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Symbols in The Lady of Shalott

Camelot and Shalott: The repeated refrains of “Camelot” and “Shalott” serve to centralize the two locations and establish them as opposing symbols. The first section characterizes Camelot as a hub of activity, filled with life and the freedom to come and go. By contrast, Shalott is a “silent isle” that houses a lone woman in a tower, unknown to all. The Lady is inextricably linked with Shalott, her title being the only name Tennyson provides. Lancelot is linked with Camelot, because he is an Arthurian knight and because he is traveling to it. Lancelot’s relative freedom to come and go as he pleases contrasts with the Lady, who is stuck in her tower and unable to exercise the same freedom. In these ways, Shalott and Camelot represent the different roles of men and women in Victorian society.

The River: The river is a prevalent image in the poem, symbolizing the flow of life. The river runs alongside the tower at Shalott, ferrying people to and from Camelot. It facilitates movement and interaction as people go about their lives, contrasting with the stagnance and stillness of the Lady in her isolated tower. When the Lady finally leaves the tower, she re-enters the flow of life and time, an action which immediately results in her death.

The Web and the Mirror: Two of the most important artifacts in the poem are the Lady’s web and mirror. They serve to characterize her as both an artist and as someone touched by the supernatural. Her web is symbolic of her artistry as she depicts through her weaving the sights she sees in her mirror, which symbolizes the necessity of distance in the nurturing of the artistic soul. The mirror allows her to create reflections of the world without having to taint the purity of her artistic vision with outside influences. When the curse is activated and her weaving flies off the loom and her mirror breaks, the implication is that her artistry was linked with her isolation. Now that she has chosen to trade in her art for reality, she is estranged from her artistic spirit and her weaving abandons her.

Symbols Examples in The Lady of Shalott:

Text of the Poem

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"The broad stream in his banks complaining,..."   (Text of the Poem)

The river is personified as “complaining” while the weather becomes stormy and violent in the wake of the curse. Rather than a passive element of the Lady’s surroundings, the river is now an active presence, swollen and irritated by the rain and wind. This introduces the question of whether the Lady’s isolation was meant as punishment or protection: it led to dissatisfaction, but it also kept the harsher realities of the world away from her. Throughout the poem, the Lady’s stagnant, isolated life on her silent isle is contrasted with the movement of the river around the tower. In leaving the tower, the Lady symbolically “re-enters” the flow of life, which entails the process of dying.

"Dead-pale..."   (Text of the Poem)

One of the possible interpretations of “The Lady of Shalott” is as an indictment of Victorian culture, which conflated women’s inherent value with their sexual purity. The Lady, in her tower on Shalott, is surrounded by lilies, a frequent symbol of chastity and purity. Incidentally, lilies are white, a color traditionally associated with purity.Now that she has left the seclusion of that tower, she is still “robed in snowy white”—clothed in a marker of her inherent purity and virtue. This line, however, explicitly links that whiteness with her death, negating the potentially positive connotations of the associated purity. While the Lady has lived what the Victorians would consider a pure and virtuous life, free from improper associations, she has also been prevented from experiencing life’s color or joy. Ultimately, her great purity can be read as inseparable from her curse and her death.

"She loosed the chain, and down she lay;..."   (Text of the Poem)

The loosing of the chain that ties her boat to land is a very overt symbol for the actions the Lady is taking to free herself from her island. However, she is not indulging herself at all on this journey: rather than looking around at the river and surrounding countryside, the Lady lies down in the boat, presumably denying herself the possibility of a view. This could be an act of atonement for her misdeed or perhaps a factor of the curse. No matter how it is interpreted, her action makes clear to readers that despite the Lady’s departure from Shalott and implied approach to Camelot, she has in many ways not achieved a greater degree of freedom.

"Camelot: ..."   (Text of the Poem)

Aside from positioning the poem as a part of Arthurian legend, the use of the word “Camelot” as a refrain in almost every stanza centralizes it alongside the Lady herself. Symbolically, Camelot represents the outside world and freedom. The Lady of Shalott sees the castle only in her mirror rather than directly experiencing it. Thus Camelot takes on an unattainable quality since it can be seen and sought after, but not touched or truly experienced with the other senses.

"blood was frozen slowly..."   (Text of the Poem)

In contrast to the “wave that runs forever” in the river, which represents life and vitality, the Lady’s blood is instead “frozen slowly.” By rejecting her insulated world of shadows and choosing to join reality, the Lady subjects herself to mortality and the passage of time. However, her lack of vivacity remains; the river of life flows on even as the life flowing through the veins of the Lady of Shalott freezes over.

"the river eddy whirls. ..."   (Text of the Poem)

The river is a recurring visual image in the poem that carries a symbolic meaning. Literally, the river is a physical presence surrounding the island of Shalott. It flows on all sides of her, transporting other people to Camelot. It is constantly associated with movement through the use of words like “flowing” and “whirling.” In contrast, the Lady herself remains stagnant, “imbowered” within the “grey walls” of her tower. Symbolically, the river is connected with the flow of life and the passage of time, realities from which the Lady of Shalott is sheltered.

"Shadows of the world appear. ..."   (Text of the Poem)

The Lady is only able to watch the world through a reflection in her mirror. Mirrors, in a literal sense, reflect images. In a symbolic sense, the mirror indicates that the Lady is not seeing “reality” but rather an inverse or diluted version of it, especially given the contrast between the “clear” mirror and the “shadows” it depicts. She is not witnessing events with her own eyes but is instead consuming images from a detached perspective before translating them into her weaving. The image of shadows are an allusion to Greek philosopher Plato’s (424–348 BCE) “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic. Plato describes a group of people in a cave who only know the world outside by reading the shadows flickering on the cave wall. In Plato’s estimation, these people represent those who are blind to the true nature of reality. Tennyson alludes to Plato’s Cave to suggest that the Lady of Shalott is similarly blind to the outside world.

"Shalott..."   (Text of the Poem)

A refrain is poetic device by which a word, line, or group of lines is repeated throughout a poem. “The Lady of Shalott” has two refrains: “Camelot” at the end of the 5th line of each stanza and “Shalott” at the end of the 9th line. Refrains can serve a variety of functions but are often employed as a way of emphasizing important ideas through repetition. In this case, “Camelot” and “Shalott” are contrasting symbols, with Shalott representing the Lady’s isolation and Camelot representing broader society. The refrains also add a musicality to the poem by creating repetition and a consistent structure for rhyme and meter from stanza to stanza.

"lilies..."   (Text of the Poem)

In Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, lilies are a frequent symbol of both physical and spiritual purity. Elaine is referred to as “Elaine le Blank,” for the French blanc, meaning “white.” The lilies growing around the tower where the Lady of Shalott lives provide a connection to the Arthurian source material and help contextualize the isolation of the character, who could be considered unsullied by external influences. This evokes the Victorian ideal of womanhood, which emphasized purity and required women to remain in the domestic sphere.

"From the bank and from the river..."   (Text of the Poem)

It’s interesting to note that Lancelot seems to be coming into the Lady’s mirror from more than one place, and one of those places—the river—is one he and his horse are probably not literally in. Visually, the effect is that of his filling her mirror from all points, overwhelming it. Symbolically, it is as if the entire motion of life (represented by the river) is forcing him in on her.

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