Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Ask Me No More

This poem conveys a mood of deep melancholy and grief despite being reluctant to explicate a simple narrative or situation in which this passionate feeling is being felt. The poem can be seen as a plea to and for the speaker’s lover or friend on their death-bed, yet the picture is kept just out of focus, as if the exhortation of the title were intended to be extended to the reader as well. Through repetition we are made witness to the change in tone behind this phrase, from the resolution and coldness of the first stanza to a deep anguish and compassion in the last. The adapted sonnet form of the poem fits this dramatic shift in mood and the soul-searching that accompanies it.

A mood of bold defiance is conveyed in the opening lines with the imperative ‘Ask me no more’. The construction comparing tumultuous natural forces with the speaker’s maintained silence, ‘when have I answered thee?’, works on the idea that while the elements are subject to influence, the speaker’s resolution not to respond is unshakeable. The lines are given a Biblical cadence by the conditionals ‘may’ balanced against ‘but’ as in a psalm, as well as the idea of a ‘cloud’ reaching down from ‘heaven’. With the entrance of death into the poem at stanza 2 this will be reconfigured as an allusion to the death of Elijah or the ascension of Jesus, but here it simply demonstrates that storm clouds are shaped, and so influenced, by the land they pass over. The speaker’s exclamation ‘O too fond’ hangs unexplained in the stanza, but could apply to the speaker himself or the subject of the poem with a tone of admonishment. At this point in the poem the speaker might be rejecting an enamoured lover – he wants to distance and silence the person he is addressing.

The mood changes dramatically in the second stanza to one of grief and helplessness. The vulnerability and frailty conveyed by ‘what answer should I give?’ contrasts starkly with the firm coldness of stanza 1. ‘I love not the hollow cheek…’ attempts to explain this remoteness as a profound insight that sees beyond mere mortality, but the whole poem suddenly pivots on following word, ‘Yet’. This can be seen as the volta of this semi-sonnet, as the speaker allows the outpouring of his true emotion indicated by the exclamation mark at the end of the line. ‘O my friend’ counters ‘O too fond’ in the first stanza, turning that from a reproach towards the addressee, to a complex expression of self-admonishment, at having become too attached to the ‘hollow cheek and faded eye’ of a person that must inevitably die.

There is a bitter irony in the seeming command, ‘I will not have thee die!’, where the speaker tries desperately to imagine that it is in his hands to save the person he’s speaking to. The earlier mention of the moon that can ‘draw the sea’ is now retrospectively recast as an allusion to King Canute – the speaker’s command to death is as vain as trying to command the sea. A similar mismatch in tone can be found in the following line, where ‘lest I should bid thee live’ strikes us as a nonsensical threat. Just as the admonishing ‘too fond’ was turned back on the speaker, so the apparent threat of ‘lest’ towards the addressee implies a deep fear and consciousness of weakness in the speaker himself. It is not ‘lest I make the command to spare your life and it is enacted’, but rather ‘lest i make the command and it is not enacted, hence I am made palpably aware of my own frailty’. The final ‘Ask me no more’ has become, instead of an emphatic command, a fearful, compassionate plea.

Resignation and passionate love are the underpinning tones of the final stanza, as the speaker confronts the inevitability of death, ‘thy fate and mine are seal’d’. A return to the imagery of nature seen in stanza 1 shows the difference – where before the speaker held himself in contrast to the changes or nature, he now sees himself within it and subject to it, also recognises that although he ‘strove against the stream’, he was never actually outside the influence of mortality. Life’s passing is elevated beautifully in the image of the ‘great river’, and the passionate grief in ‘No more, dear love’ is touching. We see that his yielding’ refers both to the deathbed requests of his lover or friend, and to the ‘touch’ of death of itself, of which he now has a heightened consciousness.

This poem addresses the inner struggle to reconcile oneself with death and the fact of mortality. The speaker’s love for the person he addresses is movingly portrayed as breaking through the superficial coldness with which he attempts to evade the unalterable and inevitable approach of death.


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.