1 July 2021 Susannah

Alfred Lord Tennyson & The Lady of Shalott

Let me today introduce you to one of my very favorite poems. It’s by the great Alfred, Lord Tennyson who lived from 1809 to 1892, so he really saw most of the 19th century.

I have done something a bit different for my poem this month. I have always adored Tennyson’s poem and also really love the many fine paintings that have been created to illustrate it. So I have recited the poem for you, and the recording is illustrated with works by John William Waterhouse, Lizzie Siddal, John Atkinson Grimshaw, and others. The video is also fully captioned if you need this feature.

I also include the poem in text version below, just in case the video doesn’t work for you. But, please do listen to this most gorgeous work.

I hope you enjoy both hearing and seeing the poem in this format. If you do, please help my YouTube profile by subscribing and liking the poem. Thankyou!

The poem was published in 1731 and was roguishly subtitled “Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex”. With unflinching and remorseless honesty, Swift depicts for us an 18th century prostitute undressing before sleep.

The Lady of Shalott is based on the Arthurian story of Elaine of Astolat, sometimes known as The Lily Maid of Astolat. It’s a wonderful lyrical ballad. It’s got vivid medieval romanticism, it’s rich in symbolism, and it’s a fabulous poem to learn off by heart, because it just flows along so beautifully. Tennyson loved tinkering with his poems.

The Lady of Shalott has inspired many of us. It has inspired a great number of different artists, particularly the pre-Raphalite brotherhood painters such as John William Waterhouse, Lizzie Siddal, John Atkinson Grimshaw, William Moore Edgeley, Walter Crane, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. Those are just a few of the painters who have wanted to depict scenes from this wonderful poem. It’s also been set to music, sometimes very beautifully, and it’s frequently referred to by other authors.

I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing me recite that fabulous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate. Have you enjoyed watching this video? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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.

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.

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?

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.”

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there 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, went to 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 flamed 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 to 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 to Camelot.
As often thro’ the purple night,
Below the starry clusters bright,
Some bearded meteor, trailing light,
Moves over still 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 to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily 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;
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river’s dim expanse
Like some bold seër in a trance,
Seeing all his own mischance—
With a glassy countenance
Did she look to Camelot.
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away,
The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song,
The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
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 gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?
And in the lighted palace near
Died the sound of royal cheer;
And they cross’d 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.”

You can listen to a few different versions of the poem here:

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Featured image credit- The Lady of Shalott, By John William Waterhouse, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34325115
Body image credit- Jonathan Swift portrait by Charles Jervas, 1710, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6612316

Comments (12)

  1. Faye Shortal

    Susannah that was a beautiful reading of a favourite poem of mine and it was so interesting to have the juxtaposition of all of those related paintings throughout. I never realised that so many artists had created works inspired by the poem. Thank you so much.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am delighted you enjoyed it so much, Faye. Yes the paintings are lovely!

  2. Anneke

    Thanks so much Susannah!
    I really enjoyed that. You made me appreciate Tennyson – to my intense surprise – as I have always thought him rather too much of a good thing.
    I knew some of the paintings, but had no idea there were so many depicting the tragedy of Elaine despite my interest in Arthurian legend.
    The Waterhouse painting recently came to my mind when my daughter in Oxford sent me a picture of herself reclining in a punt on the Isis, dressed becomingly in a flowing gown. Thankfully, despite her taste for gowns reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites, my daughter has a great deal more in common with feisty Anne Shirley than with poor Elaine!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh, you’ve made my day, Anneke. I adore Tennyson and especially this poem, so am thrilled that I’ve made you appreciate it too.
      Loved the story of your daughter in a punt, and don’t you love the scene where Anne decides to be Elaine and then has to be rescued by Gilbert.

  3. Tania Burgmann

    A poem I remember from my school days which always took me into the romantic dream realm. Thanks for the support information which I haven’t gone into before though I do recall seeing some of the paintings.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      The Waterhouse painting came to Canberra recently as part of a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. It usually lives in the Tate and whenever I’m in London I go to see it.

  4. Therese

    Thank you Susannah for your emotive reading of the poem and the thoughtful selection of artworks. I felt quite immersed in the Lady’s story for the first time.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my reading adn the accompanying pictures. I’ve always loved the poem and just wanted to share it.

  5. A real treat to hear The Lady of Shalott and see all the marvellous artwork – thank you so much Susannah. It’s particularly timely as, years ago, I wrote the Shalott trilogy for teenagers inspired by the poem (are they replaying part of the legend – or creating it?) I’ve now updated and rewritten the novels for a new generation of readers, and the first book, Shalott: Into the Unknown, will be published later this week! Serendipity.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It is indeed Ssendipity! I will look out for your book.
      I am so glad you share my love of this wonderful poem.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so pleased you enjoyed it, Camilla. Some of the art works are gorgeous, aren’t they!

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