“Mariana” and “Porphyria’s Lover”
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Defining Character: Solitude as a Litmus Test in “Mariana” and “Porphyria’s Lover”
Victorian poets Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson frequently structure their poetry as a dramatic monologue to gain insight into the mind and motivations of their characters, with the solitude that accompanies such dramatic monologues becoming a central focus of the work. Tennyson’s poem “Mariana” and Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” explore the relationship between solitude and individuality, in particular focusing upon individual rights. By developing the use of personification, the poets suggest that individuals lose their objectivity when confronted with prolonged solitude. However, the dramatically different tones and resolutions of the works imply that solitude and individual rights are not inherently good or evil, but rather reflect the moral character of the individual. Tennyson’s use of personification in the first stanza establishes both the melancholic tone of the poem while also hinting at Mariana’s unbalanced mental and emotional state. The poem opens with a description of the setting, yet Tennyson shades even this background to correspond with how Mariana sees the world. Mariana, who desperately awaits the arrival of her lover, is incapable of perceiving anything objectively. Tennyson’s depiction of the sheds as “sad and strange” (5) thus corresponds with Mariana’s misery.
The “lonely” (8) grange and “glooming” (20) flats complete the trinity of bleak solitude. Significantly, Mariana views these inanimate objects as possessing human characteristics. While this personification suggests Mariana’s emotional instability, it also reveals the loneliness of her isolation. Mariana’s desperate desire to end her solitude compels her to subconsciously create sympathetic human-like figures from her surroundings. Tennyson uses personification throughout the poem to afford readers insight into the evolution of Mariana’s character. Tennyson personifies the house and wind in later stanzas both to underscore Mariana’s further descent into solitude’s subjectivity and to hint at her lover’s future arrival. Stasis is a significant aspect of the poem, as the only explicit mention of time passing comes by having Mariana alternatively declare “The day is dreary” (32) or “The night is dreary” (20, 57). Mariana submerges herself in a timeless existence, refusing to acknowledge anything except the absence of her lover and her subsequent depression; the phrase “She only said, ‘My life is dreary, / He cometh not,’ she said” (9-10) appears at the close of every stanza.
As Mariana outwardly languishes in this perpetual state of waiting, Tennyson’s shift in personification reveals more of her inner emotions. In the fifth stanza, after cycling through the lonely solitude of the day and night, Mariana relates how “All day within the dreamy house / The doors upon their hinges creaked” (61-62). The word “dreamy” has a more hopeful connotation than the previously characterized “glooming flats” or “lonely grange,” signifying a potential shift in circumstances. Even though the desired lover is yet only a wistful dream, Tennyson heralds his future appearance by personifying the wind as “wooing” (74). While superficially the wooing wind might be seen only as a whistling breeze, Tennyson plays upon the double meaning of the term “wooing” to signify the future arrival of the lover and an end to Mariana’s solitude (North 11 Jan 2010). Thus, Tennyson uses personification as a thematic tool throughout the text to highlight the impact of solitude on Mariana and how her character evolves over time. Similarly to Tennyson, Browning emphasizes the effect of solitude upon the individual in his poem “Porphyria’s Lover” in order to later stress the connection between solitude and individual rights. The storm that brews outside the narrator’s cottage serves to isolate him physically from others, yet his seclusion has a deeper impact as well.
Browning deliberately blurs his characterization of the narrator, for readers are denied a physical description of him, or even of the cottage where he lives. Rather, it seems the narrator views his self only as it pertains to Porphyria, his lover. His only identification arises from the title “Porphyria’s Lover,” thus defining him only in terms of his relationship with her. Browning extends this characterization of the narrator’s lack of self to encompass his behavior, for the narrator passively endures the stormy weather until Porphyria comes. By having the narrator observe that “she shut the cold out and the storm, / And kneeled and made the cheerless grate / Blaze up, and all the cottage warm” (7-9), Browning suggests that the narrator depends upon Porphyria to fulfill basic human needs like warmth and comfort. His unwillingness or inability to generate his own warmth and his reliance upon Porphyria implies a psychological distancing from his self. Indeed, the next few lines seem to confirm the narrator’s mental instability, for the narrator’s third-person account of when Porphyria “sat down by my side / And called me… no voice replied” reveals the sense of distance, even disembodiment, that the narrator experiences. Browning thus depicts the narrator as so wrought by inner conflict that he compensates for the acute pangs of loneliness and isolation he feels by self-destructively narrowing his world to Porphyria.
While Browning and Tennyson both employ personification in their poetry, Browning’s use of personification underscores the dangers of solitude. The first four lines of the poem present the wind as a malevolent personality; the narrator relates how the “sullen wind was soon awake, / It tore the elm tops down for spite, / And did its worst to vex the lake: / I listened with heart fit to break” (2-5). In a loss of objectivity that parallels Mariana’s, the narrator perceives a non-human force as portraying human emotions or desires. By seeing the wind as deliberately evil, the narrator reveals a disturbing effect of prolonged solitude. His subjective view of the wind underscores his loss of reason and objectivity, and compels speculation about his mental stability. Moreover, his overly dramatic reaction to the wind, “I listened with heart fit to break” (5) reveals the narrator’s fragile state and potential to overreact in general.
Most people would not find themselves heartbroken over a windy night, nor decry the wind as a spiteful being. Indeed, the wind’s violent savagery of the elm tops foreshadows the narrator’s eventual strangling of Porphyria. Such brutal ferocity provides a stark contrast with Mariana’s passivity. The different tones and resolutions of the two poems highlight the differences within the main characters; their radically different reactions to solitude frame the fundamental issue of individual rights. While at first the connection between solitude and individual rights might appear elusive, the contrasting behaviors of Mariana and the narrator serve to strengthen the link. Tennyson’s and Browning’s use of personification in their poems emphasizes that Mariana and the narrator become unhinged while enduring the lonely pangs of solitude, for the usage of personification suggests the need to create people. Yet the characters reveal their emotional instability in very different ways: Mariana retreats into the blind comfort of the night, “She could not look on the sweet heaven / Either at morn or eventide” (Tennyson 15-16) while the narrator erupts in violence, “I found / A thing to do, and all her hair / In one long yellow string I wound / Three times her little throat around / And strangled her” (Browning 36-40).
These actions correspond with the personification developed earlier, as Mariana portrays things as “sad” or “lonely”, while the narrator depicts the wind as deliberately vicious. Even though they both experience the same solitude, only Mariana is able to endure her situation without degenerating into violence. The morality of individual rights – whether a person should act in accordance with his or her desires even to the point of harming others – is questioned by the narrator’s murder of Porphyria. Certainly, the narrator should not be considered representative of all humans faced with such solitude; Mariana’s reclusive retreat seems much more indicative of human nature in general. However, his cold murder and subsequent rationalizing, “No pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain” (41-42) suggest a disturbed mentality that, if unchecked, has the potential to consume society. Living within a community restricts the exercise of unfettered freedom to pursue individual rights; Browning suggests that when that community is lost and replaced by seclusion, individuals may lose that restraint, as well. For the many who react to solitude like Mariana, a few will react like the narrator.
Thus, while the concept of individual rights is not necessarily flawed, its exercise must always be checked by human fallibility. In conclusion, while “Mariana” and “Porphyria’s Lover” share many similarities, their differences invite readers to a closer examination of character. Despite their mutual focus upon solitude, the poets use personification to highlight the different personalities of their characters and to foreshadow their future actions. While both Mariana and the narrator lose their objectivity, only the narrator descends into madness. Indeed, the positive connotations of words like “dreamy” and “wooing” implies that Mariana will be rewarded for her patience during her lonely vigil. Thus, solitude in these poems forms a background that places the characters’ actions in sharp focus. Solitude, like individual rights, is not necessarily a good or bad thing in itself. Rather, it highlights the moral character of the individual. Perhaps Tennyson and Browning choose to write about solitude, which every reader must confront to some extent, to compel their readers to examine the relative morality of their own actions.