The Lady of Shalott

I once memorized this poem with my mother. It is a very mysterious, dark poem with elements of fantasy and magic. Why is the lady cursed and by whom? It is reminiscent of medieval times, and the imagery of the lonely, doomed, lovestruck Lady floating dead down the river is hard to forget. A very evocative tale from one of my favorite poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson, it seems to defy analysis. It is just a sad, supernatural tale told in beautiful rhyme. If I had to interpret it, I would say it has to do with the tragic nature of life and love itself: how we can lose so much when we choose to take a chance; the swiftness of time; the nature of regret and experience (do I play it safe or take the leap, and which is preferable); the intricacies of the human heart;  and how nothing gold — not beauty, not anything — can stay. As Edgar Allen Poe put it : “the death… of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” Another rich, interesting poem from the mid-19th century — that my mom and I also loved — is Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market.

PART I

ON either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
          To many-tower’d Camelot;          5
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
          The island of Shalott.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,   10
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
          Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,   15
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
          The Lady of Shalott.
By the margin, willow-veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d   20
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
          Skimming down to Camelot:
But who hath seen her wave her hand?
Or at the casement seen her stand?   25
Or is she known in all the land,
          The Lady of Shalott?
 
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly   30
From the river winding clearly,
          Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers ”Tis the fairy   35
          Lady of Shalott.’
PART IIThere she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay   40
          To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
          The Lady of Shalott.   45
And moving thro’ 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:   50
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
          Pass onward from Shalott.
Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,   55
An abbot on an ambling pad,
Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,
Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,
          Goes by to tower’d Camelot;
And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue   60
The knights come riding two and two:
She hath no loyal knight and true,
          The Lady of Shalott.
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,   65
For often thro’ 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;   70
‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said
          The Lady of Shalott.
PART IIIA bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,   75
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
          Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A red-cross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,   80
          Beside remote Shalott.
The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,
Like to some branch of stars we see
Hung in the golden Galaxy.
The bridle bells rang merrily   85
          As he rode down to Camelot:
And from his blazon’d baldric slung
A mighty silver bugle hung,
And as he rode his armour rung,
          Beside remote Shalott.   90
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
          As he rode down to Camelot.   95
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
          Moves over still Shalott.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;  100
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
          As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river  105
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
‘Tirra lirra,’ by the river
          Sang Sir Lancelot.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,  110
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
          She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;  115
‘The curse is come upon me!’ cried
          The Lady of Shalott.
PART IVIn the stormy east-wind straining,
The pale yellow woods were waning,
The broad stream in his banks complaining,  120
Heavily the low sky raining
          Over tower’d Camelot;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote  125
          The Lady of Shalott.
And down the river’s dim expanse—
Like some bold seer in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance—
With a glassy countenance  130
          Did she look to Camelot.
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.  135
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro’ the noises of the night
          She floated down to Camelot:  140
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
          The Lady of Shalott.
Heard a carol, mournful, holy,  145
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
          Turn’d to tower’d Camelot;
For ere she reach’d upon the tide  150
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
          The Lady of Shalott.
Under tower and balcony,
By garden-wall and gallery,  155
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
          Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,  160
And round the prow they read her name,
          The Lady of Shalott.
Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;  165
And they cross’d themselves for fear,
          All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, ‘She has a lovely face;
God in His mercy lend her grace,  170
          The Lady of Shalott.’
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