Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

"Mariana" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Originally published 1830.
Poem found here

First lines:
With blackest moss the flower-pots
     Were thickly crusted, one and all;


poetic structure: aesthetic ideation vs. brute factuality


A Note before beginning: "Mariana" is a more difficult poem than one might think at first read. It is a dense poem, and attention to detail is important. Yet, it is very easy to get lost in the sound of the poem and lose that attention. So, before reading the below, I recommend giving the poem – if you are unfamiliar with it – more than a couple of reads.


Tennyson's "Mariana" is one of my all time favorite poems.[FN] In reading Tennyson criticism you will hear it said that it is one of his best; and you can occasionally hear it said that it is can be comfortably held among the best of English poetry, or at least Victorian poetry. I have had a print-out of it on my desk for a short while now, wanting to do a post, though not really sure how to approach the effort. It has been more than a couple of weeks since my last offering here, so I figure I will give this a go and post whatever results, whether it comes to complete fruition or not.

[FN] To note, Tennyson wrote a second poem on the same theme, "Mariana in the South." It is not as great a poem, which may be why Tennyson essentially rewrote it in the years after its first publication. Or perhaps the fact that Tennyson so greatly rewrote it speaks, in itself, that it is not so great a poem.

An opening note: it may seem as this progresses that I am veering away from my normal approach of exploring poetry from the viewpoint of the writer and moving toward a straight act of criticism. I definitely am doing the latter, but I am not in it abandoning the former. Yes, there is a gap between a critical exploration of a poem and the question "how do I learn to write like that?" That gap, though, is one that can only be bridged by the explorations and attemptings of the writer. The step I am (hopefully) providing may not be part of the actual stepping, but it is the revealing of a place to which to step. But, then, how is that any different than any other post here?


In a general sense, this is going to be about structure. It can be argued that the vast majority of the words that I have written on this blog can be brought under the heading of "As Concerns Structure in Poetry," though such might not always be overt in the language of the posts. In fact, I think I could make the argument that the vast majority of the words that has been written in literary criticism in toto (art criticism as well) is about structure. So it should be no surprise to you that, if I were to diagnose one common ailment in contemporary poetics it would be the absence of attention to – and knowledge of and skill with – structure.

For structure is ideation. It organizes it, it develops it, yes; but it also creates it. It can be subtle in its effects or neon-bright; it can be emphatic or it can be subversive. But it always has a play in the ideation of the work. That's a very grand statement, I admit; and, one that probably cannot ever be proven definitively. (Can anything be proven definitively?) Proof, instead, lies in putting the idea in your head and having the idea to the fore while you are reading literature, and attend for yourself to how structure is used by those capable thereof, to the benefit of the depth and energy, if not to the soul, of the work.

And should you now be thinking "my content is strong enough that it does not need structure to aid it," the lack of structure dissipates, erodes, undermines, and even destroys ideation. The absence of structure is always detrimental to the reception – and the writing – of a work. (If you need it said another way, a poorly structured work is always going to be inferior to the work well-structured.) Something else for your attentions and contemplations.


Now, before any misconceptions arise, let me provide an immediate clarification, in case one thinks that by using the word "structure" I am here aligning myself with the New Formalists, as the spokespeople for New Formalism will frequently speak of meter in the same or similar terms that I am using with the idea of structure. For example, there is this quotation from Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter (1990), as found in the introduction to the 1996 anthology Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism:

What is essential to human life and to its continuance remains a love of nature, an enthusiasm for justice, a readiness of good humor, a spontaneous susceptibility to beauty and joy, an interest in our past, a hope for our future, and, above all, a desire that others should have the opportunity and encouragement to share these qualities. An art of measured speech nourishes these qualities in a way no other pursuit can.[FN]

Much in the manner of most bravado defenses of poetry, it makes rather high claims. Though, they are utterly fallacious claims, and perhaps I need only to point backwards to the posts prior to this one about the necessity in criticism to separate the material from the ideational (to make the the distinction between the verse-prose spectrum and the poetic-prosaic spectrum). I will only say here that there is no such necessary correlation between meter and, to pick one, "an enthusiasm for justice": I think most people's would think it is a rather astounding if not outlandish claim to say an art of measured speech nourishes enthusiasm for justice." (If ever I say such a thing in relation to literature, you have my permission to take me out back and shoot me. No guilt. You will be doing me a favor.)


[FN] Rebel Angels edited by Mark Jarman and David Mason.

The quotation comes from the final paragraph of the text of Missing Measures (pg. 294). Missing Measures seems to be something of a theoretical/critical touchstone for the New Formalists as it is frequently referred to in such contexts as introductions to anthologies. Perhaps that should not be surprising since it was written by one of their central members. Unfortunately, it is a greatly flawed book. It has an ever-present tendency to take quotations out of context, and a bad habit of reading quotations against their context. Though, on a more positive side, it does have the amazing fortune of having its arguments reach desired conclusions even when the evidence presented does not at all point that way. To note, I fully intend to back this statement up at a future date.


Which is not to say that metered speech can not be used to the ends of ideational structure. The error of New Formalism (that is, of the critical defenses and positions of New Formalism as spoken by such members as Timothy Steele and Dana Gioia) is that they tend to hold meter in itself as sufficient to creating poetry of merit. Somehow, magically, for the New Formalists, writing in rhymes and iambs will in itself create poetic values like that described by Steele. The idea is patently absurd. If I may remind you of Barfield's Poetic Diction: "The artificial identification of the words poetry and poetic with metrical form is certainly of long standing in popular use; but it has rarely been supported by those who have written on the subject" (145).

In truth, there is nothing easier to write, poetry-wise, than blank verse. To give an example, it took me about eight minutes to go from this:

Astrology, which has been called the foster-sister of astronomy, is regarded as the earliest of the occult sciences. Its great antiquity is beyond doubt, for its shadows merge into those of mythological lore and the origin of both is lost to us in the mists of time.

It may be said to bear the same relation to astronomy that alchemy does to chemistry, and was the connecting link between magic and the latter science. (the opening paragraphs of The Mystery and Romance of Astrology by C.J.S. Thompson)

to this

Astrology, which has been called by some
the foster-sister of astronomy,
is regarded as the earliest occult
science. Its great antiquity is past
all doubt, for its shadows merge with those of myth
and the origin of both is lost to us
in the mists of time. It may be said to have
the same relation to astronomy
as couples alchemy and chemistry;
for it was the link between the stars as known
through magic and the stars as understood
through the latter, scientific discipline.

In fact, most of those eight minutes were spent on getting it to end at the end of a line. The result is good blank verse; but, it is not poetic. I have a idea for a post along these lines, but that's for another day.

What is lacking in much of the the metricolatry of the New Formalists is that which is described in this passage from Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (rev. ed., 1979). The subject of the passage is the Petrachan sonnet (which goes abbaabba cdecde).

The second technical difficulty of the Petrachan sonnet is connected with the "envelope" rhyme scheme of the two quatrains. By envelope we mean that the two "outside" rhymes (the a's) serve as an envelope or container of the internal couplet (the b's). Because of their logical as well as their sound relationships, ideally the phrases or clauses rhymed a should relate closely to each other, even though they are separated; and those within the envelope, those which comprise the couplet rhymes b, should exhibit an even closer semantic and logical relationship. The general critical principle, which follows from the axiom that a poem is organic and that everything in it must contribute to meaning, is that the rhyming of two contiquous lines demands a tighter logical unity between them than between two noncontiguous lines which rhyme. We expect the relation of the two lines of a couple to be logically very close, whereas the relation of the two rhyming lines in an abab quatrain does not arouse such rigorous expectations. (119-20, my emphasis)

To say it another way, to create a broader principle: a structure in a poem should have purpose to the poem as a whole. A corollary: "Well, that's the meter and rhyme scheme for this poetic form I want to use" is insufficient (in fact irrelevant) to that end.

How often, after all, do I say here "if you are going to write in lines, then write lines; otherwise, there is no reason to have line breaks." This relationship between structure and ideation is exactly what is mostly absent in New Formalism. It is why Missing Measures runs too far foul, for in arguing that Modernists rejected meter Steele misses entirely that what the Modernists were in fact rejecting was the idea that meter in itself creates meaningful structure. But that is also for another day.

In honesty, occasionally one does see someone in the New Formalist camp say that "that is what we mean, that meter and rhyme can be used to create meaningful structure." Except that that is not what their vocal members are saying, and if indeed that is what they are saying, why is their poetry so lacking in performance of the idea? If you need demonstration, you need only look to Rebel Angels, which is mostly populated by poems whose metrics are little more than "an exercise in technique," to use words from Gioia's, included, "Confessional Sestina," which I find interesting mostly in that it is describing itself.[FN]

[FN] Of course, as with any anthology, there are exceptions, and there is some interesting poetry between the covers of Rebel Angels. Also, it should be said, just because a poet gets pulled under – or willingly walks under – the umbrella of "New Formalism" does not de facto mean they agree with the critical arguments of the central, more vocal members. Both those statements go without saying, yet always need to be said.

But I am straying, and into ideas I intend to play with in the near future, so let me pull back. My want here is to explore "Mariana," primarily as regards structure. To drive home the idea that metrics in itself is not poetic but merely verse, I will continue in a manner such that everything I say would be applicable to "Mariana" even if it had been written in free verse.


There's a second, necessary, introductory note. "Mariana" carries an epigraph:

"Mariana in the moated grange." – Measure for Measure

While sometimes an epigraph pulls in an outside text so as to give necessary information to the work, I do not believe that that is the case here. I believe the epigraph serves primarily to give a context of the donnée of the poem. Yes, for those people who have to have see in every text a fixed meaning (lest it makes no sense to them), you can find that fixed meaning by pulling in the play. But there is nothing in "Mariana" that requires the play. The core of "Mariana" is not to be found within any context created by the play Measure for Measure, or in that Mariana as a character exists first in Mariana, nor need it be that the Mariana of "Mariana" is in fact the Mariana of Measure for Measure. The core of the poem "Mariana" is found in the poem itself. Specifically, the core of "Mariana" is that it is a narrative that has no action.

That is to me what is the most interesting aspect of the poem: it is a narrative-ish poem, seven stanzas long, eighty-four lines, and yet nothing happens. Well, almost nothing. So let me be a little more precise with the idea. This is from Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan's Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, a wonderful little text on narratology.

Events [in a narrative] can be classified into two main kinds: those that advance the action by opening an alterntive ('kernals') and those that expand, amplify, maintain or delay the former ('catalysts') [. . .]. If a telephone rings, a character can either answer it or not; an alternative is opened and the event is therefore a kernel. But between the ringing of the phone and the answer (or the decision not to answer), the character may scratch his head, light a cigarette, curse, etc. These are catalysts – they do not open an alternative but 'accompany' the kernel in various ways. (16)

There are in "Mariana" no kernels. There is only the delay of one of two possible kernels: the arrival of the man and death. Even though it has the nature of a narrative in that it is about a character in that character's world, nothing changes, nothing happens. Or, the same thing happens, though not in endless repetition but endlessly.

The above is not one of my digressions into the technical aspects of literature. It is using one of those technical aspects of literature to give information applicable not only to reading but also to writing. There are two kinds of "action" in a narrative: events that gives options and that, in the choosing of one option over another, brings change to the narrative; and events that "happen" but never open the door for change. Suspense is created through the latter. Fear can be seen as the dread of a future kernel, a future event that will bring unwanted change. To develop fear in a narrative, to build up fear, requires not only developing the relationship of the character – and the reader – to the dreaded event, but also manipulating the narrative so as to postpone the event, thereby giving energy to that fear. Fright, then, occurs with a kernel that appears out of nowhere, a kernel for which there has been no expectation. Horror, to the other side, is thus fear for a kernel that will never come, a kernel that can never arrive because it is beyond comprehension. If the reader can project the factual nature of the containing narrative forward to such a kernel, pull the kernel into that projection and turn it too into something factual, they can reduce the horror to fear, and perhaps eliminate the fear itself. True horror refuses the viewer that safety net, refuses the viewer rational understanding, and leaves them only with the intuitive experience the dark – if not darkest – unknown.

In no small way, "Mariana" is a horror story. But before we get to that let's spend a moment more on action in general. Look at the first verse, which serves good example for the whole of the poem:

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 gable-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!”

Ignoring the refrain, most of the verbs (present or implied) are either forms of "to be" or observational words (like "look'd"). The one overt exception here is "fell": but "fell" is itself a passive action. The nails, here, do not by their own impetus fall from the wall. In fact, it is not by the action of anything: there is no kernel that results in the fall of the nails. The nails fall because of the absence of action, the absence of effort by anyone. It is a verb, but it is a non-event.

There is a second non-event in the stanza, that marked by the work "unlifted." There are two points of notice as regards that moment in the writing. First, the obvious, the latch is described as unlifted, which of course ties in to the waiting for the man: the man who never comes; even, the man who has never come. It is speaking the absence of action within the narrative, and speaking that absence of action in both directions: he has not come up to now, he will not come after now. It is not only that the gate latch is not being lifted and so will not be lifted, it is also that the gate latch has never been lifted. With that phrase (and by extension with the first stanza) Tennyson has established the idea of stasis for the rest of the poem.

Second, the absence of action (both in future and past) is emphasized by changing the verb to an adjective. Compare it to this wording:

The clinking latch had never been lifted.

With "lifted" as part of a verb phrase, the wording by necessity sets the idea of the lifted latch within a timeline, and gives orientation to that moment on the timeline. "The latch had never been lifted" occurs only in the past. Yes, by extension one can bring it into the future. But, by changing the verb phrase into an adjective, that time line is removed altogether. The idea of "unlifted" still points to the past (it is, after all, a transformed, past tense verb). But, in that it is now an adjective, it is no longer describing a point on a timeline. It is describing the very quality of the latch. The latch is in its nature unlifted. It is not of the latch's nature to be lifted.

That is the general idea of the world of Mariana generated across the poem. Mariana's life is in its nature unlifted: it never has been lifted, it never will be lifted. It is caught in an eternal stasis, not only of no end but seemingly also of no beginning. It is a world taken off the timeline, a world outside of time.

One of the aspects of "Mariana" that makes it such a brilliant poem is that no word is superfluous. One of the more common errors you see in contemporary poetry is the haphazard use of descriptors, of adjectives and adverbs, and of description in general.[FN] They are thrown into the poetry with the thought to add description as though (not unlike meter in the discussion above) the mere presence of description is sufficient to building depth and ideational vitality. But description that does not give energy to the rest of the poem, description that does not interact with the rest of the poem, is only dead weight. It wastes energy, not creates it, for it asks the reader to pay attention to something that does not deserve attention. For example, that same line:

    Unlifted was the clinking latch;
"Clinking" is not an arbitary word. Compare it to, say, choosing something simple, this:
    Unlifted was the orange-painted latch;

"Orange-painted" may be adding description to the latch, but it is pointless description. It does not add anything to the poem. "Clinking," however, is wonderfully effective. For the opening of the line has already established that the latch is eternally unlifted. The clinking, then, is removed from the possibility of a latch-opening: the bar of the latch does not tantalizingly move up and down; the latch is not faulty in a way that it would open by itself. The poem refuses any idea that would create the the idea of the possibility of the gate opening. As such, the idea of "clinking" must point to something else: i.e., the decayed or untended state of the latch. What may seem a rather throwaway description in truth serves to anchor the latch itself (its material being) within the stasis being generated by the poem as a whole. Again, it is not that the latch is not being lifted, it is that it is the very nature of the latch to be "unlifted." The only action, then, like that hinted at by "unlifted," is non-action. The latch clinks in the same manner that the nails fall out of the wall.

[FN] Some might question my choice of the word "error," there. I do not. Laziness is an error. Anything that weakens the final poem is an error in the writing of the poem. A weak choice of words creates a lesser poem than a strong, considered choice of words. The use of a word that serves no organic purpose to a poem is a weak choice of words.

As you read through "Mariana," notice how every description serves the greater whole of the poem. Never is there a description whose purpose ends once the describing is over.

Which leads us to the refrain. In that it is dialogue it is an action. But it is the refrain: that dialogue is repeated over and over with changes that relate to the structure of the poem, not to any suggestion of actual change to the nature of the world of Mariana (or, since it is dialogue, to Mariana herself). Indeed, it can be read as being internal dialogue, as the thoughts – the unchanging, eternal thoughts – of Mariana: "Life is dreary. He comes not. I am weary. I wish that I were dead." Such is the nature of Mariana's dialogue.

The structure of the refrain gives emphasis to the anchoring of the faux action of the dialogue within eternal stasis:

        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 uses in the refrain a grammar that functions through the line breaks to create a Mobius strip out of the refrain: the reader starts at "she said," sees dialogue ahead, yet somehow comes back right to "she said." On the surface that Mobius strip seems to break at the word "dead." Except the word "dead" enacts no real possibility of change: it is itself a null word, action wise. Indeed, there is an irony within the word, for a natural response by the reader to Mariana's words are, "How are you not already dead, if not in some sort of hell?"

The word "dead" creates wonderful structural irony within the poem in that it is the last word of every stanza, is itself a very leaden-sounding word, and is punctuated each time with an exclamation point. Every stanza wants to come to a stop at that word; the poem itself wants aurally and ideationally to stop at every appearance of that word. Except there no stop. The next stanza is but an empty line away.


Which brings us to the structure of the poem as a whole. "Mariana" is not merely a seven-stanza-long list of descriptions of stasis marked by a refrain. There is an ordering within the poem, a structure that brings the seven stanzas into a unity, one that also creates a sense of eternal stasis for the reader through a poem that, as with every poem, must have a visual and aural beginning and end. There is a progression through the poem: though not a progression that offers the reader any sense of progress. The times of night and day appear within the poem. And it might seem an easy choice to organize the poem around a progression through a twenty-four hour period, one which would be repeated with each reading of the poem. But that again anchors the ideation of the poem within a timeline, within time: which moves against the idea of the timeless (as in unchanging) life of Mariana (and "Mariana"). Tennyson uses day and night, but does not let signals of time define the structure the poem, and so avoids any intimation of progress.

I propose here an outline of the structure of the stanzas. Though, because of the nature of the relation of the stanzas to time, because of how the poem is designed to avoid anchoring in time, I will not go as far as saying this is a definitive structuring of the poem. As well, such statements are counter to the point of aesthetic reading: I offer the structure I see, the manner that I organize the poem, as but example. In the end, you must in your mind organize the poem for yourself, if your reading, your experience of the poem, is to be yours.

Stanza 1: The first stanza is the ideational setting of the stage. It is not merely a descriptive setting, though: it establishes the inherent nature of the world of Mariana. Importantly, it does this without directly invoking Mariana herself (again, ignoring the refrain).

Stanzas 2-3: The two stanzas are coupled by the variation in the refrain: stanza 2 is marked "The night is dreary"; stanza 3 is marked "The day is dreary." But they are for me unified also by the first four lines of stanza 2. The structure here is one of statement and development. Stanza 2 opens by bringing in Mariana:

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
     Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;

It might seem that it is saying Mariana cried through the night. But it never says the tears stopped, or even that they started. It says: "She cried at dusk, she cried at dawn." It is her constant activity. By using the idea of "dew" Tennyson links the tears of Mariana to the world around her. As such, Mariana is ideationally unified with the nature of the world that was established in Stanza 1. The world and Mariana are one and the same: she is her world, her world is she.

It should also be noticed how Tennyson takes the time with lines 3 and 4 to complete the circle, importantly by repeating in reverse the two ideas of evening and morning.

Her tears fell with the dews at even;
     Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
     Either at morn or at eventide.

The rest of the two stanzas develops that world in day and night. The second quatrain of Stanza 2 moves from dusk (when the bats are out) to the darkest time of night. Stanza 3 opens at the middle of the night, moves to dawn with the cock, and then to morn in the second quatrain of the stanza.

Stanzas 4 and 5: With the day comes the ability (for the reader) to see the world outside. The first four lines of stanza 4 is the movement to the world outside, a continuation of the previous two stanzas. But it is also the means of transition to the poplar, the only tree to "mark the level waste, the rounding grey," and the subject of the other three quatrains of 4 and 5.

Notice first how the circle continues: the poplar is described first in the day and then in the night. And it is only in the second quatrain of stanza 5 that Mariana reappears in the poem:

But when the moon was very low,
     And wild winds bound within their cell,
     The shadow of the poplar fell
Upon her bed, across her brow.

That second line there is not at all filler: it is almost cinematic in its effect. The stanza begins with the world blown by winds (winds which first appeared in stanza 3: "Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn"). It begins, in no small way, with a broad, setting shot; after which the 'camera' of the poem will zero in upon the key subject:

  • The ideation begins in daytime, looking across a flat wasteland, marked only by one poplar, which is never not moving because of the ever present winds.
  • Change to night, but with a high moon, that still lights the world, only with its silvered, indirect, occultic light.
  • The focus moves from the outside world to the window, and the curtains at motion for the wind.
  • Then the moon becomes a low moon, as though one shining through the branches of the poplar and then through the window.
  • The winds stop blowing.
  • The tree stops moving. It is almost artificial, as when in a film the props are artificially manipulated to remove distraction while the camera zooms in.
  • The focus – the camera focus – moves from the window to Mariana on her bed, to Mariana herself, to Mariana's face, to Mariana's brow.

What does the camera there find?

The shadow of the poplar fell
     Upon her bed, across her brow.

If you are not at this time thinking There must be something important about that poplar, go to the back of the class.

There are two books every person involved in literature – either on the reading side or on the writing side – should own. Two of the handiest general reference books I have ever bought. They are The Penquin Dictionary of Symbols (ed. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, trans. John Buchanon-Brown), and J.E. Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols (trans. Jack Sage). All the other general books on symbols that you see in Barnes & Noble et al are no more than coffee table books and crap in comparison. I have yet to find another book on symbolism (that is, a general book, not one specific to a culture or theme) that approaches these two in practical value, and they complement each other very well. Which is not to say there are not others out there; though, I have yet found them. (If you do find one, please let me know.)

So, "Poplar" as found in the Penguin. First two sentences and then the close of the short entry (emphasis mine):

In Ancient Greece the poplar was sacred to Herakles (Hercules). According to legend, when he went down into the Underworld, he crowned his head with a wreath of poplar. [. . .]

The tree seems as strongly linked to the Underworld, to pain and to sacrifice as to grief. A funereal tree, it symbolizes the regressive powers of Nature, memories rather than hopes and times past rather than rebirth in the time to come.

Not only is the poplar a funereal tree, but Mariana is crowned by it. Again the world of "Mariana" and Mariana the character are united: they are one and the same. And though she may cry out unendingly "I would that I were dead!", she is, symbolically, already in the land of the dead.[FN]


[FN] In case you are curious, also from the Penguin Dictionary, "pear": "In dreams the fruit is 'a typically erotic symbol, fraught with sensuality. This is probably due to its sweet tste, juiciness and also to its shape which has a suggestion of the feminine about it.'"

Also, when I say the books are useful to writers, I do not mean only in the sense of using them as sources of symbols. They have incredible use for "exploding" an idea. Have an idea to have a cat in your poem? Want to find ways to ideationally link the cat to the rest of the poem, to extend the idea of "cat" into the ideation of the rest of the poem? Look up "cat" and follow the leads. Trust me. Insanely useful toward developing interacting energies.


Stanzas 6 and 7: We return again to day, though now it has been informed by everything that has come before, particularly the association of the poplar with Mariana and the land of the dead:

     Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
     Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.

A question: need those people actually exist? Or can they be an extension of the psyche and world of Mariana? Need they be narratively real? Or can they work solely as ideation?

I find the mouse in the preceding lines a curious moment.

The blue sky sung in the pane; the mouse
     Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.

I could see how some might argue that it is an error in the poem, that Tennyson broke from context with the mouse. It is not the only other creature in the world of Mariana: there are the bats. But unlike the bats the mouse reacts to the world around it. It shrieks and it hides: the mouse gives action. The structure of the stanza is important:

All day within the dreamy house,
     The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue sky sung in the pane; the mouse
     Behind the mouldering wainscot shriek’d,
Or from the crevice peer’d about.
     Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,
     Old footsteps trod the upper floors,
Old voices called her from without.

The stanza begins, "all day." The sky is not just the sky of day it is "blue" and singing. Inbetween is the very important word: "the dreamy house." First, there is an obvious aural echo from the ever repeated "dreary." Second, how is the house dreamy? The word "dreamy" as used here requires a subjective viewpoint, same as you would see with the word hallucinatory or even surreal: in essence, it requires a dreamer. The use of words of that nature prompts the question: "Hallucinatory to whom?" "Surreal to whom?" "Dreamy to whom?"

To Mariana, of course. But not to the mouse. The mouse is not a mere interloper into the poem, a device to get from the poplar to the end but not too quickly. The mouse exists in the poem as counterpoint to Mariana: it shrieks for and hides from the goings on of the house – especially, the presence of the dead. For the mouse (notice the punctuation: it is the mouse that anchors the extended sentence, not Mariana), the doors may creak, but the sky is blue and singing. This may be the land of the dead, but the mouse is not – like Mariana – of the land of the dead.

The mouse is counterpoint to Mariana, and as counterpoint gives push to keep the events – such as they are – of the poem out of the brute narration of fact and within the fluid fields of ideation. It can only do that by itself being in some way outside the ideational fields of Mariana's world. Thus my question above: need the old faces, footsteps, and voices be real? On one part, yes, because it seems the mouse reacts to them. But they are not old people. They are disembodied faces, voices, and footsteps. In a way then, they are also not real. They are in this way part of the world of the dead. The mouse reacts to them, but the mouse is also "outside" that world. The creaking house may also be the mouse's, but the dreamy house is wholly Mariana's. The mouse is part of world of "Mariana" wholly; it is part of the world of Mariana enough to know – to function to the end of recognizing for the reader – that the world and Mariana's psyche are in unity; that there is a second world within "Mariana," and it is Mariana's world.

The opening of the final stanza continues this idea:

The sparrow’s chirrup on the roof,
     The slow clock ticking, and the sound
Which to the wooing wind aloof
     The poplar made, did all confound
Her sense;

Above, I made comment how a natural response of a reader to the bewailing refrain of Mariana is the question "Are you not already dead?" These final stanzas answer that question: the poem is not a depiction of a woman in some hell. The world outside is different to the mouse than it is to Mariana. The world confuses her, "confounds her sense." Where the mouse is able to react to the world, she is not so able. But it still has an effect upon her:

-------- but most she loathed the hour
     When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
     Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.

"But most": she does not only loathe the hour of sunset; she also loathes the sound of the wind in the poplar, the ticking of the clock, and the chirruping of the birds. The world is not really how Mariana perceives it . . . . and she herself, at some level, knows it.

It is not that the outermost of world of "Mariana" is, like the latch, "unlifted": what is "unlifted" is world of "Mariana" as perceived by Mariana. The poem is a pscyhological lyric; it is the presentation through experiencing of the psyche of a woman who has willed herself into a unlifted world. The mouse and the loathing create (reveal?) the irony of the poem: the opposition between the dreamy, psychical world of Mariana and the real world of the mouse. In the reading, however, the mouse's world is but hinted at: the poem is not about the mouse's world; it is about Mariana's world. But by giving glimpse of the mouse's world Tennyson creates the subtle opposition that generates energy, that pulls the description of Mariana's world out of mere description. Through the unity of the two worlds in the poem, Tennyson creates the deeper ideational experiences of the poem.

The stanza is ever repeated as unending description of Mariana's psyche. But, it exists, as Mariana's dialogue, also as affirmation by Mariana that the world is as she wills it to be.

          She only said, “My life is dreary,
               He cometh not,” she said;

NO! one wants to yell. He is never coming. But that is reaction to the brute narrative. Within the deeper ideation of the poem it is much worse, for within the ideation of the poem, he is irrelevant. We are back to kernels and catalysts. There is no first kernel to "Mariana"; there is only the continual postponing of the opportunity for action, even of the will to action.

          She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
               I would that I were dead!”

And she is dead. If she is the crowned queen of the Underworld, it is because she has crowned herself queen of a land of her own creating. This is a dreamy world, indeed. It is a nightmare from which Mariana has no chance of escaping – because, like the greater stories of Poe, it is a nightmare of the character's own willing. Consider "The Fall of the House of Usher," where what is real and what is of the narrator's mind is always under question. Even, more simply, and more in parallel with "Mariana," consider "The Tell-Tale Heart." The energies of what drives the narrator to madness need not be supernatural in any way: they can have occurred wholly within the narrator's mind. And the officers who enter at the end of the story function there in the same way as the mouse: the necessary counterpoint of common reality against the particular reality as perceived by the narrator, the dominant reality of the story. The art of Poe – the art of "Mariana" – is that the text pulls you into experiencing the psychical reality; it makes the pscyhical reality real. But that is not all: it also undermines that reality, shows you that it was not after all the outermost reality of the story. But if it is the psychical reality that was experienced, that felt real, what then is the outermost reality but, also, only an experience, only what feels real. The above critical exploration itself will, by the nature of the written, generate the idea of the speaking of an "outer" context, of a outer context of "truth." That is where returning to the text of "Mariana," where returning to the experience generated by the text becomes important. The poem cannot be reduced to the truth of an outer reality: for even that outer reality is but experience, a "felt" truth. There is only with the aesthetic the experience. Which leads us to that belayed question: How is "Mariana" horror?[FN]


[FN] With this understanding, there is a newfound ambiguity in lines 3-4 from stanza 2: "She could not look on the sweet heaven, / Either at morn or at eventide." The phrase "could not" there could be read two ways: from the view within Mariana's world, it was impossible to see heaven, for there was no heaven to see; from the outer context, however, it is that she could not look upon what she would not let herself look upon, what she refused to permit to exist.

With that, I ask you to notice again how organically unified "Mariana" is: everything in the poem works within the whole of poem to generating a complex web of ideational energies.


I gave passing definition above of horror being the "fear" of a kernel that is beyond comprehension. Only, within the narrative of "Mariana," the character Mariana is not in fear of anything. She exists in her unchanged stasis. If she feared the possibility that the man would never come, there would be direction to the energies of the narrative, an impetus for action. The stasis of "Mariana," however is devoid of such. The man "cometh not" in the same way that the latch is "unlifted": it is the inherent nature of the latch that it is unlifted; so also very nature of the world that the man "cometh not." Marianna knows no emotion except weariness (the absense of physical energy) and dreariness (the absense of psychic energy).

The horror exists for the reader, not for Mariana. Which is, actually, a very important point as regards not only horror but the aesthetic experience in general: for horror (for the aesthetic, and horror is the aesthetic as oriented toward the dark regions of the psyche), the experience must be the reader's, not the characters' in the text. If you write the text so as to put the experience within the characters, expecting the readers, through empathy, to share in that experience, you have failed as a writer. The experience for the reader comes from the text itself, must be generated by the text itself. Same with beauty, horror being the negative of beauty, in the sense of the negative of a film. Horror is beauty, but is beauty that points to what does not want to be known.

In short, the nominative that is the word horror does not in itself generate horror.

From the view of the 'real' world of the narrative of "The Tell-Tale Heart" the actions of the narrator would border on the comedic. One could easily create a stage demonstration that was entirely faithful to the facts of the story, but ended with the officers saying to each other, "Hes a looney." The horror of the story does not lie in the facts. It never lies in the facts. It lies in the experience of the text: one cannot state by fact the void that creates horror. However, one can generate it, through the experience of the world of a woman who is trapped in a world of the dead, by then undercutting that fact with a gentle pointer that makes it clear this world is a world of her own creation, a world that exists in her mind. But not undercutting it in a way that re-establishes a new bases of facts: as I said above, horror must push the reader away from factuality, must refuse the reader a grounding in factuality. Horror is an experience, not a statement.

Horror leaves it to the reader to recognize: but I yet emotionally, ideationally, experienced the world of Mariana. As such, tt is then a world of which we are all capable of creating, a world which already exists in us.

And thus we enter into the aesthetic brilliance of "Mariana."


A Note on the use of mythology in contemporary literature.

The US is an extension of Europe. It is as much a direct descendant of the Greco-Roman cultures as any European state. It is also a direct descendant of Germanic and Nordic traditions and of the English/Irish/Scottish traditions. And in that the US is a country of immigrants it is also a direct descendent of Hindu, Chinesee, Japanese, Arabian, Egyptian, Mongolian, Zulu, Mayan, and any and every other tradition. All of that is open – and should be open – to use in literature, and it all should be used in literature. Our main cultural currents come from Europe and the Mediterranean; they link most closely to our social and national structures and history, and so it is legitimate for those traditions to be dominant. Which, perhaps, is only to say that if you want to write out of the symbolism of the Mongolian traditions, you should in some way clue the reader in as to wherefrom the ideas are coming. But, I admit, it is also to say that it is fair for a writer to expect a US reader to catch on to appeals from the Mediterranean/European traditions.

Which is also to say that anyone who says that there no longer is a place for mythology, legend, etc., of whatever culture, in US poetry or literature, is selling you their politics, not teaching you anything about literature or the aesthetic. Literature is about the symbolic, and the mythic and esoteric traditions are the currents of symbolism in our or any culture. To speak against that is to transform literature and the arts to politics, which is the opposite of art.

1 comment:

  1. Tennyson's poem is one of my favorites. The poem and your excellent, insightful criticism inspired me to write

    Daughter Of Mariana