The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson is a popular ballad that illustrates the isolation of a woman in a tower far from what she wants to live and experience. She lives a life imprisoned by a curse she knows no consequence for and so hesitates to live her life the way she would have liked. If looked at closely we can see how her situation is like that of many individuals who struggle to step out of their comfort zones to experience life to its fullest. They lose out on seeing their dreams come to existence through the chances that they took without letting doubt and fear get in the way.
The Lady of Shalott Analysis
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;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.
The opening stanza of this poem is introducing the two most important places that are present in this narrative: Camelot, and Shalott. We, as readers are given a vivid image of the beautiful mainland of Camelot. The road to which, is full of natural beauty and the constant flow of people traveling in and out. Shalott, on the other hand, is mentioned almost as if in passing and is portrayed as just a place that is merely noticed by people on their journey to and fro Camelot.
Tennyson uses the opening stanza of his poem to really set the tone for the rest of the poem. We are introduced to two high contrasting places: Camelot and Shalott. Camelot can effortlessly represent the dream of any and every person: a world full of life and opportunities, even the roads to which look attractive and inviting. There are roads that lead to a life of opportunity for every person. Each individual has their own Camelot and every tower within symbolizes the desires and hopes that they would love to reach one day. Shalott, however, can just as easily represent the bubble that we as individuals create for ourselves. It is a place that people merely notice in passing. So the comfort zones and rules that we create for ourselves that no one else really pays attention to, are without much difficulty represented by Shalott in this poem.
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for 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.
This stanza shifts the imagery in the direction of winter; with snowy white willows, and aspen trees that “quiver” in the cold. It also mentions the “little breezes” that run through the waves of the river near the island of Shalott, which flows towards Camelot. The island is finally given some attention, as the introduction to the Lady of Shalott surfaces. The Lady of Shalott is described to be sheltered in a building or structure, which is described to have four grey walls and towers and is located on a lifeless island. This depiction is in obvious high contrast with the flowers and eye-catching view of Camelot that is surrounding her.
Here, we start to grasp the mood that Tennyson is creating for the story he’s about to tell. The winter represents the chilly nature of the events that will unfold in the rest of the poem as well as the bitter cold that awaits us outside our comfort zones. “Little breezes” of our hopes and dreams travel down to Camelot, to add to the world that we want to reach so desperately in our own ways.
In this stanza, the common man/woman is introduced through the character of the Lady of Shalott. Like the lady, we as humans often live our lives with caution and safety; so the depiction of four grey walls and towers fits well in representing a dull bubble that we have created for ourselves to stay alive and afloat in the world. Our dreams and desires for our futures, however, reside in the attractive world of Camelot.
By the margin, willow veil’d,
Slide the heavy barges trail’d
By slow horses; and unhail’d
The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d
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?
Stanza three begins by painting a picture of willows that cover the bank of the river; diverting our attention back to the busy scene outside the small castle-like building that the Lady of Shalott is encased in. This river and the road leading to Camelot are described to be busy with “heavy barges” (boats carrying goods), horses, and “shallop flitteth silken sail’d” (small boats flying down the river with their silk sails). The narrator here starts to throw around questions that force the reader to wonder more about who the lady of Shalott actually is.
This stanza takes the focus from our personal bubbles back to “Camelot”, where there is so much potential for everything we have ever wanted. It is definitely not grey and safe. Just the path leading to it is covered with trees of life and “heavy barges”, horses and other small boats, which could easily portray the ideas we have for our lives that are too risky to stay in Shalott. They are then slowly making their way across the rivers and roads to Camelot, where they will be housed. The questions asked at the end of this stanza highlight how trapped we are in the safe zones we have created for ourselves that the things and people outside of those zones seem like a farfetched idea instead of a reality, much like the lady of Shalott is to the people of and around Camelot.
Only reapers, reaping early
In among the bearded barley,
Hear a song that echoes cheerly
From the river winding clearly,
Down to tower’d Camelot:
And by the moon the reaper weary,
Piling sheaves in uplands airy,
Listening, whispers ” ‘Tis the fairy
Lady of Shalott.”
This stanza begins by answering the questions stanza three concluded with. The only people who saw her wave her hands, stand by her window, or just acknowledge her existence was the “reapers” who were harvesting barley in the early hours. These men would hear the echoes of her singing being carried out from Shalott, and recognize her as “the fairy Lady of Shalott.” The last four lines of this stanza illustrate, that not only could they continue to hear her in the late hours of their harvesting, but also that she’s a “fairy” given that she is such a mysterious being to all of those who are outside her small castle-like home.
This stanza concludes the first part of the poem. Here Tennyson mentions reapers who are harvesting barley, and they are the only ones who know of the lady’s existence because they hear the echoes of her singing day and night. Because they don’t know much about her and she is a mystery to most, they consider her a fairy. If we look at the lady of Shalott as ourselves we can see that we are mere ideas to people whom we haven’t stepped out of our comfort zones to meet and because of that, our aspirations for life are mere echoes that reach people. We are fearless when it comes to creating our “Camelot”, but so very fearful when it comes to taking risks to achieve those goals.
That is why our words will not impact those around us, and our voices will stay as hollow as echoes no matter if we sing about our plans day and night. If we want to be acknowledged we have to take the risk of stepping out of what is normal for us.