"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.


Tennyson wrote two versions of the poem, one published in 1833, of twenty stanzas, the other in 1842 of nineteen stanzas. It was loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, as recounted in a thirteenth-century Italian novella titled Donna di Scalotta (No. lxxxii in the collection Cento Novelle Antiche), with the earlier version being closer to the source material than the later. Tennyson focused on the Lady's "isolation in the tower and her decision to participate in the living world, two subjects not even mentioned in Donna di Scalotta."


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."


According to scholar Anne Zanzucchi, "[i]n a more general sense, it is fair to say that the pre-Raphaelite fascination with Arthuriana is traceable to Tennyson's work". Tennyson's biographer Leonée Ormonde finds the Arthurian material is "Introduced as a valid setting for the study of the artist and the dangers of personal isolation".

Modern critics consider "The Lady of Shalott" to be representative of the dilemma that faces artists, writers, and musicians: to create work about and celebrate the world, or to enjoy the world by simply living in it. Feminist critics see the poem as concerned with issues of women's sexuality and their place in the Victorian world. The fact that the poem works through such complex and polyvalent symbolism indicates an important difference between Tennyson's work and his Arthurian source material. While Tennyson's sources tended to work through allegory, Tennyson himself did not.

Critics such as Hatfield have suggested that The Lady of Shalott is a representation of how Tennyson viewed society; the distance at which other people are in the lady's eyes is symbolic of the distance he feels from society. The fact that she only sees them through a window pane is significant of the way in which Shalott and Tennyson see the world—in a filtered sense. This distance is therefore linked to the artistic licence Tennyson often wrote about.

Illustrations of the poemEdit

The poem was particularly popular amongst artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, who shared Tennyson's interest in Arthuriana; several of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood made paintings based on episodes from the poem.

The 1857 Moxon's edition of Tennyson's works was illustrated by William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Hunt depicted the moment when the Lady turns to see Lancelot. Rossetti depicted Lancelot's contemplation of her 'lovely face'. Neither illustration pleased Tennyson, who took Hunt to task for depicting the Lady caught in the threads of her tapestry, something which is not described in the poem. Hunt explained that he wanted to sum up the whole poem in a single image, and that the entrapment by the threads suggested her "weird fate". The scene fascinated Hunt, who returned to the composition at points throughout his life, finally painting a large scale version shortly before his death. He required assistants, as he was too frail to complete it himself. This deeply conceived evocation of the Lady, ensnared within the perfect rounds of her woven reality, is an apt illustration of the mythology of the weaving arts. This work is now in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.

John William Waterhouse painted three episodes from the poem. In 1888, he painted the Lady setting out for Camelot in her boat; this work is now in the Tate Gallery. In 1894, Waterhouse painted the Lady at the climactic moment when she turns to look at Lancelot in the window; this work is now in the City Art Gallery in Leeds. In 1915, Waterhouse painted "I Am Half-Sick of Shadows," Said the Lady of Shalott, as she sits wistfully before her loom; this work is now in the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Because of the similarity in the stories, paintings of Elaine of Astolat tend to be very similar to paintings of the Lady of Shalott. The presence of a servant rowing the boat is one aspect that distinguishes them.

References in literatureEdit

  • The poem is alluded to in Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, when Sibyl Vane says, "I have grown sick of shadows."
  • Miss Jean Brodie, in Muriel Spark's 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, reads the poem out loud to her class.
  • 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.
  • The Lady of Shalott is referenced several times in Bel Kaufman's 1965 novel Up the Down Staircase.
  • Jessica Anderson uses the line "'Tirra lirra,' by the river" to title her 1978 novel Tirra Lirra by the River.
  • Robin Klein uses the line "All in the blue unclouded weather" to title her 1991 short story collection All in the Blue Unclouded Weather.
  • In Diana Wynne Jones' 1993 novel Hexwood, one of the main characters, Ann Stavely, compares herself to the Lady of Shalott in that she uses a mirror to look outside her window.
  • Patricia A. McKillip uses an adaption of the poem as a primary theme of her 2000 novel The Tower at Stony Wood.
  • The poem is discussed and quoted in Libba Bray's 2003 novel A Great and Terrible Beauty.
  • A stanza is located at the beginning of each chapter in Meg Cabot's 2005 novel Avalon High.
  • The poem is referenced in Jilly Cooper's 2006 novel Wicked! where the phrase The curse is upon me is given a humorous re-interpretation in an English Literature class scene.
  • Lisa Ann Sandell's 2007 novel Song of the Sparrow is a retelling of her story.
  • In Jasper Fforde's 2011 novel One of our Thursdays Is Missing, the Lady of Shalott possesses a mirror that allows characters in the Book World to see into the real world ("the Outland").
  • Alan C. Bradley uses the line "I am half-sick of shadows" to title his book I Am Half-Sick of Shadows.

References in musicEdit

  • The first was probably a setting for chorus and orchestra by the English composer Cyril Rootham, composed in 1909-10. The only known performance of this work was given in the School Hall at Eton College on 18 September 1999, with the Broadheath Singers and the Windsor Sinfonia conducted by Robert Tucker.
  • Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt adapted the poem to music, and featured it on her 1991 album, The Visit.
  • The song titled "Shalott" by Emilie Autumn tells the poem from her own perspective, where she quotes the Lady of Shalott as saying "But then, I could have guessed it all along, 'cause now some drama queen is gonna write a song for me." She uses imagery from the poem, and quotes it directly: "I'm half sick of shadows".
  • The ballad is also referenced in the song "If I Die Young" by American country band The Band Perry, in the video Kimberley Perry is shown mimicking the Lady of Shallot and holding a book of Tennyson poetry. The video ends showing the book opened up to "The Lady of Shalott".
  • Popular folk duo the Indigo Girls reference the Lady of Shalott in the song "Left Me a Fool". Lamenting the lack of depth and substance she finds when getting to know a beautiful lover, the singer sings "you remind me of Shalott, only made of shadows, even though you're not."
  • Dutch gothic metal band Autumn also reference the Lady of Shalott in the song "Who Has Seen Her Wave Her Hand" from their 2002 album When Lust Evokes the Curse.
  • French composer Olivier Messiaen wrote a piece for solo piano La dame de Shalotte in 1917 based on Tennyson's poem.
  • Composer Jon Parr Vijinski wrote a symphonic tone poem entitled "The Lady of Shalott" (2001). His use of thematic material, complex harmonies, and rich orchestral colour seek to link the story to its mediaeval source, and the spirit of chivalry - such as de Troyes, von Eschenbach and Malory.

References in music videosEdit

  • The country music video, If I Die Young, by The Band Perry has clear visual references to the Lady of Shalott. Lead vocalist Kimberly Perry holds a book of poems by Tennyson as she lies in a boat, floating down a river like the Lady of Shalott. As her recumbent form within the boat drifts downstream, Perry sings:

Sink me in the river, at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song

The boat in the Perry video is similar to some illustrations, such as the image by W. E. F. Britten. The very last scene of the video shows a close-up of two pages of the poem.

References in televisionEdit

  • In the television adaptation of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley reads various stanzas of the poem and acts out the Lady of Shalott's tragic end as she floats down the river; lines from Tennyson's "Lancelot and Elaine" are also referenced. In the book, the poem enacted is consistently "Lancelot and Elaine".
  • In the ITV series Lewis (Inspector Lewis in the US), episode titled "Old, Unhappy, Far Off Things", DS Hathaway quotes the line "Out flew the web and floated wide".
  • Read aloud in an episode of Upstairs, Downstairs titled, "The Understudy." (1975)
  • This poem forms the backbone of voice-over for the recent episode 'Tracie's Story' from BBC1 Drama 'Accused' starring Sean Bean as a transsexual in a highly destructive relationship with a married man.
  • This poem is mentioned in one episode of 'Agatha Christie's Marple', called 'The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side' . Actually the name of the episode is from this Ballad. Referring to the 'Stare' on the face of the hostess of the party where the murder takes place.