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The setting of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Mariana” contributes powerfully to the gloomy, depressing mood of the work. The poem opens by mentioning “blackest moss,” a phrase in which the adjective suggests both literal and figurative darkness and in which the noun implies decay. These depressing details are reinforced by the ensuing reference to “rusted nails” (3), again suggesting decay, while the mention of “broken sheds once more looking “sad and strange” (5) contributes again to a tone and atmosphere of decay and depression. Likewise, the “ancient thatch” is full of weeds (7) and the “moated grange” is explicitly described as “lonely” (8). Nothing about the setting of the poem’s opening stanza, then, suggests any energy, vitality, or happiness. The gloomy setting is perfectly appropriate to Mariana’s gloomy mood.
In the second stanza, darkness is once more mentioned (13), and although “sweet heaven” (the sky) is mentioned, it is mentioned only in a context that robs it of its potential power to help transform Mariana’s feels and make them more positive:
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
Either at morn or eventide. (15-16)
No matter what the time of day, no matter what the changes in the literal atmosphere of the setting, Mariana remains depressed. As the second stanza progresses, the imagery associated with the setting grows progressively darker.
Stanza three continues to suggest a setting that is both literally and figuratively dark; references to night proliferate in the stanza’s first half, and even the rise of the sun in the second half brings no fundamental change; the setting now seems cold and gray rather than (as might have been expected) warm and full of light. Indeed, even nearby waters (often symbols of life and vitality) seem “blackened” (38), and more mosses (associated with decay) are mentioned (40). Only one old battered tree provides any variety to the unrelieved “level waste” (44) of the surrounding landscape. Practically every further detail of the setting described in the remaining stanzas suggests literal and figurative gloom. No details of the setting are pleasant or inspiring; nothing in the setting might provoke Mariana to try to fight (or escape from) her depression. Tennyson uses the details of the poem’s setting to create in the reader the same kind of melancholy mood already felt by Mariana herself.
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