The Lady of Shalott is a ballad written by Alfred Tennyson in the first half of the 19th century (also see relevant the Wikipedia page). The narrative portrays the life of Elaine of Ascolat, a figure featured in Arthurian legend, and inspired by the 13th century Italian novellaLa Damigella di Scalot.
The Lady of Shalott tells the tale of a woman locked inside an island castle in a river that flows through to Camelot. She’s cursed to never look outside directly, always through a mirror, always aweaving, lest the curse befalls her.
Then one day, the inevitable happens: she looks outside and sees Sir Lancelot passing by. This vision, this prospect, lightens a yearning in her to go outside. So she breaks outside of her tower and takes a boat to Camelot. Unfortunately the curse has struck and whilst in transit, the Lady dies.
You can find the full text of the version of 1842 here below.
Throughout the years, Tennyson’s ballad has been interpreted by a lot of people covering a lot of points of view. From casting the poem as Tennyson’s view on society, to interpreting the Lady’s departure as female emancipation.
My interpretation goes a step further. I’ve been listening to Loreena McKennit’s musical interpretation of this ballad for years and years. Of all of her songs, this is the song I turned to when I sought comfort, tenderness and grace.
It’s not until I actually looked up the history and story behind this ballad, that it clicked.
For years, the Lady of Shalott represented the woman I felt inside. Like Tennyson’s Elaine, I was stuck inside my tower. I looked outside, I interpreted, I weaved my tales, I interpreted through the mirror’s reflection, but never actually stepped foot outside my castle walls.
Until I skipped the mirror, looked for myself and knew I had no other choice but to choose freedom.
In my interpretation, of course, the curse does not befall the Lady and she does make it to Camelot, she remains alive.
I am quite certain this is not what Alfred Tennyson intended to tell, I’m equally certain that an entire host of literary critics would reposit my interpretation. Yet that is the beauty of poetry, of life: there is no wrong way, there is no right way, you can only ever go your own way.
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; The yellow-leaved waterlily The green-sheathed daffodilly Tremble in the water chilly Round about Shalott. Willows whiten, aspens shiver. The sunbeam showers break and quiver In the stream that runneth ever By the island in the river Flowing down to Camelot. Four gray walls, and four gray towers Overlook a space of flowers, And the silent isle imbowers The Lady of Shalott. Underneath the bearded barley, The reaper, reaping late and early, Hears her ever chanting cheerly, Like an angel, singing clearly, O'er the stream of Camelot. Piling the sheaves in furrows airy, Beneath the moon, the reaper weary Listening whispers, ' 'Tis the fairy, Lady of Shalott.' The little isle is all inrail'd With a rose-fence, and overtrail'd With roses: by the marge unhail'd The shallop flitteth silken sail'd, Skimming down to Camelot. A pearl garland winds her head: She leaneth on a velvet bed, Full royally apparelled, The Lady of Shalott.
No time hath she to sport and play: A charmed web she weaves alway. A curse is on her, if she stay Her weaving, either night or day, To look down to Camelot. She knows not what the curse may be; Therefore she weaveth steadily, Therefore no other care hath she, The Lady of Shalott. She lives with little joy or fear. Over the water, running near, The sheepbell tinkles in her ear. Before her hangs a mirror clear, Reflecting tower'd Camelot. And as the mazy web she whirls, She sees 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-hair'd page in crimson clad, Goes by to tower'd Camelot: And sometimes thro' 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 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.
A bow-shot from her bower-eaves, He rode between the barley-sheaves, The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves, And flam'd 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, 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 As he rode down from Camelot: And from his blazon'd baldric slung A mighty silver bugle hung, And as he rode his armour rung, Beside remote Shalott. 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 from Camelot. As often thro' the purple night, Below the starry clusters bright, Some bearded meteor, trailing light, Moves over green Shalott. His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd; 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 from Camelot. From the bank and from the river He flash'd into the crystal mirror, 'Tirra lirra, tirra lirra:' Sang Sir Lancelot. She left the web, she left the loom She made three paces thro' the room She saw the water-flower 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; 'The curse is come upon me,' cried The Lady of Shalott.
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 tower'd Camelot; Outside the isle a shallow boat Beneath a willow lay afloat, Below the carven stern she wrote, The Lady of Shalott. A cloudwhite crown of pearl she dight, All raimented in snowy white That loosely flew (her zone in sight Clasp'd with one blinding diamond bright) Her wide eyes fix'd on Camelot, Though the squally east-wind keenly Blew, with folded arms serenely By the water stood the queenly Lady of Shalott. With a steady stony glance— Like some bold seer in a trance, Beholding all his own mischance, Mute, with a glassy countenance— She look'd down to Camelot. It was the closing of the day: She loos'd the chain, and down she lay; The broad stream bore her far away, The Lady of Shalott. As when to sailors while they roam, By creeks and outfalls far from home, Rising and dropping with the foam, From dying swans wild warblings come, Blown shoreward; so to Camelot Still as the boathead wound along The willowy hills and fields among, They heard her chanting her deathsong, The Lady of Shalott. A longdrawn carol, mournful, holy, She chanted loudly, chanted lowly, Till her eyes were darken'd wholly, And her smooth face sharpen'd slowly, Turn'd to tower'd Camelot: For ere she reach'd 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 pale, pale corpse she floated by, Deadcold, between the houses high, Dead into tower'd Camelot. Knight and burgher, lord and dame, To the planked wharfage came: Below the stern they read her name, The Lady of Shalott. They cross'd themselves, their stars they blest, Knight, minstrel, abbot, squire, and guest. There lay a parchment on her breast, That puzzled more than all the rest, The wellfed wits at Camelot. 'The web was woven curiously, The charm is broken utterly, Draw near and fear not,—this is I, The Lady of Shalott.'