Author logo The Lady of Shalott - study guide

Darkness and light
“Or is she known in all the land?”
The secret diary of the Lady of Shalott
The Lady of Shalott - the movie
Language study
Further reading
The poem - full text


John William Waterhouse's 1888 painting of the Lady of Shalott. Click for a larger version.

This study guide has been written for students and their teachers in KS2 and KS3 in the UK but may be suitable for students elsewhere. The guide suggests ways of responding to Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott. Read the poem thoroughly, and attempt activities of your choice.

Your teacher will advise you on which, and how many, activities to attempt.

If you wish to work traditionally these activities can be done in an exercise book, or as a booklet using your own skills in illustration and writing. If you wish to use computer software for your work, this is quite appropriate. A separate contents list and page numbering would help. Some tasks may work well as speaking and listening activities; you are encouraged to present these “live” or make use of tape-recording or multi-media software recording to show your work. In such cases, where the guide refers to writing, you may respond by speaking.

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Explain the “whisper” and the “curse” in the first stanza (verse) of Part II. Tell what the Lady knows, and what she does not know (until it happens).

The first stanza of Part III (which begins: “A bow-shot from her bower-eaves”) is the odd one out. Can you explain why? If you are really stuck, click here for a clue. If you think you know the answer click below to check.

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Darkness and light

This is a poem of contrasts of dark and light. Choose one stanza which is full of darkness and another which is full of light. Copy these out, and illuminate or illustrate the stanzas.

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“Or is she known in all the land?”

Apparently not, but some people know something. Write descriptions of the Lady as they might be given by a reaper (Part I, Stanza iv) and Lancelot (last stanza, final part).

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The secret diary of the Lady of Shalott

While the Lady weaves and watches her mirror, many thoughts must pass through her mind. Imagine that she keeps a secret diary. Write a number of selected entries. After each one, write down the part of the poem, and the stanza, on which it is based.

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The Lady of Shalott - the movie

This poem could make a very exciting film. Write a shooting script for such a cinema treatment. You should describe, shot by shot: what will be shown; special effects (visual or sound); music; speech, and anything else you wish to include.

Describe the physical appearance of the actress and actor who would play the Lady and Lancelot. Describe also

  • the costumes,
  • the set
  • locations
  • incidental music

You might want to add some scenes - perhaps flashbacks with dialogue, showing how and why the Lady is in the tower.

Follow-up (optional): Now write a review of this cinema version. You may be complimentary or critical.

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Language study

List all of the words in the poem with which you are not familiar. Try to find out what they mean. Here are a few to challenge you:

  • wold
  • aspens
  • imbowers
  • shallop
  • flitteth
  • churls
  • damsels
  • ambling
  • greaves
  • baldric

Find some others for yourself.

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Some people say that you can't start a sentence with “and”. Is this true? Check the use of “and” throughout this poem, and make up your own mind.

See if you can find lists of details in the poem. How do these help you to visualize (“see”) the story?

Make a list of words which seem old-fashioned. How do these help create the atmosphere of the poem?

The poem was published in 1833, but it is set in an earlier time. Can you find language that shows that the poem was written much later than the time in which it is set?

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Tennyson based this poem on much older narratives about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.

John William Waterhouse's 1888 painting of the Lady of Shalott - detail.

Try to find out what these older sources were. Record the names and authors (where known) of any you can find. See what you can find about any of the stories and characters in them.

Like Tennyson, many modern authors and film-makers have produced up-dated versions of these stories. Choose a book or film or television series which does this, and write a review. How successful was it in re-telling this old story?

Choose any other Arthurian story. Re-write it in your own words (either first or third person). At the end, write down the sources on which you based your version, and explain how you tried to adapt it.

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Further reading

  • Morte d'Arthur: about the death of King Arthur;
  • Idylls of the King: most of the Arthurian stories, in poetry;
T.H. White
  • The Sword in the Stone: Excellent modern prose version of the story of Arthur

Essential Viewing

  • Excalibur (1980) film, directed by John Boorman

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The Lady of Shalott

Part I

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And through 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
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
     Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey 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 beared 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.”

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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.

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;
And sometimes through the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two.
She hath no loyal knight and true,
     The Lady of 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 through 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 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.

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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 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 armor 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, burning bright,
     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 flashed into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
     Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces through the room,
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.

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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;
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 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.

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 darkened 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 around 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 crossed 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.”

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© Andrew Moore, 2002; Contact me

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