Tennyson's Poetry as Inspiration for Pre-Raphaelite Art

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents


1. Tennyson’s Mariana (1830)

2. Millais’s pictorial interpretation of Mariana (1851)

3. Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott (1832, revised 1842)

4. Hunt’s pictorial interpretation of The Lady of Shalott (1889-92/1886-1905)

5. Waterhouse’s pictorial interpretation of

The Lady of Shalott (1888)





In 1848, at the peak of British industrialism and urbanization, the Pre-Raphaelite artists founded a movement which revolted against contemporary academic art. Searching for new themes of a higher truth and purity, they turned to artistic and literary sources of the past. William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti set up a list of “Immortals” which was supposed to give an impression of the Brotherhood’s philosophical as well as artistic ideals and inspirations. The list did not only include medieval, Renaissance, and Romantic artists, but also featured the contemporary Victorian Alfred Lord Tennyson. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the poet laureate shared a poetic affinity with medieval literature and culture. The Middle Ages provided an ideal counter world of romance, chivalry, simple order, and religious faith. In an era of modern science, Darwinism, and religious scepticism, Tennyson found his sources of inspiration in Arthurian legends and Shakespearian drama.

Between the mid 19th century and the end of World War I, Pre-Raphaelite artists produced a great number of paintings and illustrations, ie. the illustrated Moxon Edition of Poems (1857), based on the work of Alfred Tennyson. Significant thematic fascination was directed towards early romantic maiden poems like Mariana and The Lady of Shalott, both published in 1832 and revised in 1842. This research paper will examine the structure, atmosphere, and symbolism of these Tennysonian ballads and analyse the corresponding paintings of John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and John William Waterhouse.

1. Tennyson’s Mariana (1830)

Written in 1830 and published in Poems in 1832, Mariana belongs to Tennyson’s early poetry. The poem was inspired by a female character from William Shakespeare’s comedy Measure for Measure. The epigraph “Mariana in the moated grange” is not an exact quotation, but drawn from the following line of the play: “There, at the moated grange, resides this dejected Mariana.”[1] After losing her dowry in a shipwreck, the young maiden Mariana has been abandoned by her lover Angelo. In an outlying farmhouse, she leads a life of melancholy isolation without any connection to the outer world and desperately waits for the return of her lover. Tennyson creates a psychological portrait of Mariana’s state of mind. The female character is developed from the simple emotion of losing hope and wishing for death. Her constant crying, sleepless wandering at night, and suicidal thoughts are typical symptoms of severe mental depression.

To create an authentic atmosphere, Tennyson chose the archaic form of the ballad. The poem is arranged in seven twelve-line stanzas, each of which is divided into three four-line rhyme units according to the scheme ABAB CDDC EFEF. The lines are in iambic tetrameters, with exception of the trimeter in the tenth and twelfth line of every stanza. The recurring refrain of the ballad creates a lyrical atmosphere of enchantment and emphasizes Mariana’s brooding over her hopeless dilemma:

She only said, ‘My Life is dreary,

He cometh not,’ she said;

She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!’[2]

Her passive state of waiting which leads to the wasting of another day of her life is as static as the monotonous lament which she continously repeats. Except for the last refrain which will be discussed at the end of this chapter, the refrains only show a slight variation within the first line. In the second and fifth stanza, “life” is replaced with “night[3] ; the third stanza uses “day[4]. The repetition of the refrain is like the recurrence of a day’s cycle and a renewal of the bitter acknowledgment that Mariana’s situation has not changed.

Tennyson gives the reader a detailed description of the grange and its surrounding. The once beautiful house set in a romantic pastoral landscape, now offers images of decay and neglect. The opening stanza describes an abandoned grange with flower-plots crusted with “blackest moss[5], “broken sheds[6], and “rusted nails[7] falling from the wall. The mentioned objects can no longer perform the function for which they were created. Neither can the rusty nails hold the pair tree to the wall, nor can the defective sheds keep out the light. The surrounding is an empty, gray waste land. Some images add implicite sexual connotations to the poem. The broken sheds, the unlifted latch[8], and the worn thatch[9] allude to Mariana’s neglected but clearly non-virginal state. The strongest sexual image is presented in a poplar tree which Mariana can see from her chamber window: “Hard by a poplar shook alway”.[10] Its erect position in an empty, level landscape (“For leagues no other tree did mark / the level waste, the rounding gray.”[11] ) gives the tree a phallic character. At night the “shadow of the poplar [falling] upon her bed, across her brow[12] becomes a teasing reminder of her absent lover and his broken promise. Through its “silver-green[13] color, the poplar also becomes a symbol of desire and hope. It stands in contrast to the color black, which appears twice throughout the poem (“blackest moss”, “A sluice with blackened waters …”[14] ) as a symbol of melancholy, decay, and death. Through the close arrangement of visual images, Tennyson created an interesting cinematic effect. The reader’s inner eye is guided from one narrative detail to the next.

Besides detailed visual descriptions, Tennyson also enriched his poem with surrounding aural images. Mariana’s exact observation of each banal sound stresses the silence and absence of human voices in her chamber room. It is so quiet that she can hear a blue fly singing, a mouse shrieking, and the slow clock ticking.[15] The poem’s images are not progressively supporting the action, but the accumulation of observed details mimes the accumulation of hours, days, and weeks that Mariana is spending in the grange.

Through the detailed description of the exterior environment, Tennyson has established an interior landscape. Mariana’s psychological state is mirrored in the decaying surrounding.

The woman, with her single cry, is a state of mind and soul, a sickness unto death which is reflected by and further objectified in the grange and level waste[16]

The poem is monotonous and static without progressive movement. Just as the epigraph alluding to Shakespeare contains no verb, the poem lacks all action. Nonetheless, a climax of desperation is reached in the early evening hour of the last stanza.

. . . but most she loathed the hour

When the thick-moted sunbeam lay

Athwart the chambers, and the day

Was sloping toward his western bower.[17]

After a caesura, an inverted superlative phrase leads to the most powerful visual and sensual image of the poem. The evening sunlight is heavy with the dust of decay. As a marker of time within Mariana’s confused cycle of day and night, it indicates the end of another wasted day spent in desolation and at the same time, reminds her of the coming of another sleepless night. The “thick-moted sunbeam” is a homophone echoeing the “moated grange” at the poem’s beginning. This stylistic device creates an aural frame and emphasizes the cyclical, repetitive character of the ballad. The young woman’s realization that her total existence is defined by waiting and that this state of waiting is growing increasingly pointless, leads to an emphatic variation of the last refrain.

Then, said she, “I am very dreary,

He will not come,” she said;

She wept, “I am aweary, aweary,

Oh God, that I were dead![18]

In a moment of increased despair but also clarity, she pushes all false hopes and desires aside and recognizes that she will continously remain in a state of dreariness because her lover will never rescue her. The phrase “He cometh not” is shiftes to a more resolute and hopeless “He will not come”. Finally, the last outcry bears a slight intensification (“Oh God…”) of her suicidal death-wish.


[1] Measure for Measure III.1.277

[2] Mariana ll. 9-12

[3] Ibid. ll. 21, 57

[4] Ibid. l. 33

[5] Ibid. l.1

[6] Ibid. l. 5

[7] Ibid. l.3

[8] Cf. Ibid. l. 6

[9] Cf. Ibid. l. 7

[10] Ibid. l. 41

[11] Ibid. ll. 43f.

[12] Ibid. ll. 55f.

[13] Ibid. l. 42

[14] Ibid. ll. 1, 38

[15] Cf. Ibid. ll. 63f., 74

[16] Thomson 31

[17] Mariana ll. 77-80

[18] Ibid. ll. 81ff.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Tennyson's Poetry as Inspiration for Pre-Raphaelite Art
Free University of Berlin  (Institute for English Philology)
The Pre-Raphaelites in Art and Literature
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1090 KB
Analysis of the Poems "Mariana" and "Lady of Shalott" from A. Lord Tennyson. Juxtaposition of poems and picture interpretations: Comparision between the poem "Mariana" (1830) and J. E. Millais' paintings(1851), Comparison between Tennysons "Lady of Shalott" and the paintings of W. Hunt (1889-92) and J. W. Waterhouse (1888) With bibliography and appendix (3 paintings)
Tennyson, Poetry, Inspiration, Pre-Raphaelite, Pre-Raphaelites, Literature
Quote paper
Natalie Lewis (Author), 2003, Tennyson's Poetry as Inspiration for Pre-Raphaelite Art, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/26978


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