Lady of Shalott | Poetry Analysis

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “Lady of Shalott” is inspired by one of the first tragic love stories, the story of Elaine of Astolat, who dies because of a broken heart due to her unrequited love for Sir Lancelot.

The Lady of Shalott lives in this tower on an island in the middle of a river. She lives there alone. The only thing people hear or see from her is her singing.
She weaves pictures she’s seeing in a magical mirror into a carpet, she’s not allowed to look outside the window.
One day Sir Lancelot appears in her mirror and, to get a better look at him, she looks out of the window and falls in love with him. The mirror then breaks and a curse is set upon the Lady of Shalott.
She climbs into a boat, writers her name down and sets out to find Sir Lancelot in Camelot. Slowly but surely she’s losing strength the farther she is from the island. Dying, she sings a last song.
The boat is floating to the palace, but the Lady of Shalott died before arriving. There at the palace everyone is moved by her death and stunned by her beauty. Lanzelot is the only one finding words.

This poem inspired countless adaptations, both in literature as well as in art.
My personal favorites are the paintings John William Waterhouse, especially “The Lady of Shalott.
There is a Agatha Christie novel inspired by one of the lines “The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side”, the poem being important to the novel itself.
And a very famous adaption is when Anna in the film for Anne of Green Gables acts out and recites some lines from the poem.

There are many interesting interpretations of this poem, I will be focusing on three of them today.

Firstly, there’s the one heavily focusing on the autobiographical and self-reflecting aspect of the poem.
Therefor, it could be seen as Tennyson’s artistic musings on the dangers writers face in isolation. Touching on the high price an artist has to pay to fully be able to do his art. Tennyson himself lived many years in isolation, his art the only escape and consolation. Many interpretations see “The Lady of Shalott” as Tennyson’s critique on society, a reflection on how distant he felt towards society. As the line “I am half-sick of shadows” sums up beautifully.
It is not unusual that writer use an alter ego of a different gender to write about autobiographical episodes. Heinrich Böll did that with Katharina Blum in more modern times.

With a closer look, you realize there is more to it than that though.
No matter how it ends, this can be seen as the story about a woman wanting to break free from the social boundaries she has to face and trying to discover her sexuality.
I definitely see the empowering act of breaking out of what a lady was expected to do and be at that time.

Looking at how the poem ends, there is undeniable another critique woven into this poem.
How does this time period treat women? Locking them up in towers, so they are not trying to discover themselves, their sexuality, the world around them.
If they in fact want to have their destiny in their own hands, want to discover and learn, the seduction of sexual desire won’t bring them fulfillment, but rather complete destruction.
Their beauty and grace is only discovered after their downfall.

The Lady of Shalott is not only a beautiful poem working perfectly with traditional rhyming, but there is also so much to discuss. And that’s why I love it so much!


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