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Meter in The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott” is irregularly metered. Generally, its lines are iambic, meaning that they are constructed of iambs, metrical feet consisting of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables. In each stanza, all lines but the final refrain containing “Shalott” are in iambic tetrameter, meaning that they consist of four metrical iambs. The “Shalott” refrain is trimetric, with three metrical feet instead of four. This pattern, however, is far from consistent. Tennyson varies his meter between iambic and trochaic—a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable—throughout the poem, and occasionally adds or subtracts syllables to the ends of lines to alter the terminal stresses. This can affect the flow of the lines, as two stressed or unstressed syllables in a row disrupt the expected musicality of the poem and require more attention from readers.

Meter Examples in The Lady of Shalott:

Text of the Poem

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"Heard a carol, mournful, holy 145 Chanted loudly, chanted lowly, ..."   (Text of the Poem)

The meter of “The Lady of Shalott” varies often, but it is interesting to note that the first four lines of this stanza are in trochaic tetrameter. There are three instances of song in “The Lady of Shalott,” the first being the cheerful song the reapers hear the Lady sing, the second being Lancelot’s “tirra lirra,” and the third being the Lady’s “mournful carol.” A “carol” is a type of religious folksong, often a hymn, hence its association with holiness. All of the passages which include singing are written in trochaic tetrameter, which is a common meter in folk tunes and children’s rhymes because of its musical, sing-song quality.

"Sometimes a troop of damsels glad, ..."   (Text of the Poem)

This stanza and the one following are the first in the poem to adhere strictly to the general meter. While the preceding stanzas have trochaic lines interspersed throughout, these two stanzas both consist of iambic tetrameter and vary only at their final refrains, which are iambic trimeter, in keeping with the refrains of the rest of the poem. This metrical stability provides continuity between these stanzas. Both stanzas begin with the Lady watching people travel to Camelot and end by highlighting something she lacks. The consistency of the meter and sentiment indicate that this is a turning point for the poem. The stricter meter indicates a sense of decisiveness as opposed to the meandering musicality of the preceding stanzas, highlighting the Lady’s growing resolve.

"seër..."   (Text of the Poem)

This simile comparing the Lady of Shalott to a seer emphasizes the fact that she knows she is doomed. She has seen impending misfortune and is deciding what to do with her last moments of life. The two dots over the second “e” in “seer” is a dieresis, a mark used over a vowel to denote a syllabic break. While “seer” is often pronounced with one syllable, Tennyson splits it into two. This division fits the chosen meter of the line and subtly emphasizes the exact nature of the Lady’s misfortune: she abandoned the reflections of her mirror and looked out her window to the real world, and was cursed in the literal act of seeing.

"helmet-feather Burn'd..."   (Text of the Poem)

These two lines are both in iambic tetrameter, and both have an extra unstressed syllable at their ends. When read aloud, it feels natural to place a stress on the syllable of “Burn’d”; however, the necessary pronunciation of “burning” later in that same line reveals that instinct to be incorrect, as Tennyson does not vary his meter mid-line. The pause that this unexpected pattern enforces between “feather” and “burn’d” forces readers to take a moment between the lines and perhaps reread the second, revisiting the image of Lancelot as a burning flame and, by extension, a potentially destructive force.

"All in the blue unclouded weather Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,..."   (Text of the Poem)

The first of these lines is iambic tetrameter, and the second is trochaic tetrameter. However, the first line ends on an extra unstressed syllable, so that taken together the lines could read as a single line of iambic octameter. This can be seen as a kind of metrical enjambment, where the addition of a syllable to the first line links the meters of the two and serves to offset the potentially jarring effect of the true (semantic) enjambment occurring simultaneously. Tennyson uses this sort of metrical enjambment multiple times, frequently in conjunction with true enjambment, to enhance the poem’s musicality.

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