worth it though, we promise!
Tennyson had a long career (this is a pretty early poem), so he wrote a lot of different kinds of poetry after he finished with this King Arthur stuff. Still, he never got tried of big, dramatic, exciting stories. A lot of his poems deal with terrible grief, huge monsters, death-defying battles and things like that. Still, he usually approaches those subjects in the same tight, controlled style you see here. The lines are short, the stanzas are regular, and the rhymes are carefully laid out. The emotions and the events are huge, but you never feel like the poem gets completely carried away by them.
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.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
This is the first big image in the poem, and it comes up again and again after the first line. It's almost like the backbone of the poem, running through it and holding it up. Do you feel how the river sort of pulls the plot along? That's especially true toward the end, as the Lady begins her final journey. The movement of the river, its flow and its strength, is so key to this poem that it's not surprising that Tennyson leads out with this image.
Just the name of Camelot calls up images of amazing castles, kings and knights, and people living in peace and justice. Even in the fantasy world of this poem, it seems far away, untouchable until the very end. When we finally do see Camelot, it's a place of joy and beauty, every bit as social and splendid as the island of Shalott was lonely and sad.
The island in the river, cut off from the land and the outside world, is a major symbol of the Lady's isolation and loneliness.
Obviously she's the main character and a huge part of this poem, but is the Lady of Shalott a major image? Lancelot is almost buried in description, but we hear almost nothing about the Lady herself. Hair color, eyes, height? Those things aren't all crucial, but they'd help us to build a mental picture of our main character. In some ways, it feels like the speaker is trying to hold back an image of the Lady, to make her deliberately hard to imagine.
We think this is one of the most memorable and fascinating images in the poem. That's partly because of the use of the word "web." It must literally mean something like a tapestry, but when you hear that word, it's hard not to think of the lady as a kind of spider. There's some irony there though, because, while she seems to be in control, she's obviously caught in someone else's web. She should be the web-weaving predator, but instead she turns out to be the prey of some unseen, mysterious force.
This is the web's twin, the other half of the Lady's pair of magical props. Although the mirror brings the world to the Lady, it's nothing like the real thing. She sees images, shadows, a sort of half-world. It's like someone staying cooped up in her apartment watching TV for years. She'd know what was going on outside, but you couldn't really call that living could you? The Lady sees the world but she can't interact with it. In that way the mirror becomes another symbol of her intense, terrible isolation from the world.
We've said it before, but Lancelot is definitely the rockstar of this poem. Even in the Arthur legends, he has a reputation as an irresistible ladies' man. This poem spends a bunch of time letting us know how good he looks in his armor. Other than that, he doesn't have much to do – no dragons to slay or anything like that. All he has to do is show up and look good in a mirror, and he totally rocks the Lady of Shalott's world.
We think this poem's definitely got a romantic edge. Nothing too naughty, but if you didn't imagine the possibility of Lancelot and the Lady of Shalott getting together, you probably missed part of the fun.