The Lady of Shalott Summary
This is a pretty long poem, and a lot goes on, but Tennyson makes it easier to follow along by breaking the action up into four parts. We'll take you through them quickly, to give you an overview:
Part 1: The poem opens with a description of a field by a river. There's a road running through the field that apparently leads to Camelot, the legendary castle of King Arthur. From the road you can see an island in the middle of the river called the Island of Shalott. On that island there is a little castle, which is the home of the mysterious Lady of Shalott. People pass by the island all the time, on boats and barges and on foot, but they never see the Lady. Occasionally, people working in the fields around the island will hear her singing an eerie song.
Part 2: Now we actually move inside the castle on the island, and Tennyson describes the Lady herself. First we learn that she spends her days weaving a magic web, and that she has been cursed, forbidden to look outside. So instead she watches the world go by in a magic mirror. She sees shadows of the men and women who pass on the road, and she weaves the things she sees into her web. We also learn that she is "half sick" of this life of watching and weaving.
Part 3: Now the big event: One day the studly Sir Lancelot rides by the island, covered in jewels and shining armor. Most of this chunk of the poem is spent describing Lancelot. When his image appears in the mirror, the Lady is so completely captivated that she breaks the rule and looks out her window on the real world. When she does this and catches a glimpse of Lancelot and Camelot, the magic mirror cracks, and she knows she's in trouble.
Part 4: Knowing that it's game over, the Lady finds a boat by the side of the river and writes her name on it. After looking at Camelot for a while she lies down in the boat and lets it slip downstream. She drifts down the river, singing her final song, and dies before she gets to Camelot. The people of Camelot come out to see the body of the Lady and her boat, and are afraid. Lancelot also trots out, decides that she's pretty, and says a little prayer for her.
Part 1, Lines 1-10
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through the field the road runs by
To many-towered Camelot;
- Tennyson starts out this poem with a quiet description of a landscape. A river runs through fields of grain. The barley and the wheat cover ("clothe") the "wold" (an old word for an open, unforested piece of land). Through this field, there's a road running toward the castle of Camelot, which is the legendary home of King Arthur and his knights.
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.
- Apparently this road is pretty well traveled. The people who use the road can look down and see an island in the middle of the river. This island, which the speaker says is surrounded by lilies, is called the island of Shalott.
- FYI, that's pronounced with the accent on the second syllable (sha-LOTT). To hear it out loud, check out one of the audio recordings of the poem in the "Best of the Web" section
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
- The poem holds off on the plot details for a second here, and tells us a little more about the natural world around the island.
- We hear about the willow trees that grow on the river banks, and the aspen trees that "quiver" (when the wind blows though the branches of an aspen tree, the leaves shake or "quiver").
Part 1, Lines 11-23
Little breezes dusk and shiver
- The speaker mentions little breezes that blow around the island too, and says that they "dusk and shiver." It's a little hard to say exactly what those words mean in this context, since we usually don't talk about something "dusking."
- All the same, can you feel the atmosphere this creates? Even if the words don't add up right away, can you feel the little chill of darkness and mystery they send through the line? That's what they're there for.
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
- Those breezes run along with the river, which flows constantly past the island in an endless wave.
- Here the speaker is really underlining the flow of the river as it heads toward Camelot. That flow, that "wave that runs for ever" (line 12) will be really important later on, so he's careful to plant the idea in our heads now.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
- Now we hear about a building on the island, a simple structure, just four walls with four towers. We imagine a mini-castle, a way smaller version of the many-towered Camelot we heard about in line 5.
- It's apparently surrounded by flowers too. Weaving the natural and the manmade together is a big deal in this poem.
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.
- Finally, we meet the star of this little show, the Lady herself. The only thing we learn right away is that the silent island of Shalott "imbowers" her. This might be an unfamiliar word, but it's really important for this poem. It means to enclose, to shut up in a bower, which was the private room of a medieval lady. Right off the bat, we can feel how the lady is restricted, shut up, even imprisoned on this island.
By the margin, willow-veiled,
Slide the heavy barges trailed
By slow horses; and unhailed
The shallop flitteth silken-sailed
Skimming down to Camelot:
- Now we head back outside.
- The speaker is almost teasing us, giving us yet more descriptions of the banks of the river with its willow trees (fascinating, huh?).
- We also hear more about the traffic on the river. Horses pull big heavy barges upstream, and shallops (little open boats for shallow waters) fly ("flitteth") down the river to Camelot, pushed by their silky sails.
Part 1, Lines 23-41
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Or is she known in all the land,
The Lady of Shalott?
- Basically, lots of people pass up and down the river, traveling on it and using the path beside it.
- But has anyone, the speaker wonders, seen the Lady of Shalott wave her hand, or seen her standing at her window ("casement" is just an old-fashioned word for window)? In fact, he wonders, does anyone in the land know her at all? Apparently she's an invisible mystery, this lady.
Only reapers, reaping early In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to towered Camelot:
- It seems that only the people who gather the grain in the fields ("the reapers") notice a sign of the Lady. They hear her singing a song that echoes happily down the river to Camelot.
- Can you feel how everything pulls down toward Camelot? The fifth line in every stanza is (almost) always about something or someone going toward Camelot, like it was a magnet.
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott."
- When the reapers are working at night, piling up "sheaves" (big bundles of cut grain), they hear the Lady singing. They seem a little enchanted/creeped out by her song, and call her "the fairy Lady of Shalott" as if she was a ghost or magical spirit.
- The first part ends, and we've still only heard about the Lady from a distance.
Part 2, Lines 37-50
There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
- If the Lady of Shalott never comes to the window, and no one ever sees her, what is the lady doing with her free time? She's weaving a "magic web" all day and all night. The speaker doesn't tell us right away what this web is, just that it's brightly colored.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
- Why does she weave all the time without stopping? She's heard a rumor ("a whisper") that she'll be cursed if she should stop working ("stay" is an old way of saying stop or pause) and look down the river at Camelot.
- Think of the Lady like Sleeping Beauty in the Disney cartoon – a beautiful maiden, trapped in a tower under a terrible curse.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.
- The twist in this poem is that no one told the Lady of Shalott exactly what the curse involves. To be on the safe side, she just keeps weaving all the time, with nothing else ("little other care") to worry her or occupy her time – in other words, a pretty boring life.
And moving through a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
- The web she's weaving isn't the only magical prop in this poem. There's also a magic mirror, which shows "shadows of the world."
- That's an important phrase, and a little mysterious. She's not seeing the real thing, just images, and the use of the word "shadows" makes us think they might be fuzzy, dark, faint images. Still, this mirror gives her a way to watch the highway, even though she can't really look outside.
Part 2, Lines 51-41
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.
- What does she see on the highway in the mirror? For one thing, there's a spot in the river where the current makes a little whirlpool ("the river eddy whirls"). Mostly though, she sees a parade of people.
- The first people the speaker introduces to us are some rough peasants from the town ("surly village-churls") and some girls from the market in red cloaks.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-haired page in crimson clad,
Goes by to towered Camelot;
- The parade of passers-by continues. We see a group of happy young women ("damsels glad"), then an abbot (the head of a monastery) on a lazy old horse ("an ambling pad"). Young men too, a shepherd with curly hair maybe, or a page (a young servant to a knight) with long hair and red clothes.
- We get lots of fun little details here, but these aren't really characters in the poem. They are meant to represent the outside world, the place where the Lady can't go.
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
The Lady of Shalott.
- Sometimes, she sees knights in the mirror. This is a big deal because we know that knights are a major part of the Camelot story.
- The speaker notes that the Lady doesn't have a "loyal knight" of her own, and you can begin to feel her loneliness and longing. This is definitely a set-up for the rest of the poem.
Part 2, Lines 64-72
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often through the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
- Whatever "magic sights" she sees in the mirror, the Lady weaves into her web.
- The speaker gives us a couple more examples of those magic sights: a funeral on a quiet night, full of light and music, or two newlyweds walking alone in the moonlight.
"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.
- Still, magic mirror or not, we get the sense that this is a pretty crummy deal for the Lady. She has some entertainment, but no real connection to the world. As she puts it: "I am half sick of shadows."
- She's fed up with this life, and we can feel that something may be about to change.
Part 3, Lines 73-81
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
- Here it comes – the big turn in this poem.
- Someone's coming, although in these lines, he's only identified as "He." He shows up riding through the barley just a "bow-shot" (as far as you could shoot an arrow) from the Lady's little prison.
The sun came dazzling through the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
- Tennyson really ratchets up the effects for this big entrance. If it were a movie, this moment would definitely be in slow motion. The sun is dazzling and bright, and it sparkles off his greaves (that's a piece of armor, like metal shin-guards for a knight).
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
- Then he drops the name. This isn't just any knight; it's Sir Lancelot, the toughest and most famous (and, we imagine, the best-looking) of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table.
- Here's a note for all you poetry nerds: this is the only stanza where the fifth line doesn't end with the word "Camelot." Here it's "Lancelot," which is a sneaky but also maybe a really powerful way of showing how important he is.
A red-cross knight for ever kneeled
To a lady in his shield,
- Literally these lines mean that Lancelot's shield has a picture on it of a knight kneeling before his lady.
- Like in many spots in this poem, there's a lot more going on under the surface. The Redcross Knight is a character in The Faerie Queene, a famous epic poem by Edmund Spenser. The red cross is also the sign of St. George, the patron saint of England. Basically that picture on the shield is a symbol of courage, chivalry, and the political and literary history of England. You don't have to wrestle with all that stuff at once, but it's good to know that it's there.
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.
- Check out how often the speaker reminds us where we are. Here he mentions the field of barley again, and the "remote" island of Shalott.
- It's pretty unlikely that you forgot about these natural details, so we think this has more to do with how Tennyson gives the poem its rhythm.
Part 3, Lines 82-90
The gemmy bridle glittered free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
- Brace yourself for a long description of Lancelot, with some unfamiliar words.
- This is the major shift in the plot, so the speaker has to get us really invested in Lancelot. He starts out by comparing his jewel-covered bridle (the gear that fits over the horse's head) to a constellation of stars in the sky.
The bridle bells rang merrily
As he rode down to Camelot:
- We also learn that the bridle has ringing bells on it, and that Lancelot is headed down the river, towards Camelot.
And from his blazoned baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
Beside remote Shalott.
- Lancelot apparently also has a strap or belt across his shoulder called a "baldric." It's specially decorated, or "blazon'd."
- Don't worry if these words are new to you. They would have seemed old-fashioned to readers in the nineteenth century too. Tennyson uses them to give this poem a medieval feel.
- The baldric was often used to carry something, and Lancelot is toting a silver bugle (a horn that a knight could blow in battle). All this gear is making a lot of noise as he heads down the trail.
Part 3, Lines 91-104
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewelled shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burned like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
- There's more description here, of the jewels on his saddle, and his helmet, (with a feather sticking out of it) which burns like a flame.
- The take-away point here is that Lancelot is about as impressive, manly, and cool-looking as he could possibly be – sort of a medieval rockstar. Definitely the kind of guy a lonely lady could fall in love with.
As often through the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still Shalott.
- Just for a little icing on the cake, the speaker compares Lancelot's feathered helmet to a shooting star, with a tail ("bearded") that lights up the night sky.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trode;
- A few more lines describing the studly Lancelot: his forehead glows in the sunlight (which is apparently supposed to be sexy). His horse's hooves are polished ("burnished") and bright.
From underneath his helmet flowed
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
- He's even got great hair ("coal-black curls"), which flows out of his helmet. You should really be thinking of a movie star by now, some unbelievably cool, well-dressed dude. Shmoop won't pick one for you, since we don't know your type, but you get the idea, right?
Part 3, Lines 105-117
From the bank and from the river
He flashed into the crystal mirror,
- Now he shows up in the Lady's "crystal mirror." She finally sees this superman we've already heard so much about, and we have to believe she's impressed.
"Tirra lirra," by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.
- Lancelot is singing a song as he trots along, and we get a little snatch of it, just the words "Tirra Lirra."
- This may be a reference to Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (Act 4, Scene 3) where one of the characters sings a song about "The lark, that tirra-lirra chants." It's probably also just a nonsense word from an old song, like "hey nonny nonny" or "sha la la." It's important, however, because it echoes the Lady's singing from earlier in the poem.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She looked down to Camelot.
- When the Lady sees him, she makes a fateful choice. She steps away from her loom and walks across the room. For the first time she actually looks outside, and sees the real world, the lilies, the knight's helmet, and Camelot.
- The poem doesn't actually say that she's fallen hopelessly in love at the very sight of Lancelot, but that's pretty much the implication.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror cracked from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
- Of course we learned early in the poem that the Lady is forbidden by the mysterious curse from looking outside. So when she does, her web flies apart and the magic mirror cracks.
- The Lady realizes right away that she's in trouble, and the third part of the poem finishes with her crying out: "The curse is come upon me."
Part 4, Lines 118-131
In the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,
Heavily the low sky raining
Over towered Camelot;
- The weather lets us know that things are all messed up. There's a stormy wind, the leaves are yellow and fading ("waning"). Even the river "complains" and the sky is low and heavy with rain above Camelot. The outside world reflects the Lady's sad situation.
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.
- Now the Lady does what pretty much everyone does when they feel bad: she goes and finds a boat and writes her name on it. Actually we're not sure why she does this, but it does make her easier to identify later in the poem.
And down the river's dim expanse,
Like some bold seër in a trance
Seeing all his own mischance--
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
- She doesn't get into the boat right away. Instead she hangs out for a moment and looks down the river.
- The speaker compares her to a seer (someone who can see the future) having a vision of his bad luck (mischance) in the future. She has a glazed expression ("glassy countenance") on her face. The Lady can sense already that she's doomed.
Part 4, Lines 132-144
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.
- Then, at the end of the day, the Lady undoes the chain that holds the boat to the shore, and lies down in the bottom of the boat. The river carries her away.
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right--
The leaves upon her falling light--
Through the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
- This is one of the famous images from the poem, which you might have seen in paintings. The lady is dressed in loose white clothes that flap about her in the wind. Leaves fall on her lightly as she lies in the boat and drifts, through the night, down toward Camelot.
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.
- The boat heads slowly downstream, winding its way through the hills and fields. As it passes, people can hear the Lady singing her final song.
- In the movie version of this poem this would be the big tear-jerking scene, definitely in slo-mo, with a sad song by Enya or someone like that.
- The focus in this last part of the poem is very much on the sad and lonely fate of the Lady.
Part 4, Lines 145-153
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
- The song she sings is haunting, sometimes soft, and sometimes loud.
- The poem's speaker really focuses his attention on this moment, helping us to imagine and almost hear the Lady's last song.
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darkened wholly,
Turned to towered Camelot.
- Then, as she sings and floats, the lady starts to change. Her blood slowly freezes and her eyes grow dark.
- The poem doesn't come out and say it, but these must be the effects of the curse we've heard so much about.
For ere she reached upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
- Here's the sad part. Before she reaches the first house in Camelot, the Lady of Shalott dies.
- The poem is careful to point out that she died singing, that her death and the end of her song were part of the same event.
Part 4, Lines 154-171
Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
- Now, at last, we enter the city of Camelot that we've heard so much about.
- The lady floats by the towers, the gardens, and the houses of the town. She is described as a "gleaming shape," completely pale and cold. She is also silent; her song is over at last.
- The images in this last part of the poem are simple and clear, and that's part of their power.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.
- Everyone in the town comes out to see this sight. The people the speaker mentions are wealthy, noble people (a "burgher" was a wealthy man in a medieval town, usually a merchant or a businessman). They all crowd around by the river's edge and read the name written on the front of the boat.
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:
- They have a lot of question about this mysterious sight. Who and what is this? It's a disturbing sight, and as the word gets out a party in the castle nearby quiets down. It's scary enough that even the famously brave knights of Camelot make the sign of the cross for protection.
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."
- The poem closes with Lancelot's reaction to what he sees. He stops and thinks for a moment, and then declares that the lady is pretty. He also says a little prayer for her, hoping that God will have mercy and protect her now that she's passed on.
- This probably wasn't the meeting with Lancelot that the Lady was hoping for. In the end, he comes too late, and she dies sad and alone. Sorry, no happy ending for the Lady of Shalott.