NOW SLEEPS THE CRIMSON PETAL: IDEALIZED ROMANCE IN TENNYSON

I often speak of poets in terms of schools of painting.  Some, for example, are like Impressionists in their use of words.  Others, like today’s poet, Alfred Tennyson, are more like Pre-Raphaelites, writers who look back to medieval times as being a very poetic and beautiful period.  Of course that is simply a very limited and illusory view of those times, and that is exactly what our poet intended — a romanticized view, with everything neither beautiful nor conventionally poetic removed from sight.

The result, of course, is not reality, but rather an idealized fantasy image.  And such an idealized image was very much in fashion in the mid to late 19th century and on into the very beginning of the 20th.

Today’s poem, Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, is actually a brief poem within a story within a narrative poem that is much longer than the extract given here.  The whole work is titled The Princess, and if you have a good deal of time and patience, you might wish to read it.  But this excerpt was written to function as a “separate” poem, even though it is only a small part of the whole work.

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal is not only an excellent example of romanticism in poetry, but it also demonstrates, as I have said before, what a consummate craftsman Tennyson was.  He reminds me of those italian workmen who used to cover whole table tops in carefully shaped and polished semiprecious stones, each so carefully worked that it contributes its part to the picture all the pieces together form.  That is the precision and workmanship we find in Tennyson.

So here is Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Let’s look at it part by part:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The fire-fly wakens: wake thou with me.

The poet is creating a peaceful and beautiful picture of twilight.  That is the “now” of which he speaks, and in that “now” the flowers close, some with crimson petals, some with white.  Tennyson uses “petal” to mean not only the flower as a whole, but also all the other flowers like it in the garden.  Using a part of something to indicate the whole is a poetic technique called synechdoche (pronounced sin-EK-doh-kee).  The first line should not be read as a sequence, with the crimson petals sleeping first, followed by white petals sleeping, but rather both happen at the same time, in the same “now.”

To paraphrase it simply:
Now the crimson flowers and the white flowers close for the night.
But of course putting it that bluntly does not give the poetic effect Tennyson achieved in his phrasing.

The cypress tree is the first of two “nors,” the poet gives us, presenting the stillness and beauty of the evening in negatives:

Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:

That, paraphrased in ordinary English, would be:
The wind has gone still, no longer bending the cypress trees in the palace walk.
The goldfish in the porphyry stone basin have gone still and out of sight for the night.

Saying “the gold fin” is again synechdoche, and by saying that we no longer see the light of day flashing gold on the moving fish, Tennyson is giving us a picture both of daylight having gone and of rest and stillness.

So this first part of the poem is telling us this:

Not a breath of wind stirs the tall, slender cypress trees.  And not single shining glitter of light off a fin of the goldfish in the porphyry stone (a kind of purplish rock) basin/pool can be seen.  Everything is still and silent, and the afterglow of day is disappearing.

Did you notice that Tennyson repeatedly uses one thing to mean many? He says “the crimson petal,” “the white [petal],” “the cypress,” “the gold fin,” and “the firefly,” but he is really speaking of these in the plural. He only uses the singular for poetic effect.

The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.

The fireflies have begun to appear as points of light in the shadows.  The young man who speaks the poem calls on the young woman he loves to “waken” with him, meaning to walk through the beauty of the twilight garden with him — but also to “waken” to what he is telling her through the poem about his love for her.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Instead of using a peacock of the usual colors, Tennyson instead very cleverly offers a white peacock, which is in keeping with the loss of color that comes with the loss of light, when everything goes shades of white, grey, and black.  He tells us that the white peacock lowers its head and of course its long tail feathers, and this drooping is another indication of the rest and quiet of the evening.  And like a ghost whose apparition continues to appear in the gathering darkness, the white peacock continues to glimmer, reflecting the last of the vanishing afterglow of twilight.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

With those lines, Tennyson moves again from setting the atmosphere to the little “love story” within the poem.  “Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars” is an allusion to an ancient Greek myth.  Danaë was the lovely daughter of a king named Acrisius.  The king was worried by a prophecy given by the oracle of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, who said that said Danaë  would have a son who would kill Acrisius, so to prevent this, the fearful king locked her in a room made of bronze, where no man could reach her.  He did not, however, take into account the lusty ruler of the gods, Zeus, who supernaturally came through the ceiling of the bronze room and fell on  Danaë as a shower of gold.  So Tennyson is telling us that like Danaë, who was open and vulnerable to the shower of gold falling on her, the earth in evening is all open to the sky that is filled with a multitude of stars.  And then Tennyson returns to the “love story” of the poem:

And all thy heart lies open unto me.

As we can tell from the  Danaë allusion, this is a man talking to a woman.  He tells her that like the earth at evening is open and vulnerable to the starry sky, like Danaë open and vulnerable to her lover coming upon her as a shower of gold, even so this unnamed woman, in the still beauty of evening, is open and emotionally vulnerable to him.

Now Tennyson returns to his lovely “now” imagery:

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now a silent shooting star crosses (“slides…on”) the evening sky, leaving a golden trail like the furrow made in the earth by a plow.  And just as the passing meteor leaves a shining trail, so in our young man, his thoughts of the young woman leave a shining trail in his mind.  This is a way of saying that even a thought of her is as beautiful and shining as the trail left by a shooting star.

Nénuphar blanc

(Photo credit: gelinh)

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

This is the last of the repeated “nows” of the poem.  Tennyson tells us that the water lily folds up “all her sweetness,” closes its beautiful petals, and slips “into the bosom of the lake,” meaning it slips below the surface of the water.  But notice how Tennyson cleverly uses the term “bosom,” meaning the breast/chest of a human, to signify the lake surface into which the waterlily sinks.  That enables him to move quickly on to his last line, the “point” of the whole poem, in which the young man invites the woman to similarly fold herself against his chest and be embraced by his arms and his love, and be “lost” in him.  He wants her to yield to his love as all things have yielded to the stillness and rest of the twilight.

This was walking a rather narrow line for Victorian England, particularly with the  Danaë simile, but Tennyson got away with it because in the end what the young man wants, at least in the poem, is for the young woman to be silently enfolded in his arms and submerged in his love.  He does not take it beyond that, and so Tennyson managed to give the Victorian period a romantic thrill while avoiding the social censors.

The most important quality of the poem is, of course, its carefully plotted imagery, with all things falling into beautiful rest and quiet; and Tennyson uses all of that to make his “love story” point, which of course is completely tinted with the same beautiful and quiet atmosphere of twilight and a gathering darkness filled with stars.

It is worth noting that everything in this poem is visual, emphasizing the sense of sight.  There is no mention at all of sound.  This absence deepens the sense of stillness and quiet.

Did you notice that the word “me,” preceded by a preposition, ends a line five times throughout the poem?

…with me.
…to me.
…unto me.
…in me.
…in me.

That repetition adds to the lulling effect of the whole, as does the repetition of the words “now” and “nor.”

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal is reminiscent of the much shorter old Japanese waka, which was a poetic form focused only on the beautiful and aesthetically elegant, and often expressed romantic love through lovely, if bittersweet, nature imagery.  The hokku, of course, is quite different in its elimination of romantic love and its more realistic approach that no longer tries to eliminate all that is not conventionally beautiful.  But of course Tennyson’s wish is precisely that — to eliminate all that is not beautiful, to use only the conventionally poetic in painting his word picture of a twilight romance in today’s poem, which was published, by the way, in 1847.  Queen Victoria had been on the British throne for some ten years.

It is also worth noting the traditional association of the color crimson with passion, and that of white with purity and fidelity and innocence.

David

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One Response to NOW SLEEPS THE CRIMSON PETAL: IDEALIZED ROMANCE IN TENNYSON

  1. isdigby says:

    A very helpful analysis of this perfect poem. Thank you.

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