This poem starts off by giving a visual overview of the situation. The reader is shown the river and the road, and, far in the distance, the towers of Camelot. The people mentioned in this section are not given specific identities, rather, they are common people going about their daily business. It is from their perspective that the poem first shows Shalott, an island in the river.
The imagery here is of nature, of freedom, of movement. This is contrasted with the inflexible, colorless walls and towers of Camelot in line 15. The flowers in the next line are not described by their colors or even by their motion in the breeze, but are "overlooked" by the grey walls, as if they are held prisoner. This tone of severity in the middle of nature's healthy activity prepares the reader for the introduction of the Lady of Shalott in line 18.
Lines 19-23 focus again on the human activity going on around the island: small river barges pass with heavy loads, small, quick boats called "shallops" skim past the shore around the tower, referred to here as a "margin." With all of this activity, the poem asks who has seen the woman who lives in the tower, implying that she is mysterious, unknown, "veiled."
In the fourth stanza of Section I, the imagery changes from relying on the senses of sight and touch (as implied by the plants' motions in the wind in stanza 2) to the sense of sound. The poem tells us that the lady who lives in the tower has not been seen, and is known only to the farmers who hear her singing while they work in their fields so early in the morning that the moon is still out. Because they never see her but only hear her singing, the reapers think of the Lady of Shalott as a spirit, a "fairy." Up to this point, the reader has not been introduced to her either, and knows only as much about her as those outside of the tower know.
The Lady seems to be happy where she is: her songs echo "cheerily" (line 30) and she weaves her picture in happy, gay colors (line 38), and she has no care in the world other than weaving (line 44). In this stanza, though, the reader finds out that the Lady will have a curse visited on her if she looks at Camelot. This idea combines many familiar themes: readers generally recognize the maiden trapped in the tower from the tale of Rapunzel or the maiden placed under a spell from the story of Sleeping Beauty; in addition, according to Greek myth, Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, avoided men who wanted to court her while her husband was away by constantly weaving, but then unravelling her work at night so that she would never be done. This is an appropriate allusion because both Penelope and the Lady of Shalott use their craft as a substitute for human involvement. Strangely, the Lady does not know why she has to avoid direct interaction, nor does she seem to care.
Not able to look directly at the world out of her window, the Lady observes it through a mirror. This stanza describes a few of the things she sees in that mirror. The images she sees are described as "shadows." According to the Greek philosopher Plato, we experience life like a person would who was chained up inside of the mouth of a cave: he cannot see out, he can only see the shadows of people passing the cave flickering on the wall and he thinks that the shadows are reality. In that same way we all, according to Plato, mistake images of reality for actual reality, which we cannot see. For the Lady of Shalott, reality is not the broad landscape but the images (Tennyson calls them "shadows") she sees in the mirror.
The people in this stanza are in motion, going about their busy lives while hers is solitary and static. Reflected in her mirror she sees a group of happy girls, a clergyman, a page, and, sometimes, the knights of Camelot, riding in columns.
The action of the poem begins in this stanza, where the Lady's attitude changes: in line 55, she is delighted with the picture she is weaving of the outside world, but in line 71, the first time she speaks, she says she is unhappy with her situation. In between the two, she observes people participating in events--a funeral is mentioned first, then a wedding--that make her aware of how lonely it is to be unable to participate.
The image of Sir Lancelot shoots into the Lady's mirror with the force of an arrow fired from the roof just outside of her bedroom window. The description that Tennyson gives of the knight mixes his bold, powerful look with his chivalrous actions. Sunlight glints on his shiny armor, making him look as if he is on fire, and the speaker of the poem also tells us that he is the type of knight who always, even if dressed for battle, took time to kneel when he encountered a lady. His knighthood confirms that he is a man of the highest honor and nobility.
This second stanza of Section III shifts the description of Lancelot from the visual to the audible. The bells of his bridle ring "merrily" as he rides, his armor rings as well, and in his equipment belt, the "baldric", is a "mighty bugle" the musical notes of which communicate the situation at hand.
This stanza, in which Sir Lancelot is likened to a meteor, glowing as if he were on fire, splendid in his armor and "trailing light," serves to emphasize what an impressive sight he was as he rode toward Camelot.
After the intricate description that the reader has been given of Lancelot, it is in this stanza, in line 106, that the Lady is able to see him for the first time. Tennyson says that he "flashed into the crystal mirror," which is fitting because his shining armor seems to flash everywhere he goes, but it is especially appropriate because the Lady earlier referred to the images in her mirror as "shadows" (line 71), which are of course dark and dull.
Also of significance is that Sir Lancelot sings. The immediate cause of the Lady's attraction to him, the thing that prompts her to look out of the window, is not visual, but audible; here Tennyson suggests the fullness of life that the Lady cannot avoid any longer. Lancelot sings a traditional folk refrain, which would be historically accurate and would invoke a sense of nostalgia in readers of Tennyson's time.
Although it is Sir Lancelot's singing that makes the lady tempt fate by going to the window and looking out, she never actually sees him, just his helmet and the feather upon it. The irony of this is buried, however, within the rush of mystical occurrences which indicate that the curse the Lady mentioned in line 40 is indeed real; the mirror cracks, the tapestry unravels. This could also be given a psychological interpretation, with the events that are presented as "actually" happening being explained as symbols of what is going on in the Lady's head: in this interpretation, the moment the woman becomes involved in the outside world her sense of self (the mirror) and of her accomplishments (the tapestry) comes apart, as if social interaction is a curse to the ego.
The season has changed--earlier in the poem, when the barley was being harvested (lines 28-29), the setting was late summer; line 119 describes an autumn scene (the falling leaves of line 138 support this). Although the time described does not seem to allow for a change of seasons, the magical element (most obvious in the unexplained source of the Lady's curse) creates an atmosphere where this compression of time is not unreasonable. It is significant that the Lady takes the time to write her name on the side of the boat: if one accepts the interpretation that the mirror symbolizes self-knowledge, then she is a woman whose identity has been "shattered" at this point of the poem. She has no name to sign, just a title ("Lady") and a location ("Shalott").
"Mischance" means misfortune or bad luck--the Lady understands that she is doomed as she looks toward Camelot, which had been so attractive to her that it (in the person of Sir Lancelot) forced her to look, sealing her fate. Earlier, she looked at Camelot through a mirror, seeing it where her own reflection would normally be; in line 130 the look on her face ("countenance") is described as glassy, which suggests the mirror, but does not reflect.
"They" mentioned in line 143 are the reapers who earlier in the poem were so charmed by the Lady's voice.
The death of the Lady of Shalott is surrounded with standard death images: cold, darkness, and mournful singing, among others. This is a transitional stanza, connecting the dying woman's departure with the dead woman's arrival at Camelot.
The Lady's corpse is described as "dead-pale" and "gleaming," providing a stark visual contrast to the night as she floats past Camelot. Tennyson lists the occupants of the castle in line 160, as they are probably becoming aware of the Lady's existence for the first time, although she was very aware of theirs. They are described as curious, out of their houses and onto the wharf to look, walking around to read the front of the boat. This stanza ends leaving the reader to anticipate what effect the sight will have on the people of Camelot.
In the first five lines of this stanza, the initial curiosity
of the people of Camelot turns to fear, the primitive fear of
seeing a dead person, and the way these Christian people respond
in order to protect themselves when frightened is to make the
sign of the cross. Tennyson brings this entire long poem to a
climax at this point: the Lady of Shalott was so enchanted with
the idea of Camelot that she eventually was forced to look out
of the window to see it herself, and in these lines she produces
an emotional effect that is almost equally as strong. But Lancelot,
whose stunning presence affected the Lady so personally that
it ultimately drew her to her death, looks at her, thinks for
"a little space", and finally, dispassionately, remarks
that she is pretty. Tennyson makes Lancelot's next line a standard
benediction of the time that might have been said over anyone,
whether friend or stranger.