How is ‘The Lady of Shalott’ a poem about romantic yearning? Analysis

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In part 1 of the poem, there is mostly description of the main place involved in the poem, Shalott. Verse 1 emphasizes the peaceful nature of the area, with descriptions like ‘where the lilies blow’. Verse 3 describes ‘heavy barges’ heading towards Camelot and Verse 4 says that the river is winding ‘Down to tower’d Camelot’. There is no real reference to romantic yearning in this part of the poem, but it is important in describing the surroundings, which later play a large part in The Lady of Shalott’s romantic yearning. In the second stanza of part 2 the lady of Shalott is creating her own reality from the one she sees outside on a tapestry, recording everything she sees on it. In the last lines of the verse she mentions the people she sees walking by the river:

And there the surly village-churls,

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And the red cloaks of market girls,

Pass onward from Shalott.

These lines are describing young people, who are described as ‘surly’ and as ‘churls’, which suggests that they are loud and boisterous, and girls whose ‘red cloaks’ suggest an element of romance and that they are getting dressed up to go to the market. This is a simple male/female connection that is made in the two lines, a connection that suggests excitement and youth. This contrast with the lady’s solitude, and as she looks in the mirror it suggests that this world of romance and youthful attraction is out of her reach. The fact that she can do nothing about it makes the word ‘yearning’ appropriate. The word ‘yearning’ suggests that she longs for what she sees but because she has never had an experience of it she doesn’t quite know what it is.

In the third stanza of part 2, the description of a ‘curly shepherd-lad’ suggests again that the young men she sees in the mirror or hears are bad, rebellious youths who live an exciting existence compared to hers. This again suggests yearning for a life that is the opposite of hers, one full of excitement.

In the next line a ‘long-hair’d page in crimson clad’ is mentioned; a boy with long hair in bright crimson colours. Simple things like the length of his hair and the colours of his clothes can suggest an interesting, exciting element within him, and the fact that she notices these elements shows that these people deeply affect her. There is also the fact that they have never seen her and they do not even know that she is looking at them or hearing them so the fact that she has no connection with them in reality is mirrored in her tapestry; in her tapestry she is depicting a world that knows nothing of her. In this verse there are also the lines:

‘And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue

The knights come riding two and two:

She hath no loyal knight and true,

The Lady of Shalott.’

The first line shows that firstly she is looking through her mirror, so it emphasizes again that what is outside is only her virtual reality. Then there is the first mention of knights, who seem to be the people that she yearns to know most of all. There is evidence in this line of continuous pairs heading towards Camelot, and these pairs show that they are accompanied and are not lonely, whereas she is lonely and has no-one to relate to; also romantically obviously pairs are involved. The next line then shows that she has no romance in her life, she does not have a knight or a pair, and the words ‘loyal’ and ‘true’ suggest fairytale love, a stereotypically romantic and valiant knight. This line sharply illustrates her isolation and yearning.

The next stanza explains how she would become engrossed in her tapestry during silent nights but when these nights are interrupted by what is sometimes a funeral, she seems to be jealous of this ceremony, even if it is a funeral, because the people are there to recognize the life that the dead person lead, whereas if she died in her tower no-one would know or care. Another precious moment in life is mentioned again in this stanza – marriage.

‘Two young lovers lately wed’ are mentioned which again shows the idea of pairs in the poem, and these people are almost idyllic to her; they represent the kind of romance that she yearns for. As she sees/hears them, she is obviously thinking about how unfair it is that she has to live such a confined life while those outside are free. She says ‘I am half sick of shadows,’ which might mean that she is tired of having a distorted, shadow-like image of the world, but most probably relates to the fact that she is sick of having to see images of happy people in her mirror, who constantly remind her of her own sadness. This shows that she yearns for what these two lovers have together.

The first four stanzas of part three of the poem describe the knight Sir Lancelot. His sudden introduction depicts speed and the sudden nature of his appearance, as he will appear to the lady as he rides quickly outside her tower. Immediately Sir Lancelot is shown to have a life which is opposite in nature to the lady of Shalott’s life; words like ‘brazen’, ‘red-cross’, ‘dazzling’ and ‘flamed’ all depict colour and freedom. He is riding freely and quickly and it seems that as he is being described carefully for four stanzas that he has also captured the complete attention of the lady of Shalott as well as the reader of the poem. In the second stanza of part three there are two examples of Sir Lancelot making a loud noise; there is ‘The bridle bells rang merrily’ and ‘And as he rode his armour rung’.

These instances, along with the fact that he carries a ‘mighty sliver bugle’ (a trumpet-like instrument), show that his freedom allies him with the capability to make noise, to express himself for everyone to hear. This echoes the knight-like qualities that Sir Lancelot has, and is therefore part of the yearning that the lady experiences. In the third stanza of this part, the line ‘All in the blue unclouded weather’ mirrors his world (also shown in the fourth stanza of this part in ‘His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d’); he has no worries, which is a contrast with the lady whose life is a world of shadows and reflections. In this verse there are again examples of Sir Lancelot being passionate and carefree, for example, his ‘helmet feather’, which shows that he is relaxed enough to wear a feather in his helmet and signifies a certain element of him being wild. Descriptions such as ‘purple night’, ‘clusters bright’ and ‘trailing light’ all show a romantic setting and almost add a bitter effect to the fact that he is out in this very romantic place and the lady of Shalott is stuck in her castle, unable to be with him.

This restriction emphasizes the element of yearning, as what is happening is something that she knows about and can see, but no matter what she does or say she can not have or experience it. The use of ‘still Shalott’ contrasts his rapid movement with the tranquil environment that he is riding through. In the fourth stanza of this part ‘He flash’d into the crystal mirror’, which shows that she does not actually see him because he is going so fast. This moment is definitively a moment of sudden excitement, something she rarely experiences, so as is he is going so fast this in particular is the reason why she breaks the curse and looks out. The fact that she sees two reflections (she sees him in the river outside the castle as well) heightens the moment.

The sudden flash means that she leaves her tapestry and she walks to the window, and the intensity of his appearance is the thing that makes her do this. The line ‘She saw the water-lily bloom’ suggests an element of reproduction, which relates to romantic yearning, and the speed of this blooming (she sees it in an instant) suggests that she suddenly feels an incredibly strong feeling of romance and longing. She sees the back of his head so it is almost as if in this great moment where she looks out at him he is turned away from her, which again emphasizes how distant he is from her. There is a large sense of drama in the last four lines of the fifth stanza of part 3, and the fact that the curse has come over her because of Sir Lancelot and her inability to refrain from looking out at him, shows that she has such a strong feeling of yearning for romance and a knight that these are the after-effects of her looking out at him.

In part 4, the scenery of Shalott echoes the mood; there is a sense of pathetic fallacy. There are lines such as ‘In the stormy east-wind straining’ and ‘The pale yellow woods were waning’, which paint dreary, sad pictures of the surroundings. The turbulent weather mirrors her turbulent mood. This scene is almost the ‘aftermath’ of her encounter with Sir Lancelot, and it shows that her yearning has inevitably led to her final downfall. She carves her name on the boat, so she is in a way asserting her identity to the world. This is an attempt to get some recognition, to make people remember her. Also, as no-one has ever seen her, it lets people know who she is when they find her dead body.

The line ‘Lying, robed in snowy white’, has an emphasis on purity and virginity. It is a picture of her as a despairing maiden and it is a reminder that what she has felt has always been romantic yearning and nothing more; she has never had the chance to be with anyone, to be taken away by a brave knight. In this third stanza of part 4 ‘They heard her singing her last song’, and it seems apparent that she does so because she wants to revert to the only way she could ever make herself known – though singing.

In this verse there is a summary of the area she has lived in, a last picture of Shalott, and the constant reference to floating towards Camelot is her, in her last moments, heading in the direction of her romantic yearning; towards Camelot and the knights, in what is almost a last attempt for this yearning to be satisfied. The element of despair comes from knowing that this can not happen. As she sings she begins to lose her energy and this is shown by ‘Chanted loudly, chanted lowly’; she does not have the strength to keep her voice loud and clear. As she reaches Camelot she is already dead, and as she floats by there is irony in that finally people notice her and read her name but this comes just after she has died.

At the end of the poem Lancelot sees her for the first time, and says ‘She has a lovely face; God in His mercy lend her grace’. The other knights seem afraid of this mysterious death, but Sir Lancelot, who was earlier portrayed as brave and dangerous approaches her. He clearly didn’t notice her in her tower earlier on in the poem and so he states what a lovely face she has. This is essentially sad because of how happy she would have been if he had paid her this attention and said this to her when she was alive. This, coming at the very end of the poem, almost sums up the poem as one with a deep, underlying note of romantic yearning, one that never sees its fulfillment. He thinks she has committed suicide so he asks God to lend her grace because suicide was seen as an offence against God at that time. He is showing he pity and kindness in this way.

The period around the time when the poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’ was written (1832) was a time when much poetry was based on romantic themes, and the language, layout and content of this poem is evocative of that. The society that Alfred Tennyson lived in expected and appreciated poems of this sort to have a theme of romance, and Tennyson adapted this into one involving romantic yearning.

Comparison between ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and ‘Mariana’

Lord Tennyson wrote both ‘Mariana’ and ‘The Lady of Shalott’, with Mariana being written in 1830 and The Lady of Shalott in 1832. Tennyson has written in a very similar style in both poems; the most noticeable aspect of both poems is that they follow a strict verse rule (with each verse being the same length), but Mariana has more lines in every verse. There is a great similarity in that within the verses of each poem the last line (or in the case of Mariana two lines) is the same or very similar in all the verses of that poem. This has the effect of giving each poem an emphasis on its theme or subject; in The Lady of Shalott you are reminded that all that is going on is revolving around the Lady herself, and in Mariana you are reminded of the hugely depressed nature of the woman involved through the refrain:

She said, ‘I am aweary, I am aweary,

I would that I were dead!’

Both poems seem to work with pairs of lines within the verses. Often something is described in one line and then in the next line its location or further description is given. This, especially when read aloud, gives the lines a very rhythmical, poetic sense. For example, in verse 1 of Mariana:

With blackest moss the flower-pots

Were thickly crusted, one and all:

In Mariana you immediately get a dark, gloomy sense in the poem from these first two lines alone. The word ‘blackest’ is intense and a superlative, and the term ‘thickly crusted’ suggests that the pots are neglected and old. This in a way reflects the woman involved, as the decrepit state of where she lives is neglected, just like she has been neglected by her husband, Angelo (not mentioned in the poem but involved in the original play, Measure for Measure).

This is a contrast with the Lady of Shalott, because although like Mariana she is neglected and ‘unused’, the area she lives is not decrepit, but it is a beautiful, scenic area, described in verse 1 with words and terms such as ‘Long’, ‘Wold’ (field) and ‘lilies blow’. This shows a certain sense of gentleness and mirrors the fact that she has never experienced full, encountered love, whereas Mariana describes the way that she has fallen deeply in love with someone who has mistreated her and left her alone. This is also shown by ‘Unlifted was the clinking latch’, which subtly mirrors the way her husband as not ‘used’ her at all.

Whereas in Mariana you are introduced to the main character in the first verse, the first verse in The Lady of Shalott is purely descriptive. This is a continually contrasting factor in both poems; in Mariana every verse involves her to personify her sadness and her imprisonment by herself, whereas in the Lady of Shalott there are many stanzas that are purely descriptive of Shalott and the world outside her tower. This is because this poem is about her imprisonment from the outside world by a curse and so Tennyson emphasizes this by including stanzas about the world she is locked away from. This is a main factor in both poems; imprisonment, but in Mariana she is not physically imprisoned as the Lady of Shalott is. However the Lady of Shalott dies because she sets herself free, whereas Mariana does not die but she wishes she would because she effectively can’t set herself free (because her imprisonment is mental).

An obvious similarity between the poems is the involvement in both of them of brave, gallant men. However in Mariana the whole poem revolves around her misery about the fact that Angelo will not be with her, but in The Lady of Shalott it seems that up until part 3 the poem is building up, through romantic references and descriptions, to what seems to be the crucial part of the poem – Sir Lancelot. Both poems involve women whose misery is largely based on the fact that they cannot be with these men. The main difference is that Mariana has already had an experience with Angelo and has been with him for a while whereas the Lady of Shalott has never been with a man. There are references to romantic yearning in both poems, for example in Mariana:

The shadow of the poplar fell

Upon her bed, across her brow

This is a more subtle reference, but it is a reference suggesting intimacy, and a connection between this poplar tree and Angelo – like the shadow is an image of yearning because it is a shadow, so it is not really there like Angelo. It also takes place at night, which is the time that Angelo really should be with her. In The Lady of Shalott there are similar examples of romantic yearning such as:

The knights come riding two and two:

She hath no loyal knight and true,

This is also a reference to what she can’t have, and so deeply suggests romantic yearning.

Both poems involve a strict use of rhyme, but the way it is used gives the poems a legendary, poetic feel, like you are reading something that flows and that you should read out loud. In both poems this gives the words more effect.

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