Mariana (a Shakespeare / Tennyson / Millais threeway)

A couple of days back, I mentioned my fascination with the Mariana character in Measure for Measure. I guess I’m not alone. In 1830, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his poem “Mariana.” Twenty one years after that, English painter John Everett Millais used the Tennyson poem as the inspiration of his oil painting of the same name.

Let’s take a look at Tennyson’s work first:

The poem is comprised of seven twelve-line stanzas, each with a rhyme scheme of abab cddc efef. The verse is primarily in iambic tetrameter, save for the “f” lines which are iambic trimeter; less natural than iambic pentameter, this makes the poem more artificial, more obviously “poetic.”

In the first stanza, Tennyson conveys a sense of decay, mainly through a lack of use or care: “blackest moss…thickly crusted,” “rusted nails,” “broken sheds,” and “weeded and worn.” In the eighth line, we get our first (really our only) reference to the play and its character: “Upon the moated grange” (III.i.162), referring to the duke’s description of Mariana’s location. The final quatrain in each stanza is more of a refrain than anything else, repeating her imagined words; in this case,

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

It sets up the repetitive aspect of her life (“aweary, aweary”), Angelo’s continued absence, and her wish for death (something that Isabella believes would be better for Mariana).

In the second stanza, the opening quatrain and a half gives relates her emotional life (“her tears”) to the world outside her grange (“the dews at even(ing)…sweet heaven…the flitting of the bats”), then we’re shown her quasi-imprisonment (inside “she drew her casement-curtain” and “glanced athwart”). The refrain is altered slightly to reflect that outside world (“the night” because dreary, replacing the first stanza’s “life”).

The third stanza shows us the passage of time (from “night” to “waking”), all “without hope of change.” It is only in her dreams that she can be free (“in sleep she seem’d to walk forelorn”). Again, we get another reference to the “moated grange,” and here, the refrain changes only slightly: now it is “the day (that) is “dreary”. In the fourth stanza, we see that even nature cannot move or grow (“blacken’d waters slept…marish mosses crept” and “for leagues no other tree did mark”); in this refrain, we move back to “life” being dreary. In the fifth stanza, the only movement we see is by shadows in the moonlight; of course, the refrain’s “night” again is dreary.

In the sixth stanza, we seemingly see the rest of the world beckoning her to rejoin life: after a “mouse…from the crevise peer’d about,” she sees “old faces” and hears “old footsteps…old voices.” The refrain returns us to a dreary “life.” In the seventh and final stanza, however, we learn that those beckonings may have been imagined; her sense is so “confound(ed)” that in the refrain, she now says, “I am weary.” The sounds of nature are slowly driving Mariana insane, and we have to be sympathetic to her wishes for death.

It is a slow descent into insanity.

Twenty years later, Millais’ portrait of Mariana focuses on the “slow” portion, not the insanity (which fits, as we don’t really see Mariana’s insanity in the play).

John Everett Millais,
John Everett Millais, “Mariana” 1830

There’s a great Khan Academy video discussing the painting in much better artistic detail than I ever could.

However, I do want to point out something I see. Yes, I do see the aching body the video commentators see. I see the passage of time in the creeping nature outside, the leaves inside. I see concept of confinement. But I see something else as well: there is a sensuality in her body–the arched back, the full hips, the silhouette of the breast. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something there that goes beyond mere loneliness.

Which doesn’t quite fit.

Tomorrow, let’s get back to Shakespeare.