Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Last Updated on August 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The poem begins as the speaker describes the natural scenes of nightfall. He lingers on specific imagery, conjuring images of vibrant flowers folding inward to hide their vibrant petals from the darkness, of the elegant cypress tree, now stilled and silent, of the “gold fin” deprived of its sunlit glimmer. These radiant daytime scenes subside, and the quiet serenity of night reigns supreme. Accompanied by the newly-risen fireflies, the speaker, still awake, addresses his lover and begs her to awaken to appreciate the beauty of night alongside him.

In the second stanza, the speaker describes his lover and compares her to a “milk-white peacock.” This exotic creature conjures a sense of luxury and seduction, for peacocks exhibit their ornate plumage as a mating ritual. Visually, his lover appears as this peacock does, her pale, white body shining coyly in the moonlight. Both she and the peacock seem “ghost”-like and descending upon the speaker as insubstantial shades. She “glimmers” onto the speaker, a mystical spirit that, just as the fireflies, disrupts night’s reign with her luminous being.

Returning to his description of the night, the speaker compares the Earth to the Greek myth of Princess Danaë of Argos. According to the myth, an oracle tells King Acrisius of Argos that his daughter would bear a son that would grow up to kill him, so he locks Danaë in a tower so that no man could reach her. However, Zeus transforms himself into a shower of gold, pouring himself into her prison and impregnating her with her son, Perseus. Thus, when the speaker of the poem says that the Earth “lies… all Danaë to the stars / And all thy heart lies open unto me” the allusion connects the relationship of Zeus and the princess with that of the speaker and his lover.

The metaphor implies the speaker’s sexual desire for the woman he implores in the darkness, but it could also reference Danaë's lack of autonomy in her relationship with Zeus. The speaker’s assumption that his beloved is “open” to his advances suggests a similar subservience and sexual hierarchy. Regardless, the implication is overtly sexual and, from the speaker’s perspective, his lover’s heart “lies open unto” him, meaning that she is both willing and desirous.

The night sky is broken by a “silent meteor” as it “slides…on,” leaving a “shining furrow” marking the sky; the moment of intimacy has passed, yet his beloved has marked him just as this meteor has marked the sky. In the final stanza, the speaker reprises the floral imagery of the first, describing a water lily as it “folds… all her sweetness up” and “slips into the bosom of the lake.” He compares his beloved to such a flower and requests that she models herself after the lily. Calling her “my dearest,” he asks that she “fold” herself up, just as the lily, “slip into [his] bosom,” and “be lost” in him. The final line demands vulnerability and subservience of the speaker’s lover, asking that she fold herself up to suit his desires and abandon herself to the whims of his heart. In a sense, the poem is romantic, but it can easily be read otherwise. 

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