The Lady of Shalott

Published in Alfred Tennyson, Poems (London: E. Moxon, 1857). Wood engraving on paper, 3 5/16 x 3 1/16 in. (9.5 x 8 cm.). Unsigned. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston J. H. and E. A. Payne Fund

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's illustration for Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" reveals his personal interpretation of the poem's final scene in which Lancelot peered at the dead Lady and

He said, "She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott."

The preparatory drawing for the wood engraving establishes the positions of the main protagonists, their respective emotional states, and the quality of their interaction.

William Holman Hunt, in his history of Pre-Raphaelitism, implies that Rossetti wanted to illustrate the poem in its entirety, or at least an earlier episode, but in a letter to Hunt dated 1855 Rossetti specifically states that he has "long had an idea for illustrating the last verse of 'Lady of Shalott'" (PRB 1913, z:in, 75). His exploration of frustrated, unconsummated love characterizes his work of this period, as evidenced by his Hamlet and Ophelia of 1858. In this painting Hamlet, the male protagonist, does not direct his contemplative gaze toward the limp Ophelia, who likewise turns away to avoid visual and emotional contact, thus preventing any amorous exchange. Although thematically related to such contemporaneous works, the slight variation in Rossetti's composition for The Lady of Shalott, in which Lancelot looks directly and intently at the Lady, anticipates his later paintings as well. For instance, Rossetti's Beata Beatrix (c. 1863; cat. no. 39) and the Blessed Damozel (1871-1879) represent scenes of love and death in which male and female, though existing in separate realms of being, experience a spiritual communion. Similarly, Lancelot and the Lady of Shalott appear to interact in an undefined, mystical way, thereby achieving fulfillment despite their differing existential statuses. Thus The Lady of Shalott design embodies themes of union and separation, fulfillment and unsatisfied love. Rossetti in his illustrations characteristically includes such paradoxical motives and treats them with intentional ambiguity.

Study for Rossetti's Lady of Shalott

[Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

That Rossetti, in his drawing, clearly delineated Lancelot's facial features, anatomy, and costume while only suggesting those of the Lady of Shalott establishes Lancelot as the personality pivotal to the artist's conception. Lancelot typifies Rossetti's notion of the virtuous knight who interacts spiritually with the physically unattainable woman, and so he is identified with Rossetti's namesake and favorite male literary personage, Dante. According to his friend the painter James Smetham, all Rossetti's knights are uniquely spiritual heroes:

The modern knight is a proud, vain, truculent rascal. Yours are 'renewed in the spirit of their minds' — couldn't do a mean or wrong thing — fear nothing and nobody; but would not hurt a fly or strike an unnecessary blow. [Letter to D. G. Rossetti of December 1865, quoted Family Letters, 1:193

Certainly Lancelot's countenance in Rossetti's drawing expresses reverence and understanding rather than the vainglorious appreciation of outward appearances with which Tennyson endows him. The sketch isolates and hence emphasizes the profundity of Lancelot's emotions, thus reorienting Tennyson's tale toward a male viewpoint and allowing the knight to assume a worthier, more essential role.

In the final version of the illustration Rossetti clothes Lancelot in a more elaborate, more specifically medieval costume. On the basis of such medievalizing details, as well as the crowded composition, Simon Houfe compares the image to a missal painting (93). Allan Life also gives the design Christian connotations by identifying Lancelot as a Christian pilgrim completing a stage of his spiritual journey (207). The candles around the prow of the Lady of Shalott's boat in the wood engraving, which suggest enshrinement and sanctify the occasion of Lancelot's encounter, and Rossetti's general interest in the mystical possibilities of Tennyson's poetry substantiate such interpretations. However, the typical ambiguity of his imagery, in which religiosity and sensuality constantly intermingle, makes Rossetti's intentions difficult to define conclusively.

Rossetti embellished the composition of his preliminary sketch with minor figures and numerous details of costume and setting that nevertheless maintain the primacy of the interaction between Lancelot and the Lady. He alludes to her chastity by concealing the physical features expressive of her sexuality, her figure and her hair. The way in which the prow shelters the Lady's head suggests both her former imprisonment in the tower and her present imprisonment by death. In addition to this use of significant details, Rossetti employs light to unite the couple visually.

Although Rossetti, as he told Hunt, considered "illustrated editions of poets, however good . . . quite hateful things" and felt uneasy about his participation in them, he produced very successful illustrations (PRB 1913, z:m). The Lady of Shalott exemplifies personal interpretation that remains essentially true to the original text.


Fogelman, Pegga A. Ladies of Shalott: A Victorian Masterpiece and its Contexts. Ed. George P. Landow. Brown University: 1985. p. 158.

Houfe, Simon. The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists 1800 — 1914 Woodbridge, Suffolk: Baron Publishing, 1978.

Life, Allan Roy. "Art and Poetry: A Study of the Illustrations of Two Pre-Raphaelite Artists, William Hoiman Hunt and John Everett Millais." Ph.D. diss., University of British Columbia, 1974.

Rossetti, William Michael. Dante Gabriel Rossetti: His Family Letters. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1895.

Poems by Alfred Tennyson, D.C.L., Poet Laureate. London: E. Moxon, 1857.

Created 1985

Formatting last modified 23 December 2019