'The Lady of Shallot' is a Victorian ballet set in the age of King Arthur-one of many that Tennyson wrote. The poem revolves around Sir Lancelot and the Lady of Shallot who is condemned by a mysterious curse. Much of the poem's charm stems from its sense of mystery and elusiveness.
The poem that is divided into four parts with discrete, isometric or equally-long stanzas, each containing nine lines with the rhyme scheme AAAABCCCB where "B" always stands for "Camelot" in the fifth line and for "Shallot" in the ninth.
The Island of Shallot where the lady lived has been vividly portrayed through a number of pastoral imageries. The poem begins with a description of the river and a road, on either side of which lay large stretches of barley and rye fields that seemed to be stretching upto the sky, before reaching Camelot- a city of many towers. The river was frequented by both "heavy barges" and light open boats which sailed along the edges upto Camelot.
The people of the town travel along the road and look towards the island called Shallot, which lies further down the river. The banks of the island are dotted with lilies, aspens, and willows & the soft breeze rustled the leaves. The road too is lined with trees and on it one could see carriages laden with cargo and horses pulling them slowly.
The poet says that on this silent and lonely island, in a gray house made of "four gray walls and four gray towers", lived imprisoned, the mysterious Lady of Shallot. No one had ever seen or heard her except the early reapers in the barley field. They could hear the echoes of the happily sung song whose sound seemed to be floating on the river water that flowed to Camelot. In the moonlight, the weary reapers would whisper and wonder-
In the lonely grey tower, the lady sat beside the window, weaving day and night a colourful magical web as she had heard that if she stops to look out towards Camelot, a curse would befall her. Hence she weaved incessantly the indistinct images of the outside world reflected in the mirror that hung before her.
Reflected in the mirror she saw the highway winding down to Camelot, the small whirls & ripples in the river or the faces of the ill-tempered peasants. Sometimes she saw a group of girls pass by or an abbot riding on a slow horse and sometimes a curly haired shepherd or a page with long hair, dressed in his crimson uniform walking towards Camelot.
Occasionally she saw groups of knights riding in rows towards the city. This made her feel sad and lonely as no knight had ever pledged his love or loyalty to her.
However, she carried on with her dreary activity uncomplainingly and continued to weave the reflections of the world which seemed to have a magical attraction for her.
The poet then portrays two paradoxical aspects of life; union through marriage and separation through death.
The sight of the lovers predominantly brings out her lonely state, living in the shadows away from flesh and blood.
While the poet deepens the sense of mystery with words like 'magic' and 'curse', he also describes the isolated existence of the lady of Shallot who seems to be secluded from real world entities. Her world was full of inaction where she sat and wove the magical web day and night. In comparison to her monotonous and dull life, the world outside has been described as full of action and colour. The lady of Shallot hence yearned for the reality of the external world.