“Mariana” is a lyric poem of seven twelve-line stanzas, each ending in a refrain. The epigraph, “Mariana in the moated grange,” is from William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604), in which Mariana has been deserted by her lover, Angelo. The poem is also indebted to John Keats’s Isabella (1820).
“Mariana” begins with a vivid depiction of setting and mood. The grange and its garden have fallen into disrepair. The flower plots are clogged with “blackest moss.” Like Mariana, they are fertile but bereft of human care; they remain fallow. The house, too, is neglected. The roof’s “ancient thatch” is worn and full of weeds; “rusted nails” allow the pear tree to fall from the gable wall; the gate’s “clinking latch,” moved only by the wind, remains “unlifted.” This description of physical decay is emphasized by the obsessive lament of Mariana’s refrain. Her life is “dreary”; she is “aweary, aweary” because “He cometh not,” and she wishes that she were dead. Hers is the only human voice to break the silence.
The still-life effect of stanza 1 is followed by the slow passage of time in the remaining stanzas. She weeps morning and evening, so preoccupied with her earthly longing for Angelo (the unnamed “he” who haunts the poem) that she cannot “look on the sweet heaven.” She hears only the sinister “flitting of the bats.” When she does look out her window, all she sees are “the glooming flats.” When she is able to sleep, “she seemed to walk forlorn,” but whether sleepwalking or dreaming, she is “without hope of change.”
Natural elements only emphasize her isolation. She hears “the night-fowl crow” and “the oxen’s low,” but not Angelo, whose name echoes these rhymes. The vegetation surrounding the grange, where “blackened waters slept” and “clustered marish-mosses crept,” is lushly cloying, the claustrophobia heightened by the tongue-tying syntax.
The poplar tree is symbolic of Mariana herself, its shadow falling “Upon her bed, across her brow.” Standing alone in the landscape, it trembles in the wind, and its “gnarled bark” shows signs of age, while “the wooing wind aloof” plays on its limbs. The wind is symbolic of Angelo, invisible yet felt in the desire of Mariana’s limbs.
In stanza 6, Mariana reaches her emotional crisis. Each sensory detail in “the dreamy house” is magnified and amplified, her senses reaching a hallucinatory lucidity. Doors creak, flies buzz, and mice shriek with maddening volume. The house seems haunted with “Old faces,” “Old footsteps,” and “Old voices.”
In the final stanza, the poem’s imagery comes together to “confound her sense” in both meanings of sense. Both perception and sanity are overthrown. She dreads the setting of the sun when “the day/ Was sloping toward his western bower.” The use of the masculine “his” is important. Just as Mariana’s name rhymes with that of the virgin goddess of the moon, Diana, so Angelo’s name rhymes with that of the sun god, Apollo. (Ironically, Apollo pursued Daphne, the nymph who was metamorphosed into a tree.) Both the sun and Angelo have passed Mariana by. Since Apollo is also the god of rationality and order, his disappearance over the horizon also foreshadows the beginning of yet another haunting night.
“Mariana” appeared to universal critical acclaim for its pictorial qualities. It has been said that Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem prefigured the practices of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets, for whom an accumulation of vivid detail and an emphasis on feeling over idea were major tenets. John Everett Millais’s Mariana is one of the centerpieces of Pre-Raphaelite painting.
John Stuart Mill praised Tennyson’s...
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excellence in “scene-painting, in the higher sense”—that is, in “the power ofcreating scenery, in keeping with some state of human feeling; so fitted to it as to be the embodied symbol of it.” The emotions in the poem are suggested by the accumulation of precise details, the layering of which acquire symbolic force, before being stated directly in the refrain.
The poem’s point of view encourages the reader to identify with Mariana’s state of mind. In Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (1983), Robert Martin has said that the poem “foreshadows Tennyson’s success in later works that were in all but name dramatic monologues.” Mariana’s perceptions and emotions become those of the reader’s.
Distorted imagery reflects Mariana’s hypersensitivity, a result of being deprived of human companionship. At the height of her crisis, she animates her environment with hallucinations. Her vision is magnified (“The blue fly sung in the pane”); her hearing is amplified (“the mouse/ Behind the wainscot shrieked”). Tennyson’s own myopia may account for his tightly focused, close-up imagery, but the effect creates almost cinematic distortions of space and time, as in the slow-motion or time-lapse vision of the rusted nails falling from the knots.
Personification is another way Tennyson lends human emotion to inanimate objects. Used tritely, it can result in what John Ruskin called “the pathetic fallacy.” Used properly and with purpose, however, personification can be a powerful projection of psychological reality. Nature is so embued with Mariana’s psychological state as to become a projection of her own emotion. Mariana has only the inanimate world with which to converse, so it is no wonder that she sees the broken sheds as “sad,” the grange as “lonely,” or the morning as “gray-eyed” at the end of a sleepless night. The morning reflects her own lusterless eyes because she needs the empathy of her surroundings.
Several devices of repetition mimic the monotony that Mariana feels. Rhyme, assonance, and alliteration heighten the static quality of her vigil. Chief among these devices is the refrain itself, with its feminine rhymes of “dreary/aweary.” Tennyson well knew, however, that the depiction of monotony should not itself become monotonous, so he takes care to vary the end of the refrain slightly in each stanza.
No analysis of a Tennyson poem would be complete without noting its musicality. The importance of sound in evoking Mariana’s mood cannot be overemphasized. Soft vowels and consonants dominate, especially those of her and Angelo’s names, to express the oh’s and ah’s of languishing desire. That Angelo’s name is never uttered, only evoked in echo-like rhymes and in the implied comparison to Apollo, shows a deft psychological touch: Mariana is unable to speak her obsession.