Literature

A Short Analysis of Tennyson’s ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’

The Princess, a long narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson published in 1847, is not much read or studied now. In the vast editions of Tennyson’s collected works, it languishes unread alongside his plays about Thomas Becket and his various ‘sequel’ poems (‘Mariana in the South’, ‘Locksley Hall Sixty Years After’), although it did go on to inspire Princess Ida by the Savoy opera composers, Gilbert and Sullivan.

But hardly anyone sits down and reads The Princess any more for its overlong and uncomfortable blend of serious narrative and comical touches. There is one exception: the songs from The Princess. A couple of these, namely ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ and the subject of this analysis, ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’, are among Tennyson’s most famous and best-loved lyrics. But ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’ in particular deserves further commentary, for it is atypical in Tennyson’s oeuvre for a number of reasons. First, here’s the poem (or song):

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake.
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’: context

English poetry has often absorbed and adapted other literary traditions from around the world: the Italian sonnet and ottava rima, the French villanelle, the Japanese haiku. But ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’ is inspired by a rather wonderful Persian form known as the ghazal, a form of love poetry (usually sung) originating in Arabic poetry.

The ghazal usually comprises anything between five and fifteen couplets. These couplets are self-contained in that they are often individual statements or sentences, but they link to the broader theme of the ghazal, which is always love. Many ghazals focus on the circumstance of two lovers being separated, offering a bittersweet interpretation of that separation: it is painful to be apart from one’s lover, but the love they bear each other is beautiful.

‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’ might be regarded as the Middle-Eastern counterpart to the European sonnet, in that love is often (though not always) the theme, and there is usually some barrier to that love. Traditionally, in the earliest Italian and English sonnets, that barrier was class separation: the (lower-born) poet could never hope to be with the (high-born) lady whose beauty he immortalised. The sonnets of Petrarch, or those of Sir Thomas Wyatt or Sir Philip Sidney in Tudor England, reflect this: the poet is always looking on, wishing he could be with the woman he addresses or writes about, but forever destined to be a looker-on rather than a lover to her.

In the ghazal, the lovers are separated for any number of reasons, but the ‘thrust’ of the two kinds of love poem are broadly the same: the poet is singing about a love that cannot be fulfilled (right now at least), for one reason or another.

Tennyson’s poem/song seems to tip a nod to the sonnet form as well, since his ‘ghazal’ (loosely interpreted) comprises seven couplets, so fourteen lines altogether. It’s not a sonnet, but its number of lines calls to mind the sonnet form. It’s perhaps not strictly a ghazal either – Tennyson claimed he didn’t know any Persian poetry – but rather a poem or song that calls to mind both of these forms of love poetry, without fully belonging to either. It doesn’t rhyme, so cannot strictly be considered a sonnet (we discuss the different kinds of sonnet in more detail here).

In The Princess, the princess of that poem’s title, Ida, reads ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’ aloud. In summary, the poem expresses a lover’s desires for her beloved at night, and the speaker fittingly draws upon the activities of other ‘creatures of the night’ to reflect her own desires for her sweetheart. It’s an unusually sensuous poem, even erotic, for a work of Victorian literature, but then the Victorians weren’t as prudish as is often believed.

‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’: analysis

Let’s go through the poem section by section:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.
The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.

Tennyson begins with a pair of couplets arranged as a quatrain, establishing the night-time setting for this passionate love poem. Both the ‘crimson petal’ of the flowers and the ‘white’ are sleeping, closed up now the sun has gone down. ‘Crimson’ and ‘white’ suggest the contrast between the flesh and the blood, between sin and purity, lovemaking and denial (back to the ghazal and the idea of lovers being unable to be with each other). The ‘cypress’ tree no longer sways in the path leading up to the palace (Ida is a princess, remember): the night air is still, oppressive close, with no breeze.

In the third line, we have more imagery, specifically gold and fire-coloured imagery: the ‘gold fin’ of the fish in the font, and the firefly (its burning glow suggestive of the burning passions of the speaker). The speaker then calls upon her beloved to ‘waken’ with her. ‘Waken’ here is obviously ironic, given it’s night time, but the ‘wakening’ here is a sexual one as much as anything.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now we move from an opening quatrain to three separate couplets. The ‘peacock’ – famous for displaying its plumage in order to attract a sexual partner – is the next exotic creature to be mentioned. Images of insubstantial things dominate in this couplet: the repetition of the simile ‘like a ghost’ suggests the spiritual and the intangible, while ‘glimmers’ summons the idea of the lovers melting into one another. (Perhaps we should recall Robert Herrick’s memorable erotic image about his beloved Julia, notably ‘the liquefaction of her clothes’.)

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

The Earth lies open to the stars which shine above it (like those fireflies, they burn in the darkness), much as Danaë, in Greek mythology, was ‘open’ to Zeus, who ‘seduced’ her (if that is quite the word: poor Danaë doesn’t appear to have had much say in the matter) after he took the form of a shower of gold. On firmer and more traditional romantic ground, the speaker likens both of these images (Zeus and Danaë; the stars and the Earth) to her and her lover, whose ‘heart lies upon’ to her.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

More astronomical imagery: this time, the idea of a meteor sliding through the heavens, leaving a ‘shining furrow’ or trail in its wake, much as thoughts of her beloved linger in the speaker’s mind (although the syntax is a little unconventional, ‘thy thoughts’ here probably means ‘thoughts of you’ rather than ‘your thoughts about me’, although the latter is also tenable if it means ‘your thoughts of being with me, which you have related to me in the past’).

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake.
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Tennyson concludes as he had begun: with a pair of couplets pushed together to form a quatrain. The lily – a water-lily, as the ‘bosom of the lake’ in the next line indicates – folds up its sweet scent and slides down into the water. Once again, we have a ‘liquefying’ image suggestive of carnal pleasure, while ‘bosom’ is also loaded with eroticism. Just as the water-lily so behaves, the speaker concludes, why don’t you, ‘dearest’, fold yourself into ‘my bosom’ and lose yourself in romantic bliss?

In Tennyson, one of the finest studies of Tennyson (a critical biography), Christopher Ricks calls ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White’ a ‘poem whose manner and movement had no predecessor in English poetry’; for Ricks, the poem ‘takes the darkest feelings and finds that they can be sources of light and delight.’ As so often, Ricks puts it better (and more delightfully) than just about anybody else could have, and his point about ‘darkest feelings’ should be borne in mind when reading and analysing ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’: we get images of drowning, of being ‘lost’, and yet these are things to be desired because of the pleasures they can provide in a romantic and erotic context.

Ricks also notes the contradictory nature of the speaker’s urge: that her beloved ‘waken’ with her, but waken into what? Into a dreamy and dreamlike state of pleasure and satisfaction.

‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’ has given its title to a Neo-Victorian novel by Michel Faber, published in 2002: The Crimson Petal and the White.

3 Comments

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  3. Terrific poem, it seems so charged with emotion. Tennyson is not one of the poets I normally read but he showed his humanity here. Good stuff.

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