Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

“Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” exemplifies a peculiar feature of the Victorian attitude toward love. Although by convention writers were supposed to exercise extreme reticence, in fact they did not do so. Tennyson cannot give a direct description of physical love, but his suggestions make his meaning unmistakable. When the...

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“Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” exemplifies a peculiar feature of the Victorian attitude toward love. Although by convention writers were supposed to exercise extreme reticence, in fact they did not do so. Tennyson cannot give a direct description of physical love, but his suggestions make his meaning unmistakable. When the speaker says, “And all thy heart lies open unto me,” the reader cannot help but wonder what really “lies open.”

The use of indirect allusion rather than direct description enhances the erotic effect. The reader cannot take in the scene passively but must use imagination in order to grasp the poem’s meaning. Because of the beauty of the words, the reader is in danger of missing the fundamental occurrence represented by the lyric’s appearance in The Princess. A woman reads an erotic poem in the presence of a man who has earlier professed his love for her. Nothing could be more alien to the notion of feminine modesty, but unless the reader portrays the scene in his own mind, the radical challenge to customary behavior will be missed.

The analysis just given might appear to fit a conventional picture of Victorian hypocrisy. In this view, the Victorians avoided certain words and aspired to a high-minded righteousness. In fact, they failed to practice what they preached: So long as the correct forms were observed, behavior was much less restricted than might appear. Many were reluctant to use the phrase “breast of chicken”; yet, at the same time, prostitution flourished.

There is no reason to accuse Tennyson of hypocrisy, whatever may be true of others among his contemporaries. He believed that love was a spiritual experience of great value. A romantic couple in their behavior reflect the movement of nature toward unity. The key to Tennyson’s attitude to love lies in the final stanza, in which the lily slips into the lake. If the lady follows the behest of the speaker and, imitating the lily that is self-absorbed into the lake, becomes lost in the lover, an advance toward the unity of nature has taken place.

One can thus see why Tennyson is the reverse of hypocritical in the poem. He does not use poetic conventions in order to suggest pruriently what law and custom will not permit him to state directly. Instead, he sincerely believes in a philosophy of unity that nature and human loves illustrate. The theme of organic unity in nature was a near constant in Tennyson’s work. A famous line of In Memoriam (1850) states: “I doubt not thro’ the ages, one increasing purpose runs.” The theme was common to many of Tennyson’s contemporaries, including Thomas Carlyle and Francis Thompson.

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