The poplar motif

James R. Kincaid, Aerol Arnold Professor of English, University of Southern California

Note 8 to Chapter 2 of the author's Tennyson's Major Poems, which Yale University Press published in 1975. It has been included in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright.

Ward Hellstrom argues that the tree is a symbol of death, and he alludcs to a broad range of "classical and folk traditions" which make that association (p. 156). Aside from Euripides's story of the sisters of Thathaon and the reference in The Odyssee to the poplar at the mouth of Calypso's cave, I can locate only various mythological dictionary references to the black poplar as a funeral tree in ancient Greece; it stands more generally for a loss of hope. Frankly, I do not knew what this adds up to. On the other side are the more "natural" associations connected with the tree, its contrasts with the rot and decay surrounding in this poem, and in suggestions of assertive masculinity. This last point is developed by G. O. Gunter. He argues that the tree here "denotes a cosmic life form," more particularly "a phallic symbol" (p. 65). However that may be, I suppose the most sensible solution is an appeal to the context, where the mocking, tantalizing image is most readily associated with a life that is absent. Some confusion or ambiguity in the image, however, would clearly not be inappropriate and might be seen as reinforcing the general instability of Mariana's situation and perception.

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Last modified: 28 March 2001