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.”

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“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.

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Themes