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Music, Words and Visions around The Lady of Shalott



"The Lady of Shalott" is a Victorian ballad by the English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson (1809 - 1892). Like his other early poems – "Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere" and "Galahad" – the poem recasts Arthurian subject matter loosely based on medieval sources. Tennyson’s poem, first published in 1832, tells of a woman who suffers under an undisclosed curse. She lives isolated in a tower on an island called Shalott, on a river which flows down from King Arthur’s castle at Camelot. Not daring to look upon reality, she is allowed to see the outside world only through its reflection in a mirror. One day she glimpses the reflected image of the handsome knight Lancelot, and cannot resist looking at him directly. The mirror cracks from side to side, and she feels the curse come upon her. The punishment that follows results in her drifting in her boat downstream to Camelot ‘singing her last song’, but dying before she reaches there.


The first four stanzas describe a pastoral setting. The Lady of Shalott lives in an island castle in a river which flows to Camelot, but little is known about her by the local farmers.


And by the moon the reaper weary, Piling sheaves in uplands airy, Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott.”


Stanzas five to eight describe the lady's life. She suffers from a mysterious curse, and must continually weave images on her loom without ever looking directly out at the world. Instead, she looks into a mirror which reflects the busy road and the people of Camelot which pass by her island.


She knows not what the curse may be, And so she weaveth steadily, And little other care hath she, The Lady of Shalott.


The reflected images are described as "shadows of the world," a metaphor that makes clear that they are a poor substitute for seeing directly ("I am half-sick of shadows.") Stanzas nine to twelve describe "bold Sir Lancelot" as he rides by, and is seen by the lady.


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


The remaining stanzas describe the effect on the lady of seeing Lancelot; she stops weaving and looks out her window toward Camelot, bringing about the curse.


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.


She leaves her tower, finds a boat upon which she writes her name, and floats down the river to Camelot. She dies before arriving at the palace. Among the knights and ladies who see her is Lancelot, who thinks she is lovely.


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: 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 Lady of Shalott (1832)


Part I


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; 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, Little breezes dusk and shiver Through the wave that runs for ever By the island in the river Flowing down to Camelot. Four grey walls, and four grey towers, Overlook a space of flowers, And the silent isle imbowers The Lady of Shalott.


By the margin, willow-veiled, Slide the heavy barges trailed By slow horses; and unhailed The shallop flitteth silken-sailed Skimming down to Camelot: 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?


Only reapers, reaping early In among the bearded barley, Hear a song that echoes cheerly From the river winding clearly, Down to towered Camelot: And by the moon the reaper weary, Piling sheaves in uplands airy, Listening, whispers "'Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott."


Part II


There 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 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.


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: 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, An abbot on an ambling pad, Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad, Or long-haired page in crimson clad, Goes by to towered Camelot; And sometimes through the mirror blue 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, 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; "I am half sick of shadows," said The Lady of Shalott.


Part III


A bow-shot from her bower-eaves, He rode between the barley-sheaves, The sun came dazzling through the leaves, And flamed upon the brazen greaves Of bold Sir Lancelot. A red-cross knight for ever kneeled To a lady in his shield, That sparkled on the yellow field, Beside remote Shalott.


The gemmy bridle glittered free, Like to some branch of stars we see Hung in the golden Galaxy. The bridle bells rang merrily As he rode down to Camelot: And from his blazoned baldric slung A mighty silver bugle hung, And as he rode his armour rung, Beside remote Shalott.


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. As often through the purple night, Below the starry clusters bright, Some bearded meteor, trailing light, Moves over still Shalott.


His broad clear brow in sunlight glowed; On burnished hooves his war-horse trode; From underneath his helmet flowed His coal-black curls as on he rode, As he rode down to Camelot. From the bank and from the river He flashed into the crystal mirror, "Tirra lirra," by the river Sang Sir Lancelot.


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. 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.


Part IV


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; Down she came and found a boat Beneath a willow left afloat, And round about the prow she wrote The Lady of Shalott.


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. 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.


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: 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, Chanted loudly, chanted lowly, Till her blood was frozen slowly, And her eyes were darkened wholly, Turned to towered Camelot. For ere she reached upon the tide 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, 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, 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; And they crossed 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, The Lady of Shalott."


Paintings by J. W. Waterhouse


Version from 1888 (visible at Tate Britain, in London) - The picture illustrates the following lines from part IV of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’:


And down the river’s dim expanse Like some bold seer in a trance, Seeing all his own mischance – With glassy countenance 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.

Lancelot is visible on her embroidery, and familiar Pre-Raphaelite clues foretell her fate: swallows fly low as the wind blows her hair and extinguishes the candles.

Waterhouse shows her letting go the boat’s chain, while staring at a crucifix placed in front of three guttering candles. Tennyson was a popular subject for artists of this period, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites. Waterhouse’s biographer Anthony Hobson relates that the artist owned a copy of Tennyson’s collected works, and covered every blank page with pencil sketches for paintings.

The landscape setting is highly naturalistic; the painting was made during Waterhouse’s brief period of plein-air painting. The setting is not identified, although the Waterhouses frequently visited Somerset and Devon. The model is traditionally said to be the artist’s wife. Waterhouse’s sketchbook contains numerous pencil studies for this and the painting of the same title made six years later (1894, Leeds City Art Gallery).

This second work dates 1894, the titles is The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot and it shows the Lady at the moment she looks out of the window and the curse is fulfilled. The painting can be seen at the Leeds City Art Gallery.


A third and last painting dedicated to The Lady of Shalott was completed by Tennyson in 1915 . I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott . The title of the painting is a quotation from the last two lines in the fourth and final verse of the second part of Tennyson's poem:


But in her web she still delights To weave the mirror’s magic sights, For often thro’ the silent nights A funeral, with plumes and lights And music, came from Camelot: Or when the moon was overhead Came two young lovers lately wed; 'I am half sick of shadows,' said The Lady of Shalott.


This painting depicts an earlier point in the tale of the Lady of Shalott than those depicted by Waterhouse in his previous two works of 1888 and 1894; the Lady is still confined in her tower, weaving a tapestry, viewing the world outside only through the reflection in the large mirror in the background. In the painting, the mirror reveals a bridge over a river leading to the walls and towers of Camelot; also visible nearby are a man and a woman, perhaps the "two young lovers lately wed" referred to in Tennyson's poem. The scene is set shortly before an image of Lancelot appears in the mirror, enticing the Lady out of her tower to her death.

The painting shows the Lady of Shalott resting from her weaving.

The lady wears a red dress, in a room with Romanesque columns holding up the arches of the window reflected in the mirror. The painting was donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1971.

A presentation and descriptions of the three works is available on the Tate website here below:

Other visual artists portrayed the Lady between the XIX and the XX century. Some examples:

Agatha Christie used the line “The mirror crack'd from side to side” to title her 1962 novel The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, and the poem plays a large part in the plot. It is also referenced in the various adaptations. Below an illustration by Christie's illustrator Tom Adams.




Can Shakespeare’s Ophelia have inspired Tennyson and Waterhouse’s Ladies of Shallot?


Reading through Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott” we probably can’t stop thinking about how much she reminded us of the character of Ophelia from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Maybe the first thing that causes us to draw parallels between them is the way the Lady of Shalott is so persistently described as an ethereal, fairy figure, much in the way that Ophelia is described and portrayed in many adaptations of Shakespeare's classic play. The Lady of Shalott has an isolated existence in her tower which is juxtaposed with the commonplace activity in the surrounding countryside, while Ophelia occupies an alternate reality within the confines of her own mind. Lastly, there is the fact that both women come to their ruin through the agency of men.


It is when the Lady first glimpses Lancelot that she truly realizes for the first time the limitations and loneliness imposed upon her by the curse that confines her to the tower, contemplating the activity of life through a mirror while weaving in her solitary prison. When the Lady looks towards Camelot and purposely brings the curse upon herself it is apparent that she chose to do so out of her hopeless love for Lancelot. Essentially, she knew she could not have him and chose to end her suffering rather than pine away for him in her lonely chamber. Ophelia does not choose her fate in as active a manner as the Lady, yet she most definitely descends into madness following Hamlet's contradictory treatment of her. Hamlet goes from longing for her intensely, to the point that he urges her to escape to a nunnery to guard her virtue from him. He becomes so wrapped up in the drama of his uncle and mother, as well as his philosophical musings, that he neglects her feelings. As a result, Ophelia retreats into the confines of her mind and begins to act erratically and childishly.


It is the combination of flowers, death, and water which is perhaps the most striking similarity between the fates of the Lady of Shalott and Ophelia. Ophelia, like the lady, dies in the water with her strands of "crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples" enclosing her in a last embrace. It is this very image of Ophelia that the Pre-Raphaelite painters chose to represent during the Victorian era, just as they chose to depict the Lady of Shalott and her tragic end.


Ophelia, by John Everett Millais (1851-1852) - Tate Britain


Elizabeth Siddal is known as the model posing in Millais's painting of Ophelia. But there is much more to learn about this story. Here we explore her life as an artist and poet, her influence on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the challenges she faced living within Victorian society. Video presentation available on the Tate Britain website.

Let's now conclude or today's post dedicated to The Lady of Shallot from the point of view of a worldwide famous musician and singer: the Canadian multi-instrumentalist Loreena McKennitt playing and singing 5 stanzas of Lord Tennyson's poem.

Riccardo Zambon, 25th February 2023



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