“Come not, when I am dead,
to drop thy foolish tears upon my grave,
To trample round my fallen head,
And vex the unhappy dust thou wouldst not save.
There let the wind sweep and the plover cry;
But thou, go by.
Child, if it were thine error or thy crime
I care no longer, being all unblest:
Wed whom thou wilt, but I am sick of Time,
And I desire to rest.
Pass on, weak heart, and leave me where I lie:
Go by, go by.”
Tennyson is the preeminent poet of the Victorian age, even serving as the poet laureate of the British nation in his later years. His poetry engages with the struggle of faith in a world of encroaching scientific discoveries and the struggle of faith when confronting the loss of loved ones. Often unsympathetic critics dismiss him for being traditional, yet much of his poetry was radical in its day. The death of his friend, Arthur Hallum, inspired the melancholy underlying all of his most famous poems and his masterpiece, In Memoriam. He transmuted his personal grief into poetic engagement with the world; unsurprisingly this idea of personal grief transforming into action is a key theme of his poetry.
“Marianna” is a poem about a girl’s isolation from society after being abandoned by her lover. Each stanza describes the disrepair of the Grange. At the end of each stanza Marianna laments how her lover isn’t coming and she wants to die in order to escape her misery. The imagery at the beginning of each stanza not only mirrors Marianna’s misery and despair, but also serves as evidence of her isolation from the larger world; not only is her lover absent, but clearly there must be no servants or family members to work on the upkeep of the Grange. This is a subtle way Tennyson adds to her isolation; not only is the lover absent, but everyone is absent. By extending the poem out for seven stanzas and ending with the repetition of Marianna’s lament, Tennyson portrays the scene as an eternal torment. She waits and waits, but nothing happens. When the extended nature of the narrative is considered, a second reading is possible, which focuses on the dilapidated grange. Marianna’s lament emphasizes the fall of great families and their houses in the countryside, all slowly falling into disrepair, and isolated from the rest of the country, which has no need for them anymore. One can surmise a third possible reading if they treat the poem more allegorically. The “He” Marianna awaits might be seen as Jesus coming to save her from purgatory or hell, but Jesus never arrives to rescue her, which would suggest Hell or purgatory is the absence of those we love and watching the home of our childhood (represented by the grange) molder away.
Tennyson reworks the poem in “Mariana in the South.” In this version, an isolated woman repeatedly prays to the Virgin Mary for relief from her loneliness. She, too, has been abandoned by her lover and is now forgotten and forlorn; only death and Christian redemption will release her from her loneliness as the ending suggests.
Tennyson revisits this idea yet again in his famous Arthurian poem, “The Lady of Shallot.” In the poem, a cursed woman on an island risks the consequences of her curse in an attempt to break her isolation. She risks death in order to see Camelot and Sir Lancelot. It is similar to the poems described above in its theme of wanting to escape isolation and mundane existence, fighting one’s fate and despair for just one moment of freedom and joy, even if it means death or ruin in the end.
Tennyson also explores these themes via Greek Mythology such as in his poem, “Oenone.” Oenone is the wife of Paris and in this dramatic monologue she bemoans her abandonment by Paris who prefers the company of Helen. It is essentially a poem about an old lover or wife abandoned for a new lover and wife. Oenone bemoans the fateful day the three goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite) asked Paris to judge the beauty contest, which led to Paris choosing Aphrodite and being rewarded with Helen, the fairest maid in Greece, as his wife. Her jealousy and despair are palpable in every stanza as she relates the story, ending in the final stanza with foreshadowing of the Greeks arriving and destroying Troy.
“Tithonus” is another poem that draws on the ancient Greek myth. In this myth, a young man is granted immortality, but not eternal youth. In the poem he addresses Eos, the dawn, lamenting his terrible fate. He comes to accept everything must die, despite his fate in which he cannot die, but then Tennyson puts a clever twist on it. The dawn arrives and suddenly Tithonus experiences a moment of pleasure, a suspension of his gloom, hinting at all that makes life joyous in the first place and causes us to desire to want to live forever. But in the final stanza his joy doesn’t last and the gloom over his fate returns, suggesting the joy that makes us want to live forever in the first place doesn’t last and in its own way is a curse.
“Ulysses” is a dramatic monologue spoken by Homer’s infamous character. Ulysses has returned home after the events of the Odyssey and now finds himself bored with ruling Ithaca. He is struck by wanderlust and plans to go on a new voyage, feeding an insatiable desire to “drink life to the lees.” It’s a poem about restlessness and the desire to seize life and experience all it has to offer before we die. Some human beings prefer a nice quiet life at home, while others need to struggle with the boundaries of existence and knowledge, and experience all that is possible. Tennyson seems to be suggesting all people struggle with the conflict to explore new realms of experience and the satisfaction with the life they have.