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A Short Analysis of Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’

On Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s early triumph

‘Mariana’ was Tennyson’s first great poem. Published in his 1830 volume Poems, Chiefly Lyrical when Tennyson was still an undergraduate student at Cambridge, it has become one of his best-loved poems and a timeless poem about unrequited love and the abandoned lover. Here is ‘Mariana’, followed by a few words of analysis about it.

Mariana

‘Mariana in the Moated Grange’
(Shakespeare, Measure for Measure)

With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
Either at morn or eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Upon the middle of the night,
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, ‘The day is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarled bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said ‘I am aweary, aweary
I would that I were dead!’

And ever when the moon was low,
And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
She saw the gusty shadow sway.
But when the moon was very low
And wild winds bound within their cell,
The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.
She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors
Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then said she, ‘I am very dreary,
He will not come,’ she said;
She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
Oh God, that I were dead!’

‘Mariana’ was a poem that, as Tennyson himself put it, ‘arose to the music of Shakespeare’s words’ – the words Tennyson quotes as the poem’s epigraph. Or, to be more precise, misquotes: for where Shakespeare, in Measure for Measure, has the ‘dejected Mariana’ described as residing at the moated grange, Tennyson places Mariana in the moated grange, further underscoring her sense of confinement and isolation. In Shakespeare’s play, Mariana is residing in solitude because Angelo, the hypocritical ‘acting duke’ of Vienna (the real Duke has pretended to be called away on business, but actually hangs around in disguise, leaving Angelo in charge in his ‘absence’), has promised to marry her but then reneged on his promise, consigning her to lonely heartbreak at the grange.

In summary, then, Tennyson offers an insight into both Mariana’s physical life in her secluded grange and her psychological inner life, with many of the external details doubling as symbols for her psyche. Tennyson concludes each stanza with a similar refrain, in which Mariana is allowed to speak for herself, repeating how dreary and miserable her life is, and how she longs for death as a release from her dejected state. Angelo will not come (although in Shakespeare’s play – spoiler alert – he does eventually, in one of the Bard’s best-known ‘bed tricks’), and so there is no point in living any more: a feeling we have doubtless all had when in the throes of (especially adolescent) love. Mariana is doubly isolated: isolated because of her physical location (the grange where she dwells is ‘moated’ – an adjective echoed later in the poem by the ‘thick-moted sunbeam’, which even seems to mock her enclosure) but also because she has been cast out from life’s feast by being rejected by her would-be lover. Tennyson brilliantly conveys such double-isolation through the rhyme scheme for each stanza of ‘Mariana’, which runs ababcddcefef – effectively, a central couplet comprising enclosed rhymes (cddc) which is itself enclosed within a pair of couplets, one either side of it.

But there’s more to it than this. As Tennyson’s great editor and biographer, Sir Christopher Ricks, observed in his excellent critical biography, Tennyson, the language in those opening lines seems out to wrong-foot us:

With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.

Not ‘flower-pots’, note, but ‘flower-plots’; that clinking latch is ‘Unlifted’ rather than ‘Uplifted’, with the ‘un-word’, as in Thomas Hardy’s poetry, carrying the possibility of its opposite while also negating it (the latch would be lifted if Angelo only came; but he doesn’t). Such brilliant use of surprising or unexpected local detail continues later in the poem:

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse
Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.

It was the modernist T. S. Eliot who observed, in his essay on Tennyson’s In Memoriam, that ‘The blue fly sung in the pane’ would lose its force if we substituted ‘sung’ for the more grammatically correct ‘sang’: ‘sung’ so brilliantly captures the deadened buzz of the trapped insect struggling to find a way out of the house, another poor creature who is imprisoned here, much like Mariana herself. (Tennyson once observed that he knew the quantities of vowel sounds in every English word – ‘except perhaps scissors’.) Eliot liked these lines from Tennyson’s poem so much that he borrows the image of the mouse in the wainscot for his ‘East Coker’ and ‘Little Gidding’, part of his Four Quartets.

In summary, ‘Mariana’ was a remarkably mature poem to find among a poet’s first volume of poems published while he was still a student. The rest of the volume didn’t fare so well with many critics – the opening line of the poem ‘Lilian’ even gave us the phrase ‘airy fairy’ to describe something foolishly romantic and lacking substance – but ‘Mariana’ features in every good selection of Tennyson’s poems. Its images continue to repay close analysis, even though the poem itself carries a straightforward meaning. But, as so often with Tennyson, the devil is in the detail.

Image: Mariana by John Everett Millais (1851), via Wikimedia Commons.

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Posted on March 1, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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