Sunday 30 August 2015

Teaching Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

These are the first lines of a poem that many of us met for the first time in our schooldays – Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (pub. 1833, rev. 1842).

I’ve already blogged about the importance of choosing poems with a strong narrative when introducing children to poetry, so it’s little wonder that this tale of enchantment, love at first sight, and death, remains an English class favourite.

In today’s post I’ll suggest a few creative ways to get a class excited about the poem and engaged with Victorian poetry from what may well be their first encounter with the period.

'I am half-sick of shadows - said the Lady of Shalott', John William Waterhouse (1915) 
1. Retell the story in prose: Most students will be more familiar with prose at this early point in their literary education than poetry. That means there’s more to helping them understand a poem than glossing any unfamiliar words. Asking them to retell the story as a prose narrative will increase their familiarity with the poem and also provides a great opportunity to discuss as a group those questions that Tennyson leaves unanswered.

She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay

What is this curse? Is it real or the result of the Lady’s unhappiness and isolation?

For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.

What causes the Lady’s death? Can you think of any other examples of literary texts where singing and death are linked?

'The Lady of Shalott', Arthur Hughes (1873)
2. Write a Tennysonian stanza: ‘The Lady of Shalott’ has a distinctive rhyme scheme (AAAABCCCB). Ask students to compose a stanza of their own following this pattern – either on the subject matter of the story or on a topic of their choice.

Engaging with the poem’s structure in this creative way will be a much more memorable experience than simply learning to letter the lines. And, what’s more, it’ll help students start to think about rhymes in the poem that are less than perfect.

Does ‘barley’ really rhyme with ‘clearly’? Or ‘balcony’ with ‘by’?

'The Lady of Shalott', John William Waterhouse (1888)
3. Draw a mini-scene: Tennyson’s poem is awash with visual details, and every stanza tells a mini-story in itself. Give each student a stanza to illustrate. Examples could include:

The isle where the Lady lives where Four gray walls, and four gray towers/Overlook a space of flowers’;

The reaper who thinks he hears a ‘fairy’, while working at the end of the day;

The Lady, alone in her tower (‘A pearl garland winds her head:/ She leaneth on a velvet bed,/ Full royally apparelled’);

The villagers watched by the Lady (‘surly village churls,/ And the red cloaks of market girls');

The appearance of Lancelot (‘All in the blue unclouded weather/ Thick-jewell'd shone the saddle-leather,/ The helmet and the helmet-feather/ Burn'd like one burning flame together’).

'The Lady of Shalott looking at Lancelot', John William Waterhouse (1893)

4. Create a soundtrack: ‘The Lady of Shalott’ is divided into four Parts, each with a distinct mood and subject matter. Have your students imagine they were making the poem into a movie.

What songs/pieces of music would best accompany each section of the poem? Why? What if the movie was set in the twenty-first century?

'The Lady of Shalott', John Atkinson Grimshaw (1878)

If you teach ‘The Lady of Shalott’, I’d love to hear about how you inspire your class! Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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