The flower pots are all crusted with moss, rusted nails fall from the knots that hold the pears to the wall, the broken sheds are “sad and strange,” the latch is undone. This is the lonely grange where Mariana cries, “My life is dreary, / He cometh not” and “I am aweary, aweary, / I would that I were dead!”
Her tears fall, and she cannot raise her eyes to heaven either in the morning or in the evening. When the bats flit about and the sky is dark, she closes her window coverings. She says, “The night is dreary, / He cometh not” and repeats that she is “aweary” and wishes she were dead.
In the middle of the night, she hears the crowing of birds and the rooster’s cry in the dawn. She hears the moan of the oxen and feels bereft of change. In her sleep “she seem’d to walk forlorn” until the cold winds woke her in the gray morning. The day is dreary, he does not come, and she is still weary and wishing for death.
Close to the wall black waters sleep, with black mosses creeping over the surface. This is near a tall, silver-green poplar, the only one for leagues around that challenges the “level waste, the rounding gray.” She now says, “My life is dreary, / He cometh not” and “I am aweary, aweary, / I would that I were dead!”
When the moon hangs low in the sky and the winds blow the curtains, she sees the poplar’s shadow. When the moon is even lower and the winds are still, the shadow falls across her bed and her brow. This time she says, “The night is dreary” and repeats the rest.
During the day in the “dreamy house,” the doors creak on their hinges, the blue fly sings, and the mouse shrieks or peeks out from a moldy crevice. She notices faces, voices, and footsteps from the past. She says again, “My life is dreary” and repeats the rest.
She is confused and annoyed by the sound of the sparrow and the clock and the poplar moving in the wind, but the times when the sunbeams fall on his chamber she is the most upset. Finally she says, “I am very dreary, / He will not come” and, “I am aweary, aweary, / Oh God, that I were dead!”
“Mariana” is beautiful and disturbing, a critical favorite of Tennyson’s oeuvre. Published in 1830, it contains some of the same themes as Tennyson’s other famous poems: stasis and a sense of unending time, as in “Tithonus”; isolation and despair, as in “The Lady of Shalott”; and shadow and dreaminess, as in “The Princess.” The poem consists of seven 12-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, except for the tenth and twelfth lines, which are trimeter. It is considered a lyrical narrative, while it contains elements of dramatic monologue.
The person Mariana is based on Shakespeare’s Mariana from Measure for Measure, who waits in on lonely grange (farm) for her lover Angelo, who has abandoned her; the line there is “Mariana in the moated grange.” The line’s lack of a verb is important because it suggests the stasis that Tennyson so exquisitely conveys in his poem. In the play Angelo does return and the two are reunited, but the sad Mariana of sad Tennyson’s poem does not experience that happy reconciliation.
The poem concerns the decay of the world Mariana inhabits—the lonely grange—and her psychological decay as she waits and yearns for her absent lover. These two types of regression and return to the Earth are completely symbiotic and harmonious. The decay of the physical environment is observed in the moss crusting over the flower pots, the rusted nails falling out of the walls, the broken sheds, the weeds taking over, the blackened waters of the sluice, the creaking hinges of old doors, and the dusty, dreamy house slowly disintegrating. Tennyson’s powers of language and his ability to summon up a hypnotic, melancholy world of ghostly voices and utter stagnation are on full display. The reader sees what Mariana sees: every terrible detail of her seemingly endless existence. The critic Timothy Peltason observes that the poem is “both time-soaked and immobile.”
Mariana’s own decay is observed in her weariness and her despair, in her repetition of the same (or nearly the same) phrases over and over again, and her complete lack of action. She is unable to gaze at the sun “either at morn or eventide” and finds the part of the day when sunbeams fall on her lover’s chamber the most loathsome of the day. The critic G.O. Gunter writes that in this poem Tennyson prefigured the writings of Jung and Freud with his “remarkable insight regarding the workings of the mind,” and Gunter observed that Mariana’s “libido, blocked by the frustrations of her life, flows backward into the past. Her mind is slipping backward to the unconscious.”
Gunter does identify certain energies that seek to combat the decay taking place, and notes, “these energies are indicated by masculine symbols, whereas death and disintegration are associated with feminine elements.” The poplar tree is the best example, a tall phallic symbol that distresses Mariana when its shadow falls across her bed in the evening. It seems evident that she is experiencing sexual frustration as well as other frustrations due to her lover’s absence. Also, in literature trees often symbolize potent life forces, and it is no wonder Mariana is unnerved by it. The wind is also a symbol of life and fecundity and is therefore a threat. It moves things even while her situation does not change. Finally, the sky and the sun are unendurable for the mourning woman; “Mariana can look with comfort only upon darkness, which is symbolic of regression, the unconscious mind, and death.”
Indeed, what Mariana wishes throughout the ordeal is death, an end to her conscious worry over the absence of her lover. This is her refrain: she is so weary, her life and surroundings so dreary, that she would rather be dead. Yet, the paradox is that she does not die or take her life. She is weary enough to prefer death, yet she continues to wait for the lover to return. Finally, at the end of the poem, she has acknowledged the sad likelihood that “he will not come,” but she still does no more than wish for death, finally calling upon God in her sadness. Will she continue to wait?
A reader might wonder whether the poem speaks more broadly—whether Mariana and her sad wait might reflect a larger reality. Perhaps her case represents the psychological situation of others who are trapped in sadness over a loss and cannot move on, like the later Miss Havisham in Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) who, abandoned on her wedding day, remains unto death in her decaying house. Or perhaps she is in the position of those who have waited a long time for the return of the Christ and have a pessimistic view of the world in the meantime.