Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal

This poem presents love as a dark, mysterious alchemy. Fragmented images and irregular syntax create the atmosphere of a vision or dream, a kind of heightened spiritual state in which the lover’s heart ‘lies open’ to the speaker. The images are both beautiful and fear-inducing – lurid and strange. This sense of both fear and wonder continues to the final stanza, with the deeply ambivalent description of a lily being consumed by the lake, as a metaphor for love.

The complex images of the poem can be understood in terms of symbolism and in terms of the atmosphere which they create. Reading the first line on its own, we have the idea of alternating between the ‘white’ and ‘crimson petal’. Crimson carries connotations of passion, lust and fury, while white generally signifies the opposite – innocence, chastity and peace. The fact that they seem to alternate suggests a state of imbalance – already we see a conflicted attitude towards love in the poem. The syntax of these first lines presents an irregularity – the ‘Nor’ of lines 2 and 3 should be countered by a negative sense in line 1. It’s absence forces us to think of ‘sleep’ as a negative, ‘no longer awake’. This adds to the line the sense that the state of imbalance that exists has not always been so. The ‘Nor’s make the entire stanza a mechanism for implying a previous state, opposite to the present, where the ‘cypress’ did ‘wave’ ‘in the palace walk’. It brings to mind a great kingdom where everyone and everything has fallen asleep.

The command ‘waken thou’ of line 4 might be seen to counteract this, yet the dream-state continues through the poem. The command can therefore be better seen as a kind of incantation directed at the lover’s heart, ‘reveal yourself’. The bold colours of the stanza also suggest the mixing of potions, and quasi-religious symbolism in ‘font’ suggest a dark alchemy at work.

The entire poem is given the mood of a dream or vision by the fragmented snatches of imagery. The vivid colours and strange scenes that appear stengthen this effect. The ‘palace walk’ and ‘porphyry font’ might bring to mind Arthurian legend, while the lucid, kaleidoscopic images of lines 5 – 10 provoke the fear and wonder of a hallucination. The dream effect is strengthened further by the irregular progression of grammar, which blurs the boundaries between past and present. The opening line introduces us in media res, reflecting a dream’s lack of concrete narrative structure. The anaphora of lines 5 – 10, and regular iambic pulse, bring to mind a chant or incantation, suggesting a alchemist’s vision.

It is in this haze of hallucinatory imagery that the lover’s ‘heart lies open’ to the speaker. Each image, while superficially beautiful or incredible, has a dark fearful side. The ‘milk-white peacock’ is a particularly sickly, repulsive image, and while it ‘glimmers’, there is something lurid in the way it ‘droops…like a ghost’. ‘Danae’ also glimmers, referring to the myth where she is showered with gold by Jove(?). The ‘meteor’ might be a good or bad omen, but the way it ‘slides’, and ‘leaves a shining furrow’ brings to mind the slithering of a serpent, or perhaps, more benignly, a snail. The ambivalence of each of these images suggests that there is something similarly both wonderful and terrifying in the process of seeing into someone’s soul. The speaker, while to understand the lover’s heart, is simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the intimate knowledge that love brings about.

This ambivalence is maintained to the end of the poem, with the image of a lily sinking down into the water of a lake. The image might be seen to reflect the beauty and symmetry of a natural process that returns the lily’s matter to the earth. This reading projects onto the lovers the idea of natural, mutual fulfillment. The final line carries a strong sexual connotation, in the paradox linking surrender and submission with fulfillment. Yet the image is presented in very dark terms – the colour and ‘sweetness’ of the lily are consumed by the blackness of the lake – there is something ominous in the word ‘slips’ – soundless and sudden. This might reveal a preoccupation with loss of identity through submitting to another person. There is the idea of death carried in the image, perhaps suggesting that the price for experiencing the ecstatic intimacy conveyed by the poem is that you are eventually consumed by it. In this light, the poem might be read in an entirely different light. Instead of being addressed to a lover, the addressee might be an addiction, perhaps to a hallucinatory drug – that provides an incredible, terrifyingly beautiful experience, and costs you your life. Perhaps.


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