Themes and Meanings

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“Mariana” is a good poem with which to begin the study of Tennyson. It shows his technical strengths of pictorial and musical qualities, as well as his greatest weakness: a lack of philosophical depth. What Tennyson lacks in ideas, he makes up for in psychological acuity and emotional accuracy. Still, “Mariana” is more than a lyrical portrait of monotony in the manner of Keats, with its sensuous evocation of melancholy; it also reflects the Victorian search—or wait—for a subject and style of its own. Published in 1830 at the end of the Romantic period, “Mariana” begins to show the problem with the Romantic lyric stance in the face of emerging Victorian concerns.

A major Victorian concern was the crisis of doubt brought on by apocalyptic social and intellectual changes. While the Industrial Revolution was laying waste to a way of life close to nature, the explosion of scientific discoveries was similarly laying waste to traditional ideas about religion. The result was a general feeling of abandonment. In “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold proposed that even in the absence of worldly or religious hope, couples could at least “be true to one another.” Yet Mariana is deprived of even this consolation. Seen in this light, her abandonment by Angelo reflects this larger crisis in faith, and her inability to act is analogous to stalled Victorian energies.

In later poems, such as “Lucretius” and “Despair,” Tennyson explores what happens when, in the absence of a transcendent faith, the material world is a person’s only reality. He concludes that such a view can end only in despair. Under the weight of her desire for Angelo, Mariana cannot “look on the sweet heaven,” and she sinks into the sensuous experience of her surroundings. Desire turns to despair. Only in the final refrain does Mariana invoke a higher power for the first time: “Oh God, that I were dead!” (In the poem’s sequel, “Mariana in the South,” Mariana joins a convent, forsaking worldly desire in order to focus her attention on the otherworldly.)

“Mariana” is the first of several early Tennyson poems, such as “The Lady of Shallot” and “The Palace of Art,” to employ an isolated feminine alter ego to express Tennyson’s conflict between passive escape and active engagement. “The Lotos-Eaters” choose reverie and sensation over worldly duties. Not until “Ulysses” does Tennyson resolve the conflict by opting for active engagement in the world. Significantly for the reading of “Mariana,” “Ulysses” was Tennyson’s way of dealing with his grief over the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam. Like Mariana, he felt abandoned by the friend he loved, and he wanted to die—if only to be able to join Hallam in death. In his elegy to Hallam, In Memoriam (1850), Tennyson’s acknowledged masterpiece and a poem that has been called the single most representative work of the Victorian period, Tennyson compares himself to a widow awaiting her lover’s return—a situation very similar to the one that he first explored in “Mariana.”

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