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Tennyson’s Poetry

Alfred Lord Tennyson

“Mariana”

Themes, Motifs and Symbols

“The Lady of Shalott”

Complete Text

       ‘Mariana in the moated grange.’
               —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!’

Summary

This poem begins with the description of an abandoned farmhouse, or grange, in which the flower-pots are covered in overgrown moss and an ornamental pear tree hangs from rusty nails on the wall. The sheds stand abandoned and broken, and the straw (“thatch”) covering the roof of the farmhouse is worn and full of weeds. A woman, presumably standing in the vicinity of the farmhouse, is described in a four-line refrain that recurs—with slight modifications—as the last lines of each of the poem’s stanzas: “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 woman’s tears fall with the dew in the evening and then fall again in the morning, before the dew has dispersed. In both the morning and the evening, she is unable to look to the “sweet heaven.” At night, when the bats have come and gone, and the sky is dark, she opens her window curtain and looks out at the expanse of land. She comments that “The night is dreary” and repeats her death-wish refrain.

In the middle of the night, the woman wakes up to the sound of the crow, and stays up until the cock calls out an hour before dawn. She hears the lowing of the oxen and seemingly walks in her sleep until the cold winds of the morning come. She repeats the death-wish refrain exactly as in the first stanza, except that this time it is “the day” and not “my life” that is dreary.

Within a stone’s throw from the wall lies an artificial passage for water filled with black waters and lumps of moss. A silver-green poplar tree shakes back and forth and serves as the only break in an otherwise flat, level, gray landscape. The woman repeats the refrain of the first stanza.

When the moon lies low at night, the woman looks to her white window curtain, where she sees the shadow of the poplar swaying in the wind. But when the moon is very low and the winds exceptionally strong, the shadow of the poplar falls not on the curtain but on her bed and across her forehead. The woman says that “the night is dreary” and wishes once again that she were dead.

During the day, the doors creak on their hinges, the fly sings in the window pane, and the mouse cries out or peers from behind the lining of the wall. The farmhouse is haunted by old faces, old footsteps, and old voices, and the woman repeats the refrain exactly as it appears in the first and fourth stanzas.

The woman is confused and disturbed by the sounds of the sparrow chirping on the roof, the clock ticking slowly, and the wind blowing through the poplar. Most of all, she hates the early evening hour when the sun begins to set and a sunbeam lies across her bed chamber. The woman recites an emphatic variation on the death-wish refrain; now it is not “the day,” or even her “life” that is dreary; rather, we read: “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!’ ”

Form

“Mariana” takes the form of seven twelve-line stanzas, each of which is divided into three four-line rhyme units according to the pattern ABAB CDDC EFEF. The lines ending in E and F remain essentially the same in every stanza and thus serve as a bewitching, chant-like refrain throughout the poem. All of the poem’s lines fall into iambic tetrameter, with the exception of the trimeter of the tenth and twelfth lines.

Commentary

The subject of this poem is drawn from a line in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure : “Mariana in the moated grange.” This line describes a young woman waiting for her lover Angelo, who has abandoned her upon the loss of her dowry. Just as the epigraph from Shakespeare contains no verb, the poem, too, lacks all action or narrative movement. Instead, the entire poem serves as an extended visual depiction of melancholy isolation.

One of the most important symbols in the poem is the poplar tree described in the fourth and fifth stanzas. On one level, the poplar can be interpreted as a sort of phallic symbol: it provides the only break in an otherwise flat and even landscape (“For leagues no other tree did mark / the level waste” [lines 43-44]); and the shadow of the poplar falls on Mariana’s bed when she is lovesick at night, suggesting her sexual hunger for the absent lover. On another level, however, the poplar is an important image from classical mythology: in his Metamorphoses, Ovid describes how Oenone, deserted by Paris, addresses the poplar on which Paris has carved his promise not to desert her. Thus the poplar has come to stand as a classic symbol of the renegade lover and his broken promise.

The first, fourth, and sixth stanzas can be grouped together, not only because they all share the exact same refrain, but also because they are the only stanzas that take place in the daytime. In themselves, each of these stanzas portrays an unending present without any sense of the passage of time or the play of light and darkness. These stanzas alternate with the descriptions of forlorn and restless nights in which Mariana neither sleeps nor wakes but inhabits a dreamy, in-between state: Mariana cries in the morning and evening alike (lines 13-14) and awakens in the middle of the night (lines 25-26); sleeping and waking meld. The effect of this alternation between flat day and sleepless night is to create a sense of a tormented, confused time, unordered by patterns of natural cycles of life.

Even though the poem as a whole involves no action or progression, it nonetheless reaches a sort of climax in the final stanza. This stanza begins with a triple subject (chirrup, ticking, sound), which creates a mounting intensity as the verb is pushed farther back into the sentence. The predicate, “did all confound / Her sense” (lines 76-77), is enjambed over two lines, thereby enacting the very confounding of sense that it describes: both Mariana’s mind and the logic of the sentence become confused, for at first it seems that the object of “confound” is “all.” This predicate is then followed by a caesura and then the sudden, active force of the climactic superlative phrase “but most she loathed.” At this point, the setting shifts again to the early evening as the recurrent cycle of day and night once more enacts Mariana’s alternating hope and disappointment. The stanza ends with a dramatic yet subtle shift in the refrain from “He cometh not” to the decisive and peremptory “He will not come.”

The refrain of the poem functions like an incantation, which contributes to the atmosphere of enchantment. The abandoned grange seems to be under a spell or curse; Mariana is locked in a state of perpetual, introverted brooding. Her consciousness paces a cell of melancholy; she can perceive the world only through her dejection. Thus, all of the poet’s descriptions of the physical world serve as primarily psychological categories; it is not the grange, but the person, who has been abandoned—so, too, has this woman’s mind been abandoned by her sense. This is an example of the “pathetic fallacy.” Coined by the nineteenth-century writer John Ruskin, this phrase refers to our tendency to attribute our emotional and psychological states to the natural world. Thus, because Mariana is so forlorn, her farmhouse, too, although obviously incapable of emotion, seems dejected, depressed; when the narrator describes her walls he is seeing not the indifferent white of the paint, but rather focuses on the dark shadows there. While Ruskin considered the excessive use of the fallacy to be the mark of an inferior poet, later poets (such as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound) would use the pathetic fallacy liberally and to great effect. Arguably, Tennyson here also uses the method to create great emotional force.

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by marnie94, April 11, 2013

This essay provides a close reading of Tennyson. (Look for it towards the end of the essay.) I wrote this in my first year at uni.

http://marnielangeroodiblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/poetry-makes-nothing-happen/

Good luck, and follow the blog too!

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Slight Corrections

by Authoclaese_Feldspar, August 19, 2013

Part IV is 6 stanzas in length (not 5 stanzas as stated here) and the "Shalott/Camelot" rhyme is deviated from twice in Part III - 'Lancelot' is the first B rhyme of the first stanza and the second B rhyme of the fourth stanza. It's all about the detail!

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