The Lady Of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson is a beautiful poem in which the poet catches the true spirit of Romanticism. The poem has plenty of exquisite images and presents different tones and moods.
The poem begins with a beautiful description of the island of Shalott . Water lilies grow around the island and on either side of the river there are fields of barley and rye. Along the river there is a road that runs ‘to the many-towered Camelot’. Here we get a picture that matches the descriptions in King Arthur’s legends. However, the images of flowers and grains as well as the movements around serve as a contrasting back drop for the barren life of a lady who lives on the island. She is generally known as Lady of Shalott. Nobody knows whether she has any other name. She lives a cloistered life in a castle with ‘four grey walls and four grey towers’.
But who has seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?
Only the reapers reaping early in the morning or late at night hear her singing a song. Then they whisper to each other that it is the Lady of Shalott. She stays in her bower by day and night and weaves a magic web in bright colours.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
However, she has no idea what the curse is. So weaves on, without thinking of anything else. She sees the world only as the reflection on a mirror hanging in front of her. For years, she has not looked directly down the road to Camelot. Here the poet not only depicts what happened long ago and far away but also sustains the mystery by leaving a few things unsaid. Sadly, all the images that get reflected on her mirror are happy ones unlike her own life. She sees market girls in their bright dress, group of girls who are all happy, abbots passing by, shepherds tending their sheep, and boys on errands. She also sees the reflection of knights but she has no favourites among them.
She, however, weaves onto her web things that she sees. She weaves the images of a funeral and two loves in the moonlight and laments, ‘I am sick of shadows.’
One day, a handsome and bold knight comes riding down the road to Camelot. His attire and appearance are remarkable. The bridle with gems glitters like a string of stars; the bridle bells make sweet music, and on his bright dress hangs a silver bugle. The jewel on his saddle shines brightly and the helmet and the plume are as bright as a flame. His whole appearance is like that of a meteor burning bright. His curly hair is coal-black in colour and,
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnished hooves his war-horse trod;
He sings a merry tune as he rides and the mirror in front of Lady of Shalott reflects him for her. This sight is too much for her to resist. She leaves her web and the loom. She walks up and down in her room three times. She dares to look out at the water lilies and she sees the knight’s helmet and plume. She looks down to Camelot. In that instant her web flies away and her mirror cracks from side to side. She now realizes that ‘the curse is come upon’ her.
Nature changes immediately to foreshadow her tragedy. Everything merry becomes sad, a storm brews and it starts raining heavily. Lady of Shalott comes down from her tower and finds a boat beneath a willow tree. She writes her name on the prow of the boat. She looks towards Camelot, with no expression on her face, like a seer who looks at his own grim future. At the end of the day she loosens the chain that stays the boat and lie in it. The broad river takes her away down to Camelot. She is wearing a snowy white dress, giving her the appearance of a bride. Leaves fall on her like the nature’s tears.
As she drifts towards Camelot, they hear her sing her last song. She sings a carol in a low voice till her blood is completely frozen. She dies even before she reaches the first house in Camelot. Her dark eyes are still turned towards Camelot. She floats like a gleaming shape by the garden and galleries of houses in Camelot.
People come to the wharf to see her dead body. There were knights, burghers, lords and dames among them. They all read her name on the prow of the boat. They were all sad and silent and wondered who it was. Nobody spoke a word but crossed themselves out of fear. But Lancelot looked at her dead body and thought for a while. Then he said,
She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace
The Lady of Shalott
The poem ends there but it leaves a long lasting impression on the reader. We still don’t know who she is but we empathize with her in her tragedy. The images the poet painted are so clear and awe-inspiring that they haunt every reader. They rhyme scheme and the refrains add to the beauty of the poem. The rhythm makes the poem read like a folk song. This is indeed one of the greatest poems of all time.