Friday, 17 May 2013

A Close Reading of "The Lady of Shalott"

 What is This?

The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote two versions of a poem on the Lady of Shalott, dated ten years apart (1832 and 1842). You can compare the two at Ed Friedlander's site, but it is the 1842 version that is the most famous. Consequently, it is the version that a student I was tutoring had to study. I wrote up notes on the poem as an example of how to understand a text through close reading. The notes spent some time on my first web site, long deceased now, so it is time to put it up again.

It would be wonderful to hear Tennyson himself reading the poem, but the closest we can come to that experience is to watch this short film. (Its Facebook Page is here).

The poem has been turned into music by several people including Loreena McKennitt and adapted into original lyrics by Emilie Autumn.

There is a surprising number of paintings to illustrate the poem. Many are in this video version of McKennitt's song. I'll include some wherever they seem appropriate.


When you try to understand a piece of writing you can use three methods, usually together:
  1. research secondary sources or, in other words, read what others say about the work;
  2. read for pleasure to see what emotional effects the work has on you;
  3. and do close reading of the work itself to see how it creates those effects.
Do not do these in any particular order. In fact, ideally, you will mix all three methods.

Close reading, the way I do it, means that you read the work with a pen in your hand and writing paper beside you. You read a line, stanza, or paragraph, and then you think about it. You write down your questions and observations. You read on.

Close reading is very different from reading for pleasure. Your mind should be active, probing, wondering. You do not suspend disbelief. Instead, you examine the words, sentences, symbols, characters, and plot, as well as anything else that interests you. And you remember that to analyze something means to pull it into pieces. Strangely, good writing not only survives this treatment, but your respect for it and your pleasure in it increases afterwards.

To show you how close reading works, I have reproduced Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott" below, together with my thoughts about each section of it, just as they occurred to me. If I were writing an essay on the poem, these would be my rough notes.

You could read straight through this article, but you would get more from it by pausing after every section of the poem to think about it and write down your own thoughts about it. Remember that your thoughts are not "wrong" and mine are not "right." My thoughts are just to show some of the kinds of questions you can ask about a work.

Close Reading

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.

"Long fields of barley and of rye..."

Most of this stanza describes the countryside and the local people. Only two lines are indented. The first question to ask, then, is if these lines describe things that are different from the rest. The first indented line certainly does: Camelot is different because it is a city, the seat of government, and filled with heroes and at least one wizard. The other indented line is about the island of Shalott. The indentation hints that it is equally set apart from ordinary life, but we don't yet know why.

Camelot is described as "many-tower'd," which (if my memory serves) is how Homer described Troy. A hint about its future death when King Arthur dies?

Shalott is surrounded by lilies. The word could apply to a land flower, a symbol of innocence, death, and rebirth. (Thus, there are lilies at weddings, "the Madonna Lily" representing Mary, lilies at funerals, and "the Easter Lily" representing Christ's resurrection). Later in the poem we see that both innocence and death are appropriate for the Lady on the island because she experiences a type of death in life.

It could, more likely, be the water lily, related to the lotus flower. In fact, a later line is "She saw the water-lily bloom...." This flower symbolizes the feminine, sexual purity, and detachment from the world. Again, the symbol is appropriate for the lady.
Water Lily
But both sides of the river are clothed with the makings of bread ("the staff of life") and beer. People there "gaze" at Shalott, which you would think is non-intrusive, but foreshadows the lethal gaze later in the 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.
Once again, Camelot is set apart by indentation. This time, however, it is the lady, not the island, who is equally set apart. Also, this time, a single, four-walled structure is mentioned, with a "tower" in each corner--contrast this with "many-tower'd" Camelot. The single building is simple in design and surrounded by flowers. Notice, no mention of people, or even animals: it is all inanimate or plant on the "silent" island.

If you look at it in terms of the four elements that the Greeks believed in, we have air in the first and second lines, water in the second and following, then earth. No "fire" (the symbol of life). The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biederman says that fire is "the apparently living element, which consumes, warms, and illuminates, but can also bring pain and death." (pg. 129). Intuition: let's keep an eye out for fire imagery later on.

There is a low barrier of water (the river) surrounding the island on all sides. There is a high barrier of earth (the tower) with four walls, symbolizing the four directions. The completeness of the isolation is emphasized in this verse, although the one hole in the defences, the window, is mentioned later.

What is the symbolism of the willow tree? It is feminine, not masculine. According to The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism (pg. 91), the Weeping Willow was a popular symbol of death during the Romantic period. On pg. 381 it says:
In the ancient Mediterranean world it was generally believed that the seeds of this tree [willow] were dispersed before they matured, and that the willow therefore did not reproduce 'sexually.' This belief made it an image of chastity and an ideal first ingredient for preparations to promote sexual continence.
In China, for whatever it is worth, the willow represents female eroticism. Hmm.

The Weeping Willow is a cross between a Chinese willow and the White Willow of Europe. The White Willow looks like this.
The White Willow

The words "whiten" "shiver" and "quiver" make the island sound like a nervous maiden on her wedding night. "White" is a symbol of virginity (bridal gown) and I think, here, of death. (Again, like in the orient. Probably not a significant correlation, though).
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?
OK, now let's see how successful water and earth have been in protecting this woman. "By the margin, willow veil'd" slide heavy work boats. Note the magic, virginity-protecting tree species again, keeping her unseen. And the shallop (a small, open boat using sails or oars, designed for shallow waters) skims right by without being hailed. So the senses of sight and sound cannot pierce the island's secret. This is made explicit in the second half of the verse. The question is asked, who has seen her standing and waving at the window? The answer is "no-one," because her curse keeps her away from the window. The question implies, I think, that she WANTS to be seen and spoken to, but it helpless to accomplish this.

She is not seen, and she is not widely known, but some few people know of her...
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.'
Locals don't know her, but know of her, and think that there's something "otherworldly" and magical about her.

In contrast to the the willow trees on the island, the plants on either bank are male ("bearded") and support life, as bread.
"Bearded Barley"
Barley was also important for the ancient religious mysteries at Eleusis because it sometimes has hallucinogenic fungi growing on it like "beards," but I don't want to take the religious symbolism too far! You can take that tack, if you want.
Ergot: The Hallucinogenic Fungus on Barley

Part I has set the scene. And notice how lifeless it is: we know nothing about any individual yet. Part I is like a landscape painting: There's a tower on an island of lilies and willows in the middle of a river which has agriculture on either side and boats going by...

Part II

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.
"The Lady of Shalott" by Sidney Meteyard

What is the symbolism of weaving? First of all, it is the essence of female work, and has been for a long time. (Have a look at the book Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber). Whenever you see cloth, even in the most masculine associations, it represents the presence of women.

More importantly, it is a symbol of fate. The three fates span, measured, and cut people's lives to weave them into the cloth of past time. This weaving is mentioned as a "magic" web. And web, of course, has associations with both spiders and possibly shrouds.
"Les Parques" (The Fates) by Alfred Agache
She has a premonition that some "bad thing" will happen if she looks at Camelot, the other pole of this circumscribed universe, but has no idea what it is.

Camelot is a city, and she's alone. Camelot is "many tower'd" and diverse, she is cloistered and simple. I'd have to say that Camelot is the male side of life and she, the female. Yang and yin, if you prefer the Chinese terms.

Isn't it interesting that virginity and death are sharing symbols, but also sex and death are combined? Robertson Davies' novel The Cunning Man discusses paintings of young women and skeletons standing together, called "Death and the Maiden". (Here's a good example).
"Death and the Maiden" by P.J. Lynch

Apparently, this was a popular theme. Andrew Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress" also associates virginity and death in the lines "then worms will try/That long preserved virginity."
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.
The way that I think of "mirror" images, especially when paired with the phrase "shadows of the world" is similar to Plato's "Myth of the Cave."
In Plato's story, we are in an enclosed space, a cave. There is a source of light, a fire, and there are real objects between the fire and our backs. However, we cannot turn to see the real objects; we can only infer their existence and nature from their shadows, cast upon the cave wall in front of us.
If we apply this idea to the poem, what does that say about the lady? That she sees not the highway, but an image of the highway from which she infers that a highway must exist, and a destination for said highway. Thus, she can make a pretty good guess that there's a "real" destination for the highway, Camelot, of which she knows nothing directly.
Mirrors have associations with femininity (look at the biological symbol for females, ♀, which is a hand mirror). On the other hand, the Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism (pp. 222-223) mentions several other associations:
  1. mirrors allow the life force to be held in a room, which is why mirrors in a room must be covered when someone dies in it;
  2. mirrors are also amulets, offering protection against evil forces.
  3. Mirrors are instruments of augury (thus, seeing your fate) and analogues to the eyes,
  4. but mirrors can also capture and hold your soul (like Narcissus. His reflecting pond is a mirror).
  5. Seeing yourself in a mirror is like stepping outside of your body to look at it, so Jungians link it to death.
  6. Others think of it as a route to self-knowledge.

A very ambiguous symbol! So the way to interpret it is not in one way or the other, but in all ways. It represents safety, and confinement, knowledge of the world, but partial knowledge only, a partial wisdom, and a means to her death, all simultaneously with reinforcing the entirely feminine nature of her little room.
By the way, although I don't go much for this kind of analysis, draw a little map of an island (convex sides and pointed ends) in a river. Draw crops over both banks of the river. You have just drawn a pretty acceptable image of the female genitals surrounded by pubic hair. (The "secret garden" surrounded by walls is a common symbol of this. Tennyson's "island" is just a more anatomically correct version). This is an example of imagery that is so heavy-handed that you either have to love it, the way that you can enjoy a really bad movie, or hate it. Almost certainly, it was not intended.
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.
Hey, there are NO heterosexual couples that show up in her mirror! A group of female virgins, OR a young boy (rich and poor versions mentioned) OR a group of men. She realizes that there is some connection that she's not making ... "She hath no loyal knight and true..." but I doubt that she knows what is involved.
The mirror is blue. (Is that water or air's colour? Both, probably). The young man in red is the first mention of the colour of fire/sexual desire. Just a hint of it, though. He's not old enough to affect her much.
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.
"I Am Half Sick of Shadows..." by John William Waterhouse
Ah, now she sees couples and says the first thing that we hear directly from her in this whole poem: "I am half sick of shadows"! Pretty unambiguous, although plumes, representing flight (birds) and freedom are an interesting touch. The mirror, it is repeated, is a "magic" one. The moonlight often represents madness--look up the word "lunatic".

So, part I painted the scene. Part II introduced what the lady is waiting for. Part III will bring it onstage...

Part III

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 Lady of Shalott" by Gley

OK, I knew that red would show up here. Blazing masculinity steps up. And it is available to women, too, since it (in the person of Lancelot) has been known to "kneel to a lady." However, although the Lady of Shalott has excellent taste in men (choosing to be impressed by the best knight in the world), anyone who knows the King Arthur stories knows that this isn't going to turn out well. Lancelot is big-time in love with another: Queen Guinevere.

Notice that, rather than "Camelot" being set apart in the verse, the representation of the masculine pole has focussed narrowly on a single human being: "Of bold Sir Lancelot."

In Europe, there used to be a harvest ceremony where a sheaf would be dressed up in women's clothing and treated as the personification of the harvest, a "corn dolly." A female goddess of the earth's fertility. Notice that Lancelot doesn't bump into any sheaves, but rides between them.... His lack of availability to any woman except Guenevere is reinforced in that line.
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.
I wonder if there's a pun between "bridle bells" and "bridal bells"? And though "blazon'd" has a special meaning of decorated with a heraldic design, it is close enough to "blaze" (fire, again) to be meant to suggest that, too.

Anyway, like the previous verse, all the words and images associated with Lancelot are martial, male, or metallic. Summary: he's a man's man, and a real hunk.
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.
Fire and phallic symbols on his head! The meteor image represents impending and foretold doom. It is a "dis-aster" (a bad star). There's something in Shakespeare's JULIUS CAESAR about there being no comets when poor people die, but "the skies themselves cry out the deaths of princes."
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.
OK, so we get only the second oh-so-profound statement by a character in this poem. The lady is definitely ripe for a change from her routine: it just takes a "tirra lirra" from the right guy to make her go crazy for him. Watch!
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.
"The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot" by John Waterhouse

She is no longer really innocent, having looked upon Lancelot with desire. After that, she is no longer suited for her former, confined, and maiden life. Her life will change, in one way or another! Part IV tells how...

Part IV

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;
Air and water (the boundaries) are violently disturbed.
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
       The Lady of Shalott.
"The Lady of Shalott" by John Waterhouse

Um, she's riding in something that looks vaginal. It was found beneath the female-and-death symbolic tree.
And down the river's dim expanse--
Like some bold seer 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.
Comparing the Lady to a bold seer is an ironic pun. It is a pun because "seer" has two meanings. One is a person who "sees" something, as the Lady has just seen Camelot for the first time. The more common meaning is someone who foretells the future. All that she "sees" of her future, however, is her own death. The irony is that the Lady spent much of her life seeing only reflections in a mirror, rather than the things themselves, so she was not much of a "seer" at all.

"Did she look to Camelot means "She did look to Camelot." Now that the curse is on her she is, in a way, free. She can look anywhere and choose to go anywhere.
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.
Is the white dress a bridal dress or shroud or both? Air and water surround her again, but light is fading, and there are those willows again. It is as though they are trying to maintain her former state by killing her. SOMETHING is killing her, anyway, rather than let her join life, which it is her wish to do.
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.

How useless and weak this exemplar of sheltered femininity is! She can't even survive a simple excursion to the city, where coarser types like us can go every day. She's like one of those laboratory rats who have never been exposed to any disease organisms, and who therefore have no immune defences. Take them into the world, and they die.

There's a hymn for the dead being sung for, and by, this dying woman. Even in this, her loneliness is intact.
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.
"The Lady of Shalott" by Arthur Hughes

Pretty self-explanatory. She is finally being joined by other people. She simply cannot do that and live.
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.'
"Elegy for Darkness--The Lady of Shalott," by Donato Giancola

Just like a man! A pretty useless comment from Lancelot, though I am sure it was well meant. He has no idea that he is the cause of her death. On the other hand, it does emphasize that he is a noble and worthy man. It also poses a question: by liberating her from her limited life, has God already granted her grace? Is her short voyage downstream to a destination of her choice the high point of her life?

Why was everyone afraid? Although knights know all about death, there's something strange about the circumstances of this one. They sense a mystery. Is it the mystery of her fate? Is it the strangely intimate relationship between Death and the Maiden? (Either the presence of death in the midst of life, or a suspicion that death and womanhood share a common nature: passive and dangerous to right-thinking males, but unavoidable). To put it another way, is it simply that the female must be forever a mystery to the male? (You will find that thought in Freudian and Jungian analysis, and a lot of religions).

You Can Do It

A student might say "How can I analyze a poem or story like this? I don't know what things symbolize." There are a couple of answers to that. First, a book of symbolism, like The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann, translated by James Hulbert, is a cheap investment. Second, if you read literary criticism, you will pick up on what symbols literary critics talk about. You will eventually know all you need.

It will also help you if you feel free to be free-ranging and even disrespectful about the work you are reading, just as I was. (You may have suspected that I am not a big fan of this poem because it lays on symbolism with a very full trowel). The tone can be corrected to a more impartial one in your essay. The notes, however, are for your eyes and your convenience; they can be as irreverent as you like, as long as they are accurate, detailed, and many. The process of close reading is similar to brainstorming in that your goal is to put down as many questions and insights as you can, not just a few "good" ones.

My last advice is to use whatever associations you have with events and objects in the poem. My comments are based on my knowledge; yours will be based on yours.

The humorous book 1066 and All That has a question in one of its "Chapter Tests" that was something like "Discuss X with special reference to anything you happen to know." That is less of a joke than it seems. In fact, it's all that we ever do.


My purpose is to teach the skill of close reading, not to provide information on a particular poem. There are two exercises that can strengthen the skill:
  1. Choose another poem of about the same length as "The Lady of Shalott" and do your own close reading of it.
  2. Select one topic out of all the ones in your close reading and write an essay on that topic. For example, I could write an essay on the symbolism of the four Greek elements in the poem, or the balancing of male and female symbols, or the plant symbols in "The Lady of Shalott." Writing about all of them would be too much for an essay.

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