Analysis of Three Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson, a Victorian poet, used characters from history and mythology for his poetry. Much of his poetry touches upon the subject of death and loneliness. For example, the Lady of Shallot dies when she looks beyond her inner world, Mariana lives in constant sadness over her departed lover, and Tithonus lives forever in an agony worse than death. With a background of melancholia, isolation or anguish Tennyson conveys themes of half-life and death-in-life by the use of uses imagery, symbolism and figures of speech.

In the dramatic monologue “Tithonus,” Tennyson instructs the reader that immortality is not necessarily a desirable thing as Tithonus tries to convince Aurora to make him mortal again. In the poem, Tithonus asks Aurora to grant him immortality, which she does. Although in actual mythology Zeus grants immortality, it is immortality and not eternal youth that Tithonus receives. Therefore, he now “withers slowly” with a fate worse than death since many jealous gods “beat me down and marred and waste me.” Tithonus presents the natural cycle of life followed by death by describing how first, “Man comes” then he “tills the fields” and finally “lies beneath”. However, his “cruel immortality” prevents him from following the same pattern. The rhetorical question, “Why should a man desire in any way/To vary from the kindly race of man…as is most meet for all?” indicates his realization of the absurdity in asking for immortal life. His wish to be immortal like the gods can be interpreted as alluding to Adam and Eve’s desire for the knowledge of God. Anyway, as a “soft air fans the clouds apart” (personification), Tithonus sees the “dark world” to which he belongs. Tithonus uses much imagery as he recalls those days of youth when he “felt my blood/Glow with the glow that slowly crimson’d all,” experienced “kisses balmier than half-opening buds/Of April,” and Aurora’s “rosy shadows bathe[d]” him. At once he wishes to be one of those “happy men with the power to die.” He asks Aurora to release him and let him die so that he could forget the emptiness of his days of long life.

The Lady in Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot” is confined to “four gray walls, and four gray towers” living an almost half-life as she works on her weaving and looks to the outer world not directly, but through a mirror. Tennyson creates a conflict between the inner and outer worlds (Document 1). The lady, who “weaves a magic web with colours gay” represents the artist or scholar who must isolate himself from reality to produce the best work possible (Document 2). The Lady spends her days alone looking at the world through the mirror where “shadows of the world appear.” Even though many knights pass by, she is alone for she has “no loyal knight and true.” In Part I Tennyson juxtaposes the world, with “Long fields of barley and or rye,” with the island of Shallot, where “lilies blow,” indicating that the island is an isolated segment of the world. The lady is oblivious to the world around her and hears of the curse set upon her only through whispers from the outside world. In Part III, Lancelot’s arrival and Shallot’s doom is foreshadowed by the imagery used to describe the natural world. Everything is excited, ready to erupt. For example, “the sum came dazzling thro’ the leaves,/And flamed upon the brazen greaves” and “The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,/Like to some branch of stars we see/Hung in the golden Galaxy.” Lancelot himself is a “red-cross knight” and wears a “silver bugle” as he passes through “blue unclouded weather.” The vibrant detail of the outer world suggests parallels the emotions in Shallot’s inner world. Soon, however, the readers sees, “The broad stream in his banks complaining/Heavily the low sky raining,” as well as the lady’s path towards self-destruction. As Lancelot passes by, she stops what she is doing and looks directly at the outside world and departs from her inner world into the outer where she meets death (Document 1).

In “Mariana in the Moated Grange,” Mariana lives a sort of half-life waiting for her lover. She lives in a trance, looking always into her inner world and never upon the “sweet heaven.” Personification of the sheds, “The broken sheds look’d sad and strange,” gives the poem a background of melancholia. Even the environment is weeping. The lines “‘I am aweary, aweary, I would that I were dead!” are repeated throughout the poem – from the time where the sun is shining to when the moon appears. In fact she cries all day long: “Her tears fell with the dews at even; /Her tears fell ere the dews had dried” Her grief and depression parallels the natural landscape. “A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,/And o’er it many…The cluster’d marish-mosses crept,” is an example of how Tennyson’s uses imagery to draw a parallel between the inner and outer worlds. The “shrill winds,” the curtain moving “to and fro” and the shadows falling on her bed all indicate the loneliness that Mariana feels (Document 1). Mariana lives in her own world, still believing that her lover will come, believing that “Old faces glimmer’d thro’ the doors,” and confounded by the “slow clock ticking, and the sound/Which to the wooing wind aloof/The poplar made.”

As evident in these three poems, “Tithonus,” “Lady of Shallot” and “Mariana in the Moated Grange,” Tennyson often portrays the world as a sad place. Many times, like in “Tithonus” and “Lady of Shallot,” there is a conflict between wishes and desires. Also, Tennyson often uses the outer environment to heighten the emotions experienced by the characters. In short, Tennyson is able to convey his themes of half-life and death-in-life through the use of imagery, symbolism and figures of speech.

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