And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott. (lines 17-18)
We think this line really rides on that big vocab word: "imbowers." This means to close up in a bower, which is an old term that refers to a lady's private room. In another kind of poem, this could be associated with protection, keeping someone safe from the outside world. But in this poem, we think it's a lot darker than that. This bower is really a prison, even though we don't know who put it there. Even that bit about the "silent isle" emphasizes how lonely and isolated and cut off from the world the Lady is.
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott. (lines 62-63)
She's not just isolated physically, but emotionally too. She wants what anyone wants, companionship, comfort, and love. She can see these things in her mirror, she can watch lovers stroll by, but she is cursed to be alone. That's what this line is all about. A knight, in this world, would protect and serve a lady, like the red-cross knight on Lancelot's shield (lines 78-9). In a sense the poem suggests that knights and ladies belong together, and a lady on her own is incomplete. You might have some problems with that idea, but that seems to be the message the Lady is getting.
"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott. (lines 71-72)
Here's the clearest expression of frustration from the Lady. In this moment we learn not just that she feels isolated in her shadow world, but also that the isolation really hurts. She wants not only to watch other people but also to join them.
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot. (lines 130-131)
Sadly, even once she gets out of her prison/bower, the Lady is still isolated. We really feel it in this moment, as she looks down the river and sees her doom. She can feel the weight of the curse, and she knows she won't make it to Camelot, at least not alive. One of the things this poem might make us wonder is whether it's the physical isolation that's the problem or some kind of deeper loneliness inside. In general, the inside vs. the outside is a big and complicated theme in this poem.
Singing in her song she died, (line 152)
Ultimately, she dies alone. She might have achieved a kind of freedom at the end, but the Lady remains isolated through the whole poem. We get a lot of little hints about this. For example, she dies in a boat, which separates her from the river and the world – it's like a little coffin. Also, check out the way this line says she died "in" her song. That's a funny way of saying it, and gives us the feeling that she was somehow a prisoner in her lonely song too. Sorry, that sounds pretty grim doesn't it? This is not the happiest poem.
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye, (lines 1-2)
Opening lines are a big deal in any poem. They set the tone, and focus our attention on the first details. It's definitely no accident that this poem opens with a description of the landscape. This poem isn't just about what's happening, but where it's happening. We get a lot of detail about the natural world; we can almost see the golden grain and almost feel the tug of the river's current.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver (lines 10-11)
See what we mean about the importance of nature? These lines don't do a thing for the plot. They're almost like separate little nature poems in themselves, like a little haiku or something. Still, even if they seem separate from the story, they are full of life and movement and energy. In a way, they give an intensity and a rhythm to the larger poem. It's almost like the natural world is alive and singing in this moment. That's mostly thanks to the heavy meter. Hear it? WILL-ows WHI-ten, AS-pens QUI-ver. That, folks, is the magic of the trochee (see the "Form and Meter" section for more on that).
She saw the water-lily bloom, (line 111)
This is the moment when she looks out the window, the one thing she's not supposed to do. It's her moment of resistance, when she goes against the curse, whatever the consequences. The interesting thing here is that she doesn't just look at the studly Lancelot. She also looks at the blooming lilies. The natural world is part of what she's been missing. She wants contact with the handsome knight, but also with the blooming flowers.
In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning, (lines 118-119)
At this point, the natural world starts to reflect the mood of the Lady and the atmosphere of the poem. As her danger increases, as she gets closer to her doom, the sky gets dark and heavy, and a storm blows up. Making the natural world reflect human moods is a pretty old poetic trick, and Tennyson goes all out with it here.
The leaves upon her falling light--
Through the noises of the night (lines 138-139)
Although she won't make it to Lancelot, she does make contact with the natural world. The river rocks her, the wind blows her clothes and the leaves cover her. Even this close to death, she is feeling a kind of freedom and movement that was never there before. The story of her human isolation is really tragic, but maybe her meeting with the natural world gives it a little bit of a silver lining.
Hear a song that echoes cheerly (line 30)
On the face of it, this might not seem like it fits in the category of "art." Still, it's pretty clear that the Lady's song is something special. She isn't just humming here – when she sings, the people around her are enchanted. They stop and get quiet, as if she was casting a spell. It's the song that makes the reapers call her a "fairy" – one of a number of connections between art and magic. Plus it's her only way of communicating with the world, and that's a major function of art – it lets others know what's going on in your head.
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay. (lines 37-38)
This is the clearest example of art in the poem. The Lady is, more than anything else, a weaver. She sits and weaves around the clock. From what we can tell, her weaving is beautiful. A lot of women in the Middle Ages probably would have done some weaving, but the "gay colors" of this magic web let us know that she isn't weaving something like clothes. Her work is designed to be beautiful.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights, (lines 64-65)
Another important side of the Lady's art is that it seems to make her happy. At least partly. It's a little bit of a contradiction. Here at least, she seems to really like weaving, turning what she sees in the mirror into something beautiful and permanent. Other lines, however, tell us that this isn't the whole story.
"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott. (lines 71-72)
Here we see the dark side of the Lady's situation, and maybe of being an artist in general. If you grow beets or sell fish for a living, you are out in contact with the world and other people. Sure it's not as fancy as being an artist, but at least you're dealing with things that are definitely real. You can see how, if you were shut up in your room weaving, or painting, or writing poems (we're looking at you, Tennyson), you might get a little sick of it. Most artists aren't under a mysterious curse, but if you sit and write or weave long enough, you might start to feel like it.
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott. (lines 125-126)
This is a weird moment, and there are all kinds of possible interpretations. Here's one: what if this writing on the boat is her way of turning herself into a work of art? Bear with us here. In general, you don't name your boat after yourself. It's just not something normal people do. So we think there must be something else going on here. Maybe this is the Lady's way of planting her flag in the world, of saying "I'm here, I exist, and my life is my art." She puts herself on display, in a way, for the people of Camelot, but especially for Lancelot. She becomes a work of art, a still life, framed by the boat in which she lies.
Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott." (lines 35-36)
This is the first time the poem mentions anything magical or supernatural. The word fairy used to mean more than it usually does today. It wasn't just a little Tinkerbelle-like thing with wings. It meant a person or thing that was tied to the eerie supernatural forces of the world. These reapers are clearly meant to be superstitious townspeople, so it's hard to know how seriously to take them. Still, they raise a question that the poem never quite answers. Does the Lady of Shalott have magical powers herself, or is she just trapped by someone else's magic? Just something to think about.
A magic web with colours gay. (line 38)
This web and the mirror are the two big magic props in this poem. Were they put there by the person who cursed the Lady? Did she make them? We can't say for sure. In fact, the poem doesn't have much to say about any of its magical elements. It's all a bit mysterious, and that's kind of cool. If there was an obvious villain, it would be easy, but this way, we can't tell if the Lady is struggling against someone else, or herself.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay (lines 39-40)
No looking outside, just weaving. That's the rule. Kind of cruel and sad, but again, we don't know who to blame this on, since we don't really get any specifics on the curse. All the magic comes from a world of whispers and shadows, just a little hint of spooky mystery. It matters a ton for the plot of course, but Tennyson doesn't seem to want to get wrapped up in magical details.
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried (lines 115-116)
Wham – there it goes. She slips up once, and looks outside, and the whole thing falls apart. She's cursed and doomed to die. Seems like the least fair punishment ever, especially with guys as hot as Lancelot wandering around. Still, even if it seems mysterious and bizarre, it's an intensely dramatic moment, really active and exciting.
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott. (line 62-63)
This is pretty much the closest we're going to get to talking about love in this poem. Love is one of the big things missing in the Lady of Shalott's life. Maybe we aren't even really talking about romantic love here. Maybe she's missing something more like a companion. Maybe the "loyal knight and true" would be a boyfriend, or maybe he'd be more like a protector and partner.
A red-cross knight for ever kneeled
To a lady in his shield, (lines 78-79)
This is another version of the love or companionship that the lady can't have. This is a pretty old-fashioned idea of love, and it has everything to do with chivalry, and the way knights should behave toward ladies. It probably isn't much like our idea of boyfriend and girlfriend. Still, it's put in here to remind us of how little love the Lady has in her life. She and Lancelot cannot become the perfect knight and lady we see on Lancelot's shield.
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode, (lines 103-104)
If all the stuff about knights and ladies isn't necessarily about romantic love, this definitely is. Come on, "coal-black curls?" These are like lines from a romance novel. Tennyson is letting us know that Lancelot is hot, and that's all we need to know about these lines.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room, (lines 109-110)
This is the sacrifice she makes for Lancelot and love. At least we think so. Is there any way to be sure that's why she defies the curse? Not as far as we can tell. She sees Lancelot and then she goes to the window. The events are really close, but neither she nor the speaker says a word about her falling in love. This is a pretty dramatic poem, but it also knows how to slow down when it need to, to keep things subtle instead of hitting you over the head with them. The love plot is here, but it simmers under the surface.
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace, (lines 169-70)
Is Lancelot falling in love here too? It doesn't quite seem like that. It would be nice if he'd fall for her completely, but we just don't see it here. He acknowledges that she's pretty, but was that worth dying for? Still, there's a hint here, a little possibility that he understands what she's done for him. Not enough to take away the tragedy of the ending, but still, it's something.