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The Lady of Shalott

The great Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) wrote two versions of his famous ballad “The Lady of Shalott,” a 20-stanza version in 1833, and a 19-stanza version in 1842. The Lady of ShalottBoth are quite similar, and retells an aspect of Arthurian legend, a theme explored by Tennyson in several other of his works, including “Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere,” and “Galahad,” from his early career, and “Idylls of the King,” one of his later, most famous works.

With “The Lady of Shalott,” Tennyson uses the legend of Elaine of Astolat, drawing upon a 13th century Italian novella. In the original Arthurian legend, Elaine dies because of her unrequited love for Lancelot. In the poem, The Lady of Shalott lives in an island castle on a river that flows to Camelot, suffering from some mysterious curse. Constantly, she must weave on her loom, but not look out on the world. One day, Sir Lancelot rides by and is seen by the lady. She leaves her castle, gets into a boat, but dies before reaching Camelot.

Several painters in the 19th century depicted scenes from Tennyson’s poem. John William Waterhouse painted three different pieces, all inspired by “The Lady of Shalott.” Additionally, many writers have alluded to the work, specifically using the line “I am sick of shadows.” Many literary critics see aspects of feminism in the work, as the Lady of Shalott breaks free from her emotional and physical bonds in order to find love on her own terms.

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