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!’ ”
“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.
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.”