Waterhouse and Millais imagine Tennyson’s Mariana

PONDERING PRE-RAPHAELITE PERSPECTIVE Series

Artistic analysis and commentary on paintings by pre-Raphaelite artists.

Mariana – 1851, John Everett Millais

Mariana in the South – 1897, John William Waterhouse

The unbearable angst of loneliness and the resulting melancholia forms the subject of many an artistic narrative. In Measure for Measure Shakespeare wrote of the solitary Mariana, who was to be married but was rejected when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck. Alfred Lord Tennyson used Shakespeare’s Mariana as the premise for two poems, both of which describe a woman who continuously laments her lack of connection with society. The isolation defines her existence, and her longing for acquaintance leaves her wishing for death at the end of every stanza. Affected by the mournful despair enveloped in the literary figure of Mariana, pre-Raphaelite artists John William Waterhouse and John Everett Millais translated Mariana’s plight into paint.

Mariana (1830)

With blackest moss the flower-plots
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!’

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 eventide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

Upon the middle of the night,
Waking she heard the night-fowl crow:
The cock sung out an hour ere light:
From the dark fen the oxen’s low
Came to her: without hope of change,
In sleep she seem’d to walk forlorn,
Till cold winds woke the gray-eyed morn
About the lonely moated grange.
She only said, ‘The day is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blacken’d waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
The cluster’d marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarled bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding gray.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

And ever when the moon was low,
And the shrill winds were up and away,
In the white curtain, to and fro,
She saw the gusty shadow sway.
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.
She only said, ‘The night is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!’

All day within the dreamy house,
The doors upon their hinges creak’d;
The blue fly 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 call’d her from without.
She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,’
I would that I were dead!’

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; but most she loathed the hour
When the thick-moted sunbeam lay
Athwart the chambers, and the day
Was sloping toward his western bower.
Then, said she, ‘I am very dreary,
He will not come,’ she said;
She wept, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
O God, that I were dead!’

– Alfred Tennyson, Lord Tennyson

Millais’ Mariana, when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1851, was complimented by a display caption that contained the following lines from Tennyson’s Mariana (1830):

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,’
I would that I were dead!’

Draped in the melancholy of royal blue, Millais’ Mariana stands weary. Her embroidery is rendered forgotten as she contemplates a life without her true love; a life so futile that death is the only reprieve. Her attention is captured by the beauty of the world outside but rather than inspire pleasure, nature’s loveliness inspires pain; “but most she loathed the hour/ When the thick-moted sunbeam lay/ Athwart the chambers.” Autumn leaves lay scattered around the person of mournful Mariana, emphasising the encumbrance of time as it passes. The painting suggests that as the day ends, Mariana will return to the dark shadow that waits at her back; “When thickest dark did trance the sky,/ She drew her casement-curtain by,/ And glanced athwart the glooming flats.” The darkness of night permeates Mariana’s thought even in the light of day; she yearns for the return of her love, and “He cometh not.”

So poignant was the unbearable suffering of Mariana that Tennyson was inspired to publish yet another poem in 1933, which he later revised and re-published in 1942.

Mariana in the South (1933)

With one black shadow at its feet,
The house thro’ all the level shines,
Close-latticed to the brooding heat,
And silent in its dusty vines:
A faint-blue ridge upon the right,
An empty river-bed before,
And shallows on a distant shore,
In glaring sand and inlets bright.
But “Aye Mary,” made she moan,
And “Aye Mary,” night and morn,
And “Ah,” she sang, “to be all alone,
To live forgotten, and love forlorn.”

She, as her carol sadder grew,
From brow and bosom slowly down
Thro’ rosy taper fingers drew
Her streaming curls of deepest brown
To left and right, and made appear,
Still-lighted in a secret shrine,
Her melancholy eyes divine,
The home of woe without a tear.
And “Aye Mary,” was her moan,
“Madonna, sad is night and morn;”
And “Ah,” she sang, “to be all alone,
To live forgotten, and love forlorn.”

Till all the crimson changed, and past
Into deep orange o’er the sea,
Low on her knees herself she cast,
Before Our Lady murmur’d she:
Complaining, “Mother, give me grace
To help me of my weary load.”
And on the liquid mirror glow’d
The clear perfection of her face.
“Is this the form,” she made her moan,
“That won his praises night and morn?”
And “Ah,” she said, “but I wake alone,
I sleep forgotten, I wake forlorn.”

Nor bird would sing, nor lamb would bleat,
Nor any cloud would cross the vault,
But day increased from heat to heat,
On stony drought and steaming salt;
Till now at noon she slept again,
And seem’d knee-deep in mountain grass,
And heard her native breezes pass,
And runlets babbling down the glen.
She breathed in sleep a lower moan,
And murmuring, as at night and morn
She thought, “My spirit is here alone,
Walks forgotten, and is forlorn.”

Dreaming, she knew it was a dream:
She felt he was and was not there.
She woke: the babble of the stream
Fell, and, without, the steady glare
Shrank one sick willow sere and small.
The river-bed was dusty-white;
And all the furnace of the light
Struck up against the blinding wall.
She whisper’d, with a stifled moan
More inward than at night or morn,
“Sweet Mother, let me not here alone
Live forgotten and die forlorn.”

And, rising, from her bosom drew
Old letters, breathing of her worth,
For “Love”, they said, “must needs be true,
To what is loveliest upon earth.”
An image seem’d to pass the door,
To look at her with slight, and say,
“But now thy beauty flows away,
So be alone for evermore.”
“O cruel heart,” she changed her tone,
“And cruel love, whose end is scorn,
Is this the end to be left alone,
To live forgotten, and die forlorn?”

But sometimes in the falling day
An image seem’d to pass the door,
To look into her eyes and say,
“But thou shalt be alone no more.”
And flaming downward over all
From heat to heat the day decreased,
And slowly rounded to the east
The one black shadow from the wall.
“The day to night,” she made her moan,
“The day to night, the night to morn,
And day and night I am left alone
To live forgotten, and love forlorn.”

At eve a dry cicada sung,
There came a sound as of the sea;
Backward the lattice-blind she flung,
And lean’d upon the balcony.
There all in spaces rosy-bright
Large Hesper glitter’d on her tears,
And deepening thro’ the silent spheres
Heaven over Heaven rose the night.
And weeping then she made her moan,
“The night comes on that knows not morn,
When I shall cease to be all alone,
To live forgotten, and love forlorn.”

– Alfred Tennyson, Lord Tennyson

Mariana in the South by Waterhouse interprets the following lines in Tennyson’s poem of the same title:

Till all the crimson changed, and past
Into deep orange o’er the sea,
Low on her knees herself she cast,
Before Our Lady murmur’d she:
Complaining, “Mother, give me grace
To help me of my weary load.”
And on the liquid mirror glow’d
The clear perfection of her face.
“Is this the form,” she made her moan,
“That won his praises night and morn?”
And “Ah,” she said, “but I wake alone,
I sleep forgotten, I wake forlorn.”…

…And, rising, from her bosom drew
Old letters, breathing of her worth,
For “Love”, they said, “must needs be true,
To what is loveliest upon earth.”
An image seem’d to pass the door,
To look at her with slight, and say,
“But now thy beauty flows away,
So be alone for evermore.”
“O cruel heart,” she changed her tone,
“And cruel love, whose end is scorn,
Is this the end to be left alone,
To live forgotten, and die forlorn?”

As the woman looks with great lamentation at her reflection in the mirror, she contemplates her beauty, which ‘flows away to be alone forevermore.’ And so beauty and love are rendered synonymous; beauty blossoms with love and without love, beauty is redundant. The woman’s allure is wasted on solitude; she wakes alone and sleeps alone. Love letters lie discarded on the floor, emphasising a love that, although pined after, will never be actualised; it exists in word rather than act. The sliver of light that beckons from the barely open door in the background is of no consequence to the woman, who is enshrouded in a cloak of loneliness that requires her lives in the shadows.

The respective pictorial comprehensions of Mariana by Millais and Waterhouse are vastly different in imagination although similar in insight. The expression on the face of the woman in Waterhouse’s painting reflects a dreamy sensuality provoked by a desirous longing for lost love. In contrast, the loneliness felt by Millais’ Mariana is forlorn in rendition; her expression is pensive as she wishes death upon herself. The characteristic luminescence of pre-Raphaelite art articulated in Millais’ painting seems an ironic expression of Mariana’s deep melancholia and yet, equivocally,the vibrancy of the artwork magnifies the intensity of her emotional depression. Waterhouse’s impression is more sombre in tone and thus conveys an easy sense of sadness. Although conjured by the unique perspective of each artist, both Marianas are ‘slave to love’; bound unmercifully by that which is not returned.

Believing all forms of art to be interrelated, the Pre-Raphaelite artists often took subjects for their paintings from famous works of literature; alternately, many of them wrote poems to accompany their artwork. The essential tragedy of Tennyson’s words is embellished through the empathetic sensibility of two artists who, with exquisite detail, have relinquished great emotional depth to the narrative of paint. Nothing is lost in translation, everything is gained.

Other posts you might like: