Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

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.

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