"Mariana" likewise portrays and engenders a suspended position. The poem is, in the first place, remarkably adrift from its presumed Shakespearean source. As John Stuart Mill said, "There is no mere amplification; it is all production, and production from that single germ" ("Review"). It is certainly "all production," developing from an intense [20/21] and single-minded imaginative speculation on the short and evocative phrase, "Mariana in the moated grange." By separating Shakespeare's character so completely from the play, Tennyson achieves the intense focus that also makes the desolation seem uncaused. There is no point in looking to Measure for Measure in order to find out why "he will not come," much less to determine that he will, as he does in the play, come after all, Here there is no narrative movement at all, the whole point being that Mariana's love is senselessly denied, that her fruition is cut off without reason. At least, by restricting the poem to her baffled ignorance, Tennyson makes it clear that any reasons are radically disproportionate to the implications of pointless imprisonment. "He cometh not" is all that matters, and the poem thus develops die purity of a cosmic statement of irony.
For though the poem is often treated as a picture of sheer desolation, a "giving in" to melancholy, our response is surely not so simple and very definitely not so easy and relaxed as the word melancholy would suggest. The poem seems to move to a climax, but it actually mocks climactic structures. The picture of a bondage that cannot be broken is created and reinforced by all the details of the poem: the thick, clogged opening lines, for instance, or the metrics of the refrain, where the quick, regular movement of "She only said, 'My life is dreary,/ He cometh not,' she said" is interrupted by the unexpected sluggishness of the next line-"She said, 'I am aweary, aweary' — a line which not only suggests the very hopelessness and weariness it is talking about but also retards and thus emphasizes the decisive last line of the refrain — "I would that I were dead!"
One should also note the brilliant way in which Mariana's heightened sensitivity is suggested: she both sharpens small details and obliterates the distinction between large ones. She knows all about the patterns on the bark of the single poplar tree but confuses waking and sleeping states (11. 3o, 61). The distortion here [21/22] resembles that of nightmare, with its horrifying clarity of detail and its absolute lack of boundaries, its absence of familiar context. Similarly, her stasis is supported even by the slight ambiguity of "she only said," repeated in every refrain and suggesting either that this was all she said, or that all she did was to say this. It is an arresting ambiguity that goes nowhere. There are no choices to be made; either meaning is equally appropriate, or equally inappropriate. The notion of her doing nothing all day except saying this, or the notion that the terror of her situation evoked only this minimal response, strike us as uncoordinated but equally applicable meanings.
But in the image of desolation and weariness finally is balanced by the poem's remarkably strong support of Mariana's associations with youth, growth, and hope. The poem's irony is defined by the pressure of the undeniably just claims of love and comic promise against the equally undeniable fact of denial. The positive side is, of course, implied very strongly by the enveloping situation: Mariana's youth and hope are supported by the fact that she is waiting for a lover, as they are also by her connection with a pastoral landscape (somewhat distorted, of course) and with romantic terms like "casement."
Primarily, though, the positive level is presented by inverting the usual images of comedy and the pastoral. The poem is filled with references to beauty, order, and hope-all, of course, bitterly distorted but nonetheless there. The opening lines give a parody of a beauty that is ordered and controlled. Man's capacity for both enjoying and arranging nature is mocked in the image of sluggish decay overcoming the flower-plots, rust and disorder invading the carefully controlled growth of the ornamental pear tree. The image of man as master of nature's beauty is thrown against that of man as victim of nature's anarchy.
Mariana, it must again be insisted, is not caught by this last image only; she is caught between the two. On one hand there is the "blackest moss" but on the other is the poplar tree, one of the poem's most important symbols. In the midst of the dark and stagnant waters of the marsh grows a single poplar tree, "all silver-green" (l. 42), the only relief in "the level waste, the rounding gray" (l. 44). One entire stariza (ll. 49-60) is devoted to the shadow of this tree and the implications of this teasing symbol of the growth [22/23] and promises that are denied her but are ever present to her, falling "Upon her bed, across her brow" (l. 56), and making itself a part of her mind. It is a symbol of genuine hope that can be neither claimed nor forgotten; it stands for all that makes release impossible for Mariana. Also supporting this mocking, positive side of the poem is the recurrence of the day's cycle, with each morning bringing a renewal of the bitter knowledge of what is not there and, more important, the taunting reference to "the sweet heaven" (I. 15), a heaven of which she is constantly aware, even though it is closed to her.
This same conjunction of illusory hope and a knowledge of hopelessness is mirrored in the intricate structure of the poem. The only motion is the merely apparent one within actual stasis. Though the refrain does suggest a genuine development in its change from "He cometh not" to "He will not come," we recognize that these are not really separate perceptions, that they simply state the tension that defines her entire existence, the waiting with the certain knowledge that there is no point in waiting. And we see, too, that is poem is narrated from such a distant perspective as to describe not a climactic movement but a slice of life, a typical day with its recurrent hopelessness, rising to a finality that will be dissolved by the renewed hopeless hope of a new day. The action, then, is ironically recurrent, not tragically complete. The tragic simplicity of a climax is distorted to a conclusion only of a mouse squeaking and a fly buzzing. The tragic sensibility has now only these materials; only trivia surround her.
This poem is a prototype of Tennysonian irony, formulating [23/24] many of the techniques and attitudes that appear later, but it is also a highly instinctive form of a vision which, even in later poems, is often put more obtrusively. When the ironic dilemma is stated more overtly, the poetry appears more obviously thematic, sometimes even thematically "divided." Because of this, it is easy, but I think wrong, to approach it as merely dualistic. Such an approach ignores the potential unity provided by ironic tension. Tennyson is not on one side of the argument or the other; like all ironists, he is on neither side-and both.
Last modified 28 March 2001