The first two stanzas of "The Lady of Shalott" cast readers into a landscape that has elements of both the magical and the everyday. There's an immediacy to the poem's first lines: the speaker leaps right into "the river." What river? The speaker doesn't say: it's the river, that's all. Right away, then, there's a sense that this poem will treat its world symbolically.
The river runs through a beautiful, autumnal landscape, a place that any English country-dweller of the 19th century would find familiar. Expansive fields of grain run to the horizon, willows and aspens (types of trees) move in the breeze down by the riverbanks. But this bucolic picture is also a scene from a legend, as the reader quickly discovers. This is the countryside that surrounds Camelot, the royal seat of none other than King Arthur.
There's a contrast here between the eternal quality of the landscape and the mysterious no-time of legend:
- The fields, the trees, and the river could all be from almost any time in history.
- Camelot, though, is a place from old tales.
Already, then, this poem deals—on the one hand—with the natural, cyclical, and eternal, and—on the other hand—with the heroic, legendary, and magical.
These feelings are underlined by the shape of the verse. The poem quickly teaches its readers to expect a patterned refrain:
- Each stanza's middle line will always end in "Camelot" (for now, at least);
- And each stanza's last line will end in "Shalott."
This pattern works with both the legendary and natural aspects of the poem. The repeated, predictable sounds turn round and round like seasons, but the echoing words describe legendary castles and enchanted islands.
The other sound patterns in these stanzas do something similar. Dense alliteration, assonance, consonance, and sibilance evoke the sounds of the natural world, but also draw attention to themselves, reminding the reader that they're reading a poem—a work of art. Take a look at the first part of the second stanza for a good example:
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro' the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Rhyme and slant rhyme; assonance on short /ih/ and long /i/ sounds; consonance on /w/, /l/, /r/, /z/, /v/; sibilance throughout: there's a tapestry of woven sounds here. These euphonious sounds mimic the sounds of trees by a river, with the winds and the water moving quietly through.
But sound also plays games with sense here, and in potentially unnerving ways. "Dusk" is a strange word to use as a verb, and while "[w]illows whiten" is an evocative image, the reader might be hard-pressed to imagine exactly what that means the willows are doing. Showing the undersides of their leaves in the wind? Or going pale, like a human?
It's not easy to say, and this creates a feeling that this landscape is as magical as it is natural. That the trees and breezes seem, perhaps, a little scared—going pale, quivering and shivering—suggests that there's something more going on here than just another autumn day.
Meanwhile, on the island in the middle of this lovely landscape, things are different. Rather than gentle whitenings and quiverings, here there are "four gray walls, and four gray towers." The anaphora here, plus the mostly-monosyllabic words, make the castle feel imposing among all the natural beauty. The "silent isle" these towers rise up on seems not a little mysterious. (Looking ahead, the reader might also note that those walls and towers are the same in number as the parts of the poem: itself a castle enclosing a Lady.)
It is within this castle—foreboding and strange in a landscape that is at once welcoming and ominous—that the speaker gets their first hint of the unknown Lady of Shalott.