"The Lady of Shalott" is a Victorian ballad by the English poet Alfred, Lord 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.
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-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.
The remaining seven 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 crack'd 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."
References in literature
- 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.
- The poem is also quoted by the character Vanda Chevenix-Gore in the novella Dead Man's Mirror.