Alfred Tennyson believed that a period of doom followed Romanticism, which aroused feelings of uncertainty concerning the future. With the publishing of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’, and the rapid growth of industrialisation and wealth, the Victorian’s experienced a great period of change. Many Victorians mourned their old way of life, and thus distanced themselves from this new changing world, which made them feel infinitely isolated. They suffered from an “anxious sense of something lost, a sense too of being displaced persons in a world made alien by technological changes that had been exploited too quickly for the adaptive powers of the human psyche”  . Human happiness was being sacrificed and this sense of insecurity inevitably led to fears of isolation. Moreover, after the death of both Tennyson’s closest friend, Hallam, and of Byron, whom Tennyson greatly admired, he experienced great awareness of isolation himself from the outside world. Thus, Tennyson began to express his feelings of uncertainty, loss and isolation into his writing; poetry was his form of therapy.
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Through many of his poems, Tennyson skilfully linked external scenery to the interior state of mind. Thus, it is “the power of creating scenery, in keeping with some state of human feeling”  which makes Tennyson’s writing so powerful. The sensation which Tennyson depicted most strongly was melancholy isolation, which in ‘Mariana’, is conveyed through the consciousness of an abandoned woman. Tennyson further explores an isolated self through the mythical character, ‘Tithonus’, where he alludes to the consciousness of a man who is trapped inside his own world and isolated from the external.
‘Mariana’ is written as a third-person lyric, which helps the reader empathise with her suffering in a deeper context. It is a poem of subjectivity; she is surrounded by a world of objects, yet feels completely isolated from the outside world, “Mariana is herself stuck in place, trapped in the poem’s viscous language and in her own obsessive refrain.”  Thus, the poem has a paradoxical nature; Mariana desires to be rescued from her despondent state of mind, but the poem relies on a sense of emptiness and isolation. The limited direct speech, other than Mariana’s repetitive refrain, expresses a position of suffering silence, which further intensifies Mariana’s grief, isolation, and her bleak passivity towards her depressing existence.
Conversely, ‘Tithonus’ is a dramatic monologue depicting a man who has the potential to see and experience the world for eternity because he has been granted immortality. However, since he is cursed with ‘immortal age beside immortal youth’  (line 22), he experiences the same feeling of loneliness as Mariana. Tithonus’ situation is heavily ironic, since he will forever be surrounded by the vitality of life and people, yet nobody can empathise, since only he has been granted immortality. Tennyson is portraying a sense of foreboding, highlighting how we are haunted by the decisions we make in life and the consequences of our actions are always prevalent; “Tithonus demonstrates the danger of fulfilment”  . Tennyson is thus depicting the negative effects of human desire, and suggesting how the Victorian period was rapidly changing, possessing a sense of doom, “the persistence of barbarity and bloodshed, and the greed of the newly rich destroyed his hopes that humanity was moving upwards”  . Both ‘Mariana’ and ‘Tithonus’ allude to a sense of loss and an uncertainty concerning their futures, resulting in their eternal sense of isolation; these sensations reflected Tennyson’s, and many others states of mind during the Victorian period.
Tennyson’s descriptions of the natural world in ‘Mariana’ convey pathetic fallacy, since the portrayal of the external reflects her internal state of mind. The nouns in the first stanza evoke a world of objects, yet the adjectives used to describe them are dark and dreary, ‘Blackest moss’  , ‘Broken sheds’, and ‘Lonely moated grange’ (lines 1, 5 and 8) illustrating how Mariana is attributing her own feelings to inanimate objects. They represent how she is feeling; broken, depressed and alone. Melancholy is thus depicted as entirely visual, and the lack of sound and action through the poem illustrates Mariana’s seclusion. Furthermore, the image of ‘nails’ initially suggests strength, since nails are often used to build something strong, and to join things together, yet Tennyson depicts how the ‘Rusted nails fell from the knots’ (line 3), symbolising that everything in Mariana’s life, including her lost love, has fallen apart. Tennyson is again reflecting on the Victorian sense of loss, reinforcing the rapid changes which were being made.
The alliterative phrase, ‘The clustered marish-mosses crept’ (line 40) insinuates the word ‘nightmarish’, depicting Mariana’s position, and the personification of the moss creeping adds to the morbid rhetoric and melancholic images depicting Mariana’s morose existence. Tennyson further uses assonance with repetition of the ‘O’ sound throughout each stanza, ‘Aloof’, ‘Loathed’, ‘Lonely’, ‘Broken’, ‘Old’ (lines 75, 77, 8, 5 and 66), creating a mournful tone, which echoes and mimics Mariana’s final statement to the poem, ‘Oh God’ (line 84), expressing her final wish to die. Her helpless and weary tone, reflected by the ‘O’ sound encourages us to sympathise with her, since we realise she has nobody to protect her from the chilling outside world. Tennyson is again inflicting his views of the fear of the ‘unknown’ which the outside world held for him and others in the Victorian period.
Mariana’s isolation is intensified when nature distorts her reality, misleading her into believing that something, or someone, is present. The fifth stanza depicts how ‘The shadow of the poplar fell/Upon her bed, across her brow’ (lines 55-56), which represents the tree as a phallic symbol, highlighting Mariana’s sexual desire for her absent lover; its ‘shadow’ is thus an example of how nature can be cruel and deceiving. Not only are there visual allusions of the house controlling Mariana’s senses, but the house also evokes noises, ‘The doors upon the hinges creaked’ (line 62), giving Mariana hope that someone may be there for her, yet we know nature is deluding her senses. Moreover, ‘Unlifted was the clinking latch’ (line 6) indicates from the adjective, ‘clinking’, that somebody is present, yet the fact it is ‘unlifted’ further adds to Mariana’s position of despair and isolation. All of the sounds represented in this poem are associated with nature or Mariana’s surroundings, and bear negative connotations, such as ‘hinges creaked’, ‘flitting bats’, ‘shrill winds’, ‘wainscot shrieked’ (lines 62, 17, 50 and 64); nature thus dominates the speech throughout the poem, contrasting bleakly to Mariana’s internal suffering silence.
The use of shadows is also evoked through ‘Tithonus’, when he describes himself as a ‘White-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream/The ever-silent spaces of the East’ (lines 8-9), suggesting that he has assimilated himself with nature, drifting around the sky, surrounded only by silence. Thus, he has absorbed himself with nature, yet still feels a sense of seclusion, further emphasising the fact he is alone. Moreover, through equating himself with a cloud, Tithonus is illustrating his own feeling of insignificance in the world, which conveys his slow deterioration, since clouds have little physical presence and eventually disperse.
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The silence that pervades the poem also adds to Tithonus’ isolation. Aurora, his wife, grows more beautiful ‘In silence’ (line 44) and the one reference to sound is made when Tithonus mentions, ‘That strange song I heard Apollo sing/While Ilion like a mist rose into towers’ (lines 62-63). However, the use of the past tense immediately distances this music and also highlights how he does not even have music for company, which reinforces his isolation. The music which Tithonus used to hear is juxtaposed with the calming ‘mist’ which Tithonus appears to have associated himself with; the music he once heard has disappeared, just as Tithonus, like the mist, has a desire to evaporate and vanish from his world. Thus, like in ‘Mariana’, nature is mocking him; he longs to be the mist and have the power to fade away, yet his immortality refuses him this wish, and emptiness will forever consumes him.
Nature has a cyclical structure, since after its death, it has the ability to re-grow into something new. Conversely, Tithonus will grow old and wither, but never die, which is why he wishes to assimilate himself with nature. The cyclical manner in which nature operates is shown through the iambic pentameter in the first stanza, which gives a regular, rhythmic sound to the opening of the poem, ‘The woods decay, the woods decay and fall’ (line 1). The rhythm is song-like and upbeat, since it signifies how nature re-grows even after death. However, this harmony is broken up with the lines ‘Me only cruel immortality/ Consumes; I wither slowly’ (lines 5-6). An irregularity is introduced, since this phrase is separate from the rest of the stanza, conveying the strength of nature juxtaposed to Tithonus’ helpless situation. The enjambment and introduction of the adjective, ‘cruel’, adds further discord to the stanza, echoing the manner in which Tithonus has disrupted the flow of nature and changed the structure of human life. Tennyson’s moral voice comes through the poem when Tithonus states, ‘Why should a man desire in any way/To vary from the kindly race of men?’ (lines 28-29) Tennyson is thus warning the reader about the dangers of hubris and how it ultimately leaves you alone in the world. He is criticising industry during the Victorian period, and portraying how it was wrongly sacrificing human happiness for wealth and power.
Tennyson thus illustrates his view of the isolated self through ‘Mariana’ and ‘Tithonus’, whilst he clearly portrays how the Victorian’s felt a sense of something lost due to the rapid changes which were taking place in their society. Both poems expose apprehensive thoughts inside the internal psyche, reflecting the anxious minds of those in the Victorian period who had concerns regarding the future. This ultimately created fears of isolation, and a sense of distance from the world they were accustomed to.
Word count- 1, 570
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