Feminism and Romanticism in “Mariana”
‘Mariana’ is a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson which was published in 1830. This was an early stage of the Victorian era, a time when there was a plethora of social upheavals in England and Europe. As a composition, ‘Mariana’ is a beautiful yet ominous lyrical narrative, featuring themes of loneliness, isolation and rejection. It is compliant with the social context of its time, where women lost their marriage potential after offending society’s predilection of perfection. Mariana becomes a silhouette of her former self, calling and yearning for Angelico. However, examining this with a modern stance raises critical questions. The central principles of feminism dictate that the affiliation between women and men has almost always been unequal and tyrannical. Moreover, all major institutions have been characterised by male dominance, such as the economy, political system, family and religion. The issue at hand, in light of these concerns, is twofold. The first part enquires whether Mariana is conforming to convention and upsetting the values of feminism. The second concerns intention; namely, did Tennyson intend this violation of feminist doctrines in order to enlighten society?
To a great extent, the speaker in ‘Mariana’ is a victim of romanticism. She describes her emotional journey and the subsequent pain of rejection. Embellished expressions have been used to alert the reader to the extent of her suffering. Tennyson may have used these techniques in order to communicate the magnitude of her sorrow. The first stanza focuses on nature and its deterioration. Tennyson has employed pathetic fallacy, a form of personification, to depict a landscape of decay that represents the gradual deterioration of Mariana’s cognitive state. ‘With blackest moss the flower-pots Were thickly crushed, one and all:’. Tennyson intensifies the sadness of Mariana’s circumstances by his use of irony. The growth of the moss juxtaposed with Mariana’s restless state suggests that despair cultivates even in nature. Moreover, flowers are the symbol of love, as a leading psychologist once opined ‘flowers are a perfect replica of human life’. Therefore, the flowers could epitomise Mariana’s quixotic hopes and the pot, which is ‘thickly crusted’, is the escalating despondency that has imprisoned her vitality and choked her faith. Alternatively, one could suggest Tennyson is showing how Mariana is dependent on her lover, Angelico. The moss could represent Mariana as it serves as a symbiotic organism to other organisms. This may offend the main principles of feminism, as it is argued all women should be autonomous and self-reliant. However, Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary argue that the need to belong to a partner is a fundamental human desire, forming and maintaining significant interpersonal relationships. Therefore, Mariana’s desire to be loved extends universally to all individuals and is not a sign of patriarchal indoctrination. Instead, it is a yearning that all humans experience and Tennyson provides scope for this emotional appetite to be recognised and then accepted in society.
The location of the moated grange is not specified, thus the theme of loneliness and remoteness is universalised and amplified. Imagery of Mariana lingering eternally in a dark realm of melancholy creates a haunting atmosphere. The entwinement of the psychological and physical world demonstrates the psychosomatic disturbance Mariana is experiencing and suggests her mental-makeup is compromised. ‘The broken sheds look’d sad and strange.’ The employment of alliteration embeds the idea of unrealised potential. The grange, which could represent Mariana, has the means to harness life but has been abandoned. If this imagery suggests Mariana’s purpose of life is fruitfulness and fertility, then feminists might argue this viewpoint is archaic and discriminatory. However, the context of the time must be considered when scrutinising Tennyson’s works. It was a common conception that women were ‘angels of the household’ who obeyed their husband’s every whim. There were exceptions; nevertheless it was an emblematic position that the upper and middle class espoused. Tennyson outlined these patriarchal social values and roles for men and women in ‘The Princess’. ‘Man with the head, and women with the heart; Man to command, and woman to obey; All else is confusion.’ Contemporary historians underline the ironic paradox effervescing beneath the surface of such austerity. On one hand, there was supreme subservience to the dictates of society, exemplified conduct and conventionalism. On the other hand, there was an overwhelming excess of child labour and prostitution, resulting in a contradictory congruence. Consequently, a veneer of abstemiousness, austerity and piety was embraced while erecting an evanescent screen in order to ignore the many tribulations that were proliferating in Victorian England. Thus one could argue that Marianna is not offending the main principles of feminism pragmatically. By expressing her disappointment and honest yearning for Angelico, she is transcending the constraining chains of social approbation and publically declaring ‘truth’.
Alternatively, one could argue that Mariana is offending the main principles of feminism. She identifies and attaches the value of life to Angelico, deeming it futile and insignificant when she is rejected. In terms of structure, Tennyson unfailingly employs short sentences and repetition at the end of each stanza. ‘She said, I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead!’ The exclamation point entrenches Mariana’s desperateness and encourages the reader to empathise with her hopeless state. However, the difficulty in determining whether the speaker is offending the values of feminism arises when one evaluates the weight of her statement. If it is not mere exaggeration, then Mariana’s emotional despair is offending both the philosophies of feminism and religion. She is disregarding the sanctity of life and allowing her emotions to prevail over rational thought. While this could be considered romantic, a feminist may argue the gravitas of the outcome overrules the beauty of amorous idealism. By fashioning a precedent where women are dependent upon men, the potential of a woman is consequently limited and restricted. Thus plummeting future generations into socio-political jeopardy and reducing women to conditioned childbearing machines.
Mariana, on the basis of this evidence, is purely the victim of romanticism. Tennyson may have tried to inform Victorian society about the acquiescent position of women; however, feminism was still an underground movement at this point. Therefore, writers and poets were constrained by public opinion. However, by considering the context of the poem and the clear links to Shakespeare, we can discern that Mariana was an exploration of seclusion and rejection rather than a socio-economic provocative piece of literature.
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‘Mariana’ is a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson which was published in 1830. This was an early stage of the Victorian era, a time when there was a plethora of […]