Rhoda L. Flaxman, defines word painting as "extended passages of visually oriented descriptions whose techniques emulate pictorial methods. Word-painters typically employ framing devices, recurrent iconographic motifs, careful compositional structures, and pay close attention to contrasts of light and dark, of color, volume, and mass." Tennyson was one of the most exceptional word painters of the nineteenth century and probably of all time. In the previous passage from his "Mariana," Tennyson's use of word- painting works to create what Flaxman calls a "faithfulness to a precise and consistent perspective focused through the viewpoint of a particular spectator. This point of view often yields an effect we moderns call cinematic, implying progress from one element to the next in a 'narrative of landscape.'" The poem is marked by its static feeling - there is no climax that the poem is leading up to. Yet the use of word-painting does create a "narrative of landscape."

Tennyson begins with a rather rocky first sentence, the tongue tripping over the words "blackest" and "flower-plots."

With blackest moss the flower-pots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the garden-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. (Tennyson, 13)

The imagery of "thickly crusted," with the double consonants surrounding a short vowel in both words, creates darkness and a density, setting the mood of the poem, which has already been hinted at with the word black. The use of the word "black" also serves to place the poem in an industrial setting, where the soot from the factories covered everything with a depressing, coal black. The "clinking latch" works to add sound to the image. The sound that "clinking" produces is very short and empty, just a clicking of the tongue. By the time the last line before the returning refrain is reached, the words "upon the lonely moated grange" feel hollow, especially after the "clinking" noise. The long vowels create an expansiveness that allows one to feel the loneliness of the scene, and of the speaker. Once again, the use of pathetic fallacy allows the reader to know that the poet is trying to "dramatize grief... communicating [it] far more effectively than would the simple statement that the speaker suffers from sorrow" (George Landow, "Ruskin's Discussion of the Pathetic Fallacy," The Victorian Web).

Because the characterization in The Pickwick Papersare primarily, as Dickens says, by means of a depiction of "English scenes and people," with a large emphasis on dialogue and actions, there is not as much use of word-painting in the novel. However, at times, Dickens does use this technique. In a scene near the beginning of the novel, Pickwick stands reflecting on the Rochester Bridge. The narrator describes the scene around him:

On the left of the spectator lay the ruined wall, broken in many places, and in some, overhanging the narrow beach below in rude and heavy masses. Huge knots of sea-weed hung upon the jagged and pointed stones, trembling in every breath of wind; and the green ivy clung mournfully round the dark and ruined battlements. [Dickens, 129]

The word-painting in this scene is much less effective than in Tennyson, in part because Tennyson is a poet and more concerned with the individual words than a serial writer like Dickens, but also because of a difference in the function of the word-painting. Pickwick is supposedly immersed in an "agreeable reverie." Yet the placement of such a scene amidst all the hustle and bustle of the dialogue and the action creates some confusion. According to Flaxman, Victorian word-painting integrates "descriptive details with thematic motifs in order to emphasize the contrast between the old and new, the past and present" (Flaxman in Smith). The man who rouses Pickwick "from the agreeable reverie" seems to be the embodiment of Romanticism. The man is obsessed with nature and suggests to Pickwick that "on a morning such as this... drowning would be peace and happiness... The calm, cool water seems to me to murmur an invitation to repose and rest" (Dickens, 130). This spontaneous overflow of emotion, the commitment to passion and the utter lack of concern about how his death might affect anyone are key signs of Romanticism. Thus the word-painting here functions as a way to contrast this "old," "past" perspective with a new one that emphasizes a balance of passion with reason and a desire to connect the individual with society.

"Mariana" also addresses the issue of an individual and her lack of connection with society. Despite the loneliness and dread that Mariana feels, she still wants the connection with an other. She laments repeatedly, "My life is dreary, He cometh not... I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead" Her loneliness encourages her to wish her own death. The obvious bout of depression in which Mariana is immersed indicates the concern with mental health that became so important during the nineteenth-century. Having a healthy body and mind was a priority and a topic that occupied the minds of most middle class citizens. The emerging fascination with mentally unstable people, such as Mariana, indicates this growing societal obsession with mental health and sanity. This obsession stems in part from the desire to connect the individual with society. One who is mentally unstable is largely incapable of making a connection with other members of society. They become figures like the man who interrupts Pickwick's reverie, obsessed with their own life and death in a way characteristic of Romantic thinkers. Thus word-painting in Tennyson does not work to represent a contrast between past and present, as it does in Dickens, but rather as a way to establish the depression and emptiness that come from a lack of connection with any other human being, placing Mariana firmly in the Victorian present.


Victorian Web Overview Pickwick Papers Mariana

Last modified 30 November 2004