Lesson #163: Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallott’

🖋️ How much have I looked forward to sharing today’s poem with you – Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallott’ (1842 version). As a teenager, I used to listen to a recording of it (if I remember well, narrated by Anton Lesser) and I loved its dramatic expression. I memorised it and recite it aloud to the waves on the shore whenever I was alone, enjoying its mesmerising rhythm and medieval imagery.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was Poet Laureate in Britain for much of Queen Victoria’s reign. He wrote many poems on medieval subjects, including King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Perhaps at some point I will share some lines from his collection of 12 narrative poems called Idylls of the King (1859 – ‘idylls’ means a poem of rural – based in the country – or pastoral character). 

As for ‘The Lady of Shallott’, this lyric ballad is loosely based on an Italian tale, La Donna di Scalotta (13th century). It follows the story of Elaine of Astolat, a young noblewoman who is imprisoned on an island and dies with unrequited love for Sir Lancelot, one of King Arthur’s knights. Alfred, Lord Tennyson interwove many different elements into the particular version we find in his poem, and he wrote two versions of it, the first in 1832 followed by a revised version in 1842 (which better suited Victorian morals than the first).

The version I have quoted in this lesson’s feature image is from the second revised version, being the one I also am most familiar with. As it is a long poem of 19 stanzas (it may take about 15 minutes to read through it), I have not quoted it entirely here but you can find it on websites such as the Poetry Foundation here

I hope that, after reading a few lines with me here, you will be curious enough to try reading the rest for yourself!


Part I

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.

Some observations:

* The first line might appear a little confusing at first, because we normally would write it as ‘on either side of the river lie …’. However, Tennyson’s probably wanted to avoid using three ‘of’s in his first two lines. So the phrasing of this first line is a poetic one and (although a bit unusual) correct.

* barley and rye: These are some of the grains that are used to make flour, to bake bread with. Tennyson is describing a pastoral (country) scene here.

* wold: This English word (not used in US English) describes a high plain or flat stretch of land that hasn’t been farmed or cultivated in any way. 

* ‘thro: This is a shortened version of ‘through’, again for poetic purposes – Tennyson wants to make sure that we pronounce it as short as possible here, so as not to disrupt the rhythm of the line’s syllables.

* Camelot: This was a castle and court that was supposed to belong to the heroic King Arthur in an early medieval period, and which became an important place in the legends surrounding him.* lilies: A type of white flower that symbolises purity and innocence. The lilies here are growing on the edge of an island where the Lady of Shalott lives, symbolic of her own purity and innocence.

Stanza 2

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.

* willows: A type of tree or bush that has very thin, supple (able to bend easily) stalks, which are sometimes used for making baskets.

* aspens: Another kind of tree with thin white branches and golden leaves in autumn that seem to ‘shiver’ whenever there is a breeze (its Latin name is ‘populus tremula’ for good reason). You can find YouTube videos that illustrate this – they are beautiful, in my opinion!

* dusk: to become dark, to become like dusk (twilight)

* imbowers: This is a verb which Tennyson probably coined (invented) to mean ‘enclose in a bower (a nice shaded spot under trees)’. Remember: the prefixes ‘im’, ‘in’, ’em’, or ‘en’ all refer to putting something into another thing.

Stanza 3

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?

* willow veil’d: veiled by willos* barges: long, flat boats on rivers, usually used for transporting goods

* trail’d: trailed (Tennyson omits the ‘e’ because he wants us to be sure to pronound the word here as one syllable)

* unhail’d: unhailed, not greeted or paid attention to by anyone

* shallop: a light sailing boat

* flitteth: archaic (old-fashioned) form of verb ‘to flit’, meaning to move quickly from one place to another in a fluttering sort of way

* silken-sail’d: having sails made of silk or looking like silk

* skimming: from the verb ‘to skim’, meaning to move smoothly and quickly over the surface of something

* hath: archaic form of ‘has’

* casement: a vertically-opening window

Stanza 4

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.’

* reapers: workers who are reaping (gathering harvest)* bearded barley: the barley looks like it has a beard

* tower’d: having towers

* piling: putting the sheaves in a pile

* sheaves: (singular, ‘sheaf’) a bundle of wheat that has been harvested, often tied to keep all the wheat stalks together

* uplands: lands that are elevated or hilly, highlands

Those are the first four stanzas of the poem, and as you can see, it is not difficult to understand and enjoy!

👉 If you can, why not find a video on YouTube of someone narrating the poem with its text? It may help you to hear the pronunciation of uncommon words, and you may better appreciate its wave-like rhythms when you hear them, quietly reminding you of the river that has such a central place in the story.

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)