Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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Last Updated on August 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586

The Bounds of Victorian Sexuality

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born in 1809 and died in 1892. As Tennyson was raised in the Romantic literary tradition, his poetry discussed romantic and often erotic themes—even though he lived and wrote at the onset and peak of the sexually-repressed Victorian era (1837–1901). “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” depicts a sexual relationship through thinly-veiled flower metaphors and allusions to Greek mythology; by Victorian standards, the poem may have been viewed as vulgar and lurid.

Tennyson, however, presents sexual desire as something normal and natural, so much so that it is integrated into the very being of the natural world. By discussing sex—or, rather, by alluding to it so strongly—and contextualizing it in this setting, he suggests that sex is natural and should not be considered taboo. His vision of sexuality is almost divine, tied to the heavens, to the “silent meteor” that reflects his love, and to the barest scenes that remind him of his beloved. It is not be hidden, for it cannot be, as even the lily inspires visions of his lover. Necessarily couched in obscured metaphors and subtle implications, the poem rejects prudish Victorian standards to discuss the sexuality of its speaker freely.

Sexual Stakes Across Gender Lines

Implicit in the poem is the undercurrent of gendered power. Every metaphorical comparison of the natural world to the speaker’s beloved places her in a position of subservience. Either she is a “lily” who “slips” idly into the “bosom of the lake,” spiraling downward without her control, or she is a “ghost,” insubstantial and incapable of affecting the world around her. Beyond that, she reminds the speaker of Danaë, a comparison that conjures a sense of control and violation. 

In short, the poem presents desire as an imbalanced object. Though his lover seems to return his affections as she “glimmers on to [him],” it is returned with neither the fervor nor the lust that it is given. This is likely due to the Victorian context of the poem which created vastly different stakes for the same expressions of male and female sexuality. The speaker gives voice to his desire with ease; he wishes to have her and to control her, and that is seen as romantic. His female object of interest, however, falls victim to the abundant implications of this desire; for her to be loved, as he wishes, she must be possessed and “lost” in her lover. To satisfy his idle whims, she must give of him her entire being in an unfair, expected exchange.

The Role of Nature in Romantic Writing

Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poetry, though Victorian, was deeply indebted to the Romantic poets of the eighteenth century. His works often skewed toward the natural, finding emotional ecstasies and romantic beauty in simple scenes. “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal” reprises this tradition, as the speaker trails through a twilit garden, longing for his lover to join him.

Immediately, he sees their relationship reflected in this natural space; the duality of his passion and her innocence is reflected by the “crimson” and “white” flowers. As the sky dims, the colors bleed into an unidentifiable haze, melding desire and surrender just as he hopes his lover might. He sees her in the “silent meteor” and the “lily” as it “slips into the bosom of the lake.” These scenes invite a sense of beauty and peace that metaphorically connect to his love. As night descends on the garden, so too does his beloved.

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