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Last Updated on August 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” is a romantic sonnet first published in 1847. The poem is written in first-person perspective and addresses the speaker’s lover or someone who the speaker wants to be his lover. By Victorian standards, Tennyson’s sonnet is very erotic, but, by modern standards, the speaker’s attitudes towards his loved one may seem predatory and misogynistic. Too, the poem strays from the familiar stanza structure of a conventional sonnet to adopt the odd-numbered couplet chain and word repetition (as in the opening word of each stanza, “now,” and the closing word, “me”) so reminiscent of a Persian ghazal.

The sonnet begins innocently enough and describes the speaker’s experience of the night. He first speaks of floral imagery, describing “crimson” and “white” petals to invite a sense of delicate beauty and express color-laden ideas such as passion and lust, innocence and surrender. Turning to the night itself, the speaker describes the still silence of the motionless “cypress” and the frozen “gold fin.” All else seems to be asleep, caught by night’s spell and lulled to sleep. In this romantic state, the speaker asks his lover to awaken with him as the fireflies rise to brighten the twilight. It is an intimate setting as if the two are the only ones awake as the rest of the world slumbers on unknowingly.

In the second stanza, Tennyson uses language which suggests a more sinister tone. He describes a “milk-white peacock like a ghost,” meaning, ostensibly, that the light of day has faded so that now even the peacock seems “milk-white” in the gathering darkness. However, the comparison to a ghost, made twice in the stanza, undermines the romance and tranquility of the first stanza, adding a mystical, almost supernatural air to the romance. Indeed, the romantic symbolism of the flowers does not seem to sit easily with the imagery of ghosts.

In the third stanza, the speaker alludes to Danaë, a character from Greek myth imprisoned by her father, then impregnated by Zeus, who appeared to her in the form of golden rain. In the third stanza of Tennyson’s sonnet, the speaker compares the heart of his loved one to the body of Danaë. The implication is that her heart is there to be taken by the speaker. However, the allusion to the Greek myth also implies violation and abuse.  The speaker seems to want to possess his loved one as Zeus once possessed Danaë. This is not so much an expression of love as it is an expression of desire.

In the final stanza, the speaker urges his loved one to submit to him. Just as the lily “folds . . . all her sweetness up, / And slips into the bosom of the lake,” so too the speaker would have his lover “fold” herself into his “bosom.” He wants her to submerge herself within him. He wants to envelop her completely so that she should “be lost in [him].”

The return to the flower symbolism indicates the shift in tone and intent that occurs throughout the poem. At the beginning of the poem, the flowers seemed to symbolize romance; now, at the end of the poem, the flowers fold in upon themselves and sink into the water, symbolizing perhaps the fragility, falseness, or one-sidedness of that romance. Indeed, a careful reading of this poem suggests that the speaker expresses no feeling of romantic love at all. He seems interested in possession and domination alone, and, hopefully, the object of his desire managed to escape his predatory advances.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

“Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” is a short lyric of fourteen lines. It begins with two stanzas of four lines each. Next comes a couplet, and the poem concludes with another four-line stanza. The reader of the poem will at once note that it has no title but is known by its first line. The reason for this is that the lyric forms part of a large epic, The Princess. The epic includes several famous lyrics, including “Tears, Idle tears” and “Come Down, O Maid.”

“Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” is read by Princess Ida to the prince, who is recovering from wounds incurred in battle. The prince loves Ida; she, although well-disposed to him, has yet to reveal her own feelings. In the lyric, she at last does so; its content makes it clear that she reciprocates his love.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson faced a difficult problem in writing about love. The Victorians held extremely strong views about what might properly be discussed in public. Sexual love was definitely not on the acceptable list: Much that might appear in a modern motion picture rated acceptable for family audiences would by the Victorians have been classed as beyond the pale.

Tennyson fully shared the values of his time. The task that thus faced him in “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” was to suggest the circumstances of a romantic encounter while shunning any direct description that violated propriety. Tennyson accomplished this feat through the use of appeals to nature and references to mythology.

Although the poem is read by the princess, the speaker in it is a man appealing to a woman. The scene is a palace garden at night. The flowers personify sleep, and the trees are quiet: “Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk.” In a striking image, a fish is represented as sleeping: “Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font” (porphyry is an igneous rock, often used in Persian palaces). The speaker invites the lady he addresses to wake up.

The purpose for which he wishes her to do so becomes quickly apparent in the next stanza. He refers to the Greek myth in which Zeus, disguised as a shower of meteors, ravished the maiden Danaë. He suggests that the lady is willing to receive him: “And all thy heart lies open unto me.” The couplet, which now follows, suggests that the encounter has ended. The speaker, continuing to identify himself with Zeus, departs: “Now slides the silent meteor on.” As the woman bears physical evidence of the encounter, so does he have her thoughts imprinted in him.

The intermingling of thoughts implies that the encounter has been of deep significance. This is confirmed in the concluding stanza, in which it transpires that the speaker and the lady have by no means finished their romance. Drawing an analogy with the lily, which folds itself up and “slips into the bosom of the lake,” he invites the lady to follow suit: “So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip/ Into my bosom and be lost in me.” The poem then concludes with an image of the total unity of lover and beloved.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

The lyric is written in an unusual form. It is a ghazal, a Persian love poem, in which a single word or phrase is repeated at short intervals. Each stanza ends with “me”: “with me,” “to me,” “unto me,” “in me,” and again “in me.” The repeated phrase acts as a substitute for rhyme. A number of images in the lyric are standard in the Persian love poem: roses, lilies, peacocks, cypresses, and stars.

By using this exotic form, Tennyson suggests a situation and a mood out of the ordinary. The normal conventions are suspended for the duration of the romantic encounter.

To speak of a romantic encounter is often to suggest a difficulty: How can the man overcome the woman’s resistance? The speaker solves the problem by avoiding it altogether. The result of the encounter between him and the lady is, in his mind, inevitable. Tennyson’s choice of words, along with the extraordinary circumstances suggested by the poem’s strange form, aids in creating the illusion of inevitability. Each stanza begins with “Now,” suggesting a continuous movement. The effect is enhanced in the first stanza, in which the second and third lines begin with “Nor.” This word is so similar to “now” that the reader must pay close attention to avoid a misreading. Given the progression of “Nows,” resistance on the woman’s part becomes next to impossible.

Tennyson also uses words that suggest peace and drowsiness rather than violence. The poem scrupulously avoids the slightest hint of struggle. The flowers sleep: The activities from which the cypresses and goldfish rest are waving and winking, both rather mild affairs. The humorous “winks” suggest a lighthearted mood. A similar effect occurs in each stanza. The peacock “droops” and “glimmers.” The “silent” meteor “slides”; the lily “folds” and “slips.” All these verbs hint at peace and repose.

Tennyson’s most serious problem in conveying a mood of peace stems from his use of the legend of Danaë, in Greek mythology a story of rape. He solves the difficulty with characteristic ingenuity. He turns the name Danaë into an adjective: “Now lies the earth all Danaë to the stars.” The separate existence of the woman is thus elided: She fails to resist because she cannot. She has been emptied of her substance and transformed into a modifier.

The poem also reverses standard male and female attributes, adding even further to the motif of unity. Traditionally, males are active and females are passive. Thus, the feminine peacock “droops,” and the lady’s heart “lies open.” The male, personified as a meteor, “slides on” and “leaves.” The final stanza, however, executes a volte-face. Now it is the feminine lily that “folds” and “slips” into the lake. It is the lady whom the speaker calls upon to take the initiative by “folding herself.” The poem’s careful combination of figures is unified to achieve a common effect—the two lovers cannot be parted.