The Lady of Shalott Literary Devices

“The Lady of Shalott” is a Victorian elegy that is considered one of the most significant poetic works of the English author Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The poem was written in 1833, however it was rearranged in the year 1842. The poem tells the story of a strange woman who lives in the tower, located in the Shalott Island, up the stream of Camelot.

Tennyson has not only interpreted the poem from psychological perspective, but has also used rhetorical appeals to increase the poem’s thematic interest and beauty.

Short Summary of The Lady of Shalott

The poem begins by setting the scene: named the island of Shalott, in which the Lady is locked up in a tower.

She spends all her days weaving a magic web and can’t even look outside the window because a curse won’t let her directly look through the window.

The Lady is happy all by herself until one day she spies Sir Lancelot on horseback, reflected in her mirror.

Sir Lancelot is extremely a handsome man and there looks so lively outside, so when she pauses, turns around and sees him directly, the curse is triggered.

She leaves the tower, finds a boat, writes her name on it and departs for Camelot, however she dies before arriving.

The poem ends with the knights and the ladies of Camelot, including Lancelot, finding her dead and grieving that she had such an untimely death.

Literary Devices in The Lady of Shalott

1- Imagery

And moving through 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 first two lines of the stanza i.e. “moving through a mirror clear” and “shadows of the world appear” reflect the use of imagery.

This show the indirect view of the lady to see the outside world. Here, the mirror indicates the life outside her tower.

The use of images like, “the highway near”, “the river eddy whirls”, “the surly village-churls” and “the red cloaks of market girls” contrast the vigorous and busy outside life with the uncertain and confined existence of the Lady.

Furthermore, the use of colorful and dynamic imagery unfolds the lively world that she cannot experience.

2- Symbolism

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 word ‘web’ symbolizes the artistic creation of the Lady. The use of weaving means that how she expresses herself and indirectly connects with the world.

The line ‘magic web with colors gay’ reflects her lively and creative nature of the art.

Moreover, the use of curse subsequently indicates the restrictions and sacrifices which artists have to deal with. It also highlights the conflict between creativity and the outside world.

3- Metaphor

Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right—
The leaves upon her falling light—
Through 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.

The boat denotes the change in which the Lady of Shalott floats down the river. Here, the boat has been interpreted as a transitional vehicle.

It shows the transformation of her character from the mortal life to the afterlife, from loneliness to the community of Camelot.

The boat gives her the ability to remove herself from the place that somewhat confined her, representing her ultimate liberation from the curse. These signify, freedom, metamorphosis and predeterminism respectively.

4- Alliteration and Assonance

Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

In this stanza, the writer uses alliteration and assonance in a well-ordered manner to make a musical effect.

The use of the alliteration where “four” and “flowers” begin with the same ‘f’ sound, and “gray” begins with the ‘g’ sound makes the reader to be able to see what is being described in the scene.

The use of assonance with the repeating sound “o” in the words “overlook” and “flowers” presents a kind of musical sense to the description.

Together, these sound devices are employed in order to accent the difference between the constricting and limiting nature of the Lady’s tower and the beauty of the flowers in the surrounding environment, stressing the loneliness of the character.

5- Repetition

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.

Here, the repetition of “She” at the beginning of each line stresses the actions of the Lady. She has decided to watch out of her window and to engage the world directly.

The repetition forms a sense of urgency and determination. It highlights the important moment when the Lady opts to challenge her curse.

The repeated word “She” also get focus of the readers on the significant change in the behavior of the lady. It marks the transition from passive observation to active participation.

6- Enjambment

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs forever
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.

In the stanza, enjambment is most effectively used between the two descriptions of the earth’s elements, and the river which winds its way to Camelot.

The phrases “Through the wave that runs forever” and “By the island in the river” are enjambed – that is, the author does not insert a pause after this line, but goes on as if the continuation of the thought was just as important and meaningful as the original line.

It also improves the calm, eternal environment of the surroundings, and emphasizes that the Lady of Shalott stays alone in her world that does not change over time.

7- Irony

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.

Here, the use of irony has been found in the passive and rather sinister attitude of the people of Camelot to the arrival of the Lady.

When Lady finally gets to the Camelot, which should have been her final destination, she is already dead. She has the life in Camelot that she always wanted and the only time the unfair knight sees her is when she is a lifeless body bobbing in the water.

The fact that the Lady wants to reach Camelot and be part of its world, which resulted into her death is ironic.

Her death is only noticed by the people of Camelot. Her name ” The Lady of Shalott” represents her shift from an unseen entity to one that is noticed but is still a pathetic figure capturing the futility of her desire for communication with the external world.

8- Contrast

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often through 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.

Tennyson sets up a comparison between the rich vibrant active life in Camelot and the dark still dreary life of the Lady.

The Lady spins as “The mirror’s magic sights”, which portrays vivid, lively events such as “a funeral, with plumes and lights / and At music” and “two young lovers recently married.”

These are pictures of life, passion, and activity in Camelot which demonstrates the complex detail of the story.

On the other hand, the Lady’s existence is depicted as bleak “silent nights” and shadows, thereby portraying a passive life where her only duty is to watch the reflection in the mirror.

The reference to the active, colorful world of Camelot and the slow, dark heavy life of the Lady underlines her loneliness and confinement within the framework of the curse.

In concluding the poem, the declaration of the Lady “I am half sick of shadows” is a clear implication that she is getting bored with the indicated shadowy and confined reality wherein she lives.

She wants and desires the rising – the real, unadulterated and vibrant experiences of life that the scenes of Camelot portray.

This rapport between a vibrant and joyous exterior world and a stifled and grey interior life emphasizes the idea of loneliness and the desire for an experience beyond the confining existence of the main character.

Themes in The Lady of Shalott

I- Isolation and Loneliness

The isolation is an important theme of the poem. The Lady of Shalott is detached physically and emotionally from the world and confined her in a tower along with her magic web. This isolation reflects the separation of the artist from the society. It also reflects the romantic gesture of the solitary genius.

II- The Role of the Artist

The constant work of the lady contains a metaphor for her artistic creation. She creates her own reality through her artistic vision, however the restrictions placed on her forbids her interact the world directly. It reflects the limitations and sacrifices that comes with her situations. The poem indicates the conflict between the artistic imagination and the real world.

III- Reality vs. Illusion

Tennyson makes comparison of the beautiful and colorful world with the dark, limited and restricted life of the lady. This difference raises question that what is real and what is allusion. It shows the gap and highlights that what the things appear and how they truly are.

IV- Love and Desire

The tragic fall of the lady starts when she is attracted by Sir Lancelot. It represents the theme of impossible love. The desire of the lady to experience the world directly and to become part of it leads to her demise.

V- Fate and Free Will

The restrictions of the Lady are the representation of her fate. Initially, she obeys these restrictions, however her desire to look out the window and leaves the tower indicates a moment of her free will. The death of the lady emphasizes that the fate is inescapable.

The Lady of Shalott Literary Devices
The Lady of Shalott Literary Devices

To conclude, the poem provides a perfect illustration of themes such as isolation, the artist’s place in society with reference to the Victorian age, the actuality as opposed to the appearance, love and destiny. The Lady’s experience is also a warning of creativity shown in life, the danger of passion that should not be indulged, and the course of destiny.

Despite being one of the most famous pieces by Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott” still remains a beautiful example of the Late Victorian poetical enchantment and his ability to encode profound ideas into a universally appealing artwork.

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