[The decorative initial "T" incorporates Thomas Woolner's medallion portrait of Tennyson. GPL]ennyson introduces his Mermaid as the Victorian contemplative woman, she is "singing alone,/ Combing her hair" (this image of a beautiful solitary woman combing her hair reminds us of Rossetti's Lady Lilith). However, the Mermaid is not an ideal Victorian woman; there is, most obviously, the issue of her non-humanity: she is a creature of the deep sea.
This fantasy setting allows Tennyson to present his vain and flirtatious Mermaid. She may appear to be contemplative but in her reverie, she wonders "Who is it loves me? Who loves not me?" This preoccupation with love continues in a light-hearted vein throughout the poetry. The mermaid causes the mermen to " . . . feel their immortality/ Die in their hearts for the love of me." And moreover, is an awful flirt, playing "hide and seek" and never letting any merman too close. She is waiting after all, for "the king of them all . . . [to] Woo me, and win me, and marry me."
Ultimately, even mermaids of the deep are married off and returned to their rightful place in society. The mermaid is not a Mariana or a Lady of Shalott; she may have her space apart as a woman, and she is, at times, very alone, however, she is also very aware of her charms and of her ability to entice men. This poem ends on a darker note with the hint of sailor men looking overboard, "All looking down for the love of me." Love, in this case, curses these other creatures who fall in love with the Mermaid and peer into her own type of prison, into the sea.
Although Tennyson was not a Pre-Raphaelite, his poetry had great influence in the Victorian era and many of his works inspired members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to paint. Is his Mermaid similar to the Pre-Raphaelite representation of women? (I thought of Lady Lilith when I read Tennyson's description of the Mermaids hair: "I would comb my hair till my ringlets would fall/ Low adown, low adown,")
Other figures of women that we have looked at this semester are invariably in contemplation. In this poem, Tennyson explicitly gives voice to the Mermaid's thoughts. How does this affect our reading of this figure? If Rossetti or Millais could give their women voices, what would Lilith or Mariana be thinking?
A mermaid is obviously non-human. However, having placed his figure outside of Victorian society, Tennyson then proceeds to re-integrate her into society — she eventually gets married. In her manipulation of men, and her description of her marriage, can we conclude that the mermaid truly is a femme fatale? How does this speak to Victorian ideals of women?
While the Mermaid is very much trapped in her world (she must, after all, remain under the sea), at the same time, the Mermaid retains some control of her fate — she has the ability to choose whom she will eventually marry and she is also empowered in her ability to sing and entrap "... from aloft/ All things that are forked, and horned, and soft/ Would lean out from the hollow sphere of the sea,/ All looking down for the love of me." This is vastly different from the fates of Mariana and the Lady of Shalott. Or is it? Is Tennyson representing a different version of womanhood in "Mermaid", one that is freer and less constrained? Or could the Mermaid be under a curse as well, that of her beauty or her vanity? (If so, why are all these women under curses?)
Ultimately, "Mermaid" reverts to tragic love. The Mermaid causes men, and other creatures, to fall in love with her, but they can never have her, they can only look into her world. Why the tragedy? At the end of the poem, the reader is reminded again of the distance between us and the Mermaid, there is the barrier of fathoms of water and we can only gaze into "the hollow sphere of the sea." What does this almost forced removal from the Mermaid's world achieve?
Last modified 3 October 2006