Friday, January 09, 2009

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White - a Poetry Friday post

Whether true or not, it's been reported that Alfred, Lord Tennyson once said that others may have written better poetry than he, but none had written poems that sounded better. He may be on to something there, because he was certainly (as I have commented before) a master of assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), alliteration (repetition of consonants) and, well, repetition, as well as onomatopoeia (use of a word that imitates the sound it describes). And he crafted poems that were designed for performance, or at the very least, to be read aloud. All those devices he uses make his lines easier to memorize, and enable a speaker to sound like a true orator.

Today's poem is actually a small section of a long work entitled The Princess. The premise of The Princess is that a group of seven college students, on holiday, get involved in a discussion with a few females about issues such as women's rights - and, more specifically, the education of women - as well as the need for education of the poor. Tennyson (quintessential Victorian that he was) felt the need to make clear that women should not be treated the same as men, nor should they aspire to the same careers or positions as men, and his poem was criticized as anti-feminist. That said, The Princess does champion the notion of teaching women history, science (as then understood, which included phrenology, which is, if memory serves, how to understand human nature by reading the bumps on one's skull), socialism (then a word for learning how to understand society and the roles within it), math, geography and languages. And if one reads some of it, one gets the idea that Tennyson realized that women were largely treated like cattle - and may not have approved. But truly, I digress.

Today's excerpt from The Princess is usually referred to by its first line. You should know that its my opinion that this is an erotic, sexual poem, a position which I'll set forth in full. But first the poem, and then the conversation.

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

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 fire-fly wakens: waken thou with me.

Now droops the milkwhite 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.

*porphyry: a purple-red stone containing crystals throughout, coming from a quarry in the eastern desert of Egypt that was rediscovered in 1823 (during Tennyson's lifetime).

**Danaë: a character in Greek mythology, who, after being locked up in a subterranean chamber made of bronze by her father, was euphemistically "visited" by Zeus in a shower of gold rain (no - I do not want to call it a "golden shower"), thereby conceiving Perseus. Those of you interested in astronomy are likely aware that the Perseid meteor showers derive their name from Perseus, because they appeared to come from the constellation of Perseus.

Let's look first at form

A first reading of this poem gives you the impression that it is written in rhyme, but that is not actually correct. In fact, the end rhyme that you see is actually just the word "me", repeated. The poem is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), but the frequent use of the end-word "me" makes it seem like it rhymes, as does the near-rhyme in the final four-line stanza of the words "up" and "slip".

The poem is broken into five stanzas: the first and fifth contain four lines, and the middle three contain two lines each.

Analysis of the poem's structure and meaning

Why the five stanzas? Well, the first and fifth stanzas are bookends, I think. The first sets the scene (it's evening! in a garden!), but it also makes clear that this poem is addressed to someone (whether male or female is unclear, but the notion that it is a lover, or a person that the speaker would like to have as a lover, comes clear as we go along).

The second stanza talks about two things: seeing a white peacock in the night garden, and how the woman he sees glimmers in the moonlight/starlight like a ghost. It's an interesting construction, because he is talking to a person, but in this stanza, it sounds as if he's talking about her instead.

The third makes another comparison, and this is where things get really, really interesting. In the first line, he says "Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars". Taking into account the story of Danaë that I summarized above, he means that the Earth is open to being (for want of a better term) fertilized by the stars in the night sky. He quickly follows that with "And all thy heart lies open unto me." Romantic, definitely. Erotic, too, if you ask me.

The fourth makes both the romantic and the sexual intent clear in my books (not that I've seen a lot of discussion of this poem as having anything to do with sex, but that's only because historically, folks liked to give Victorians credit for not talking about sex. As we know, however, that's not really the case, and many "repressed Victorians" were horndogs, or at least keen enough observers of human nature to know what was what.) That fourth stanza again? "Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves /A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me." The sliding meteor and shining furrow, in conjunction with the earlier reference to Danaë is not, I would argue, accidental, but is again a sexual reference. That said, it's also a reference to the Perseid meteor showers, which rain down on the earth from "the stars", with tails that could appear to leave (for the moment) a furrow in the sky. Going back to the reference to Danaë, however, those meteors come streaking toward earth like golden rain, fertilizing their target. In this stanza, it's the poets thoughts that have been fertilized. (Again, this works on two levels - he's thinking about the unknown female subject of the poem, but he's also thinking fertile thoughts, if you catch my drift.) Also? Traditionally the word "furrow" goes with "plowing" and "plowing" is a euphemism for intercourse. So.

The fifth stanza is the closing bookend - four lines for additional weight, to balance the four that started the poem and set the scene. Here's the payoff, as it were (pun intended). In the first two lines, he talks of how the water lily folds "all her sweetness up/And slips into the bosom of the lake". First off, water lilies don't really submerge, to my knowledge, and given the keen interest in botany that prevailed during Victorian times, Tennyson probably knew that, which means that he was taking license for a reason. That reason? To show a complete yielding of the female, who is not merely submerged, but completely possessed by the the lake. The final two lines are spoken directly to the person who was addressed at the close of the first stanza:

So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Wow. So lovely. And still, erotic. And quite possibly a reference to the notion of two becoming one, although with the phrase "be lost in me", it seems to intimate a sense of sexual abandon, I think.

I love this poem for its surface beauty, for its gorgeous word choices, and for the way it sounds when you read it aloud. And I love it even more for its erotically charged imagery and secret meaning. How 'bout you?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this explanationas I have just been emailed this poem by a suitor. WOW!

Kelly Fineman said...

That is some courtship poem!

Anonymous said...

What a great help! i am singing this text (first and fifth verse) to roger quilters setting of this for voice and piano. Is all a lot clearer now!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the explanation! it is such a beautiful poem! :)

Michel said...

I'm delighted that you've shared a thoughtful and quite lovely analysis of this poem. Thsnk you.

funkpunkrocker11 said...

Thank you so much! Your explanation helped me a great deal in understanding this magnificent poem.
I am a poet myself, and reading poetry like this is humbling.

Irias Yrenee said...

Wow, a great analysis. i'm glad that another person had nearly the same ideas. i never thought about the erotical aspect, but now it's totally clear for me. So thank you.

Anonymous said...

I like your description, and totally agree. Some people say it's NOT an erotic poem: they must be bats.

Anonymous said...

thanks a lot! that helped me so much :]

-PS... certain lilies really do submerge themselves into water at night. for example, the egyptian lotus

Kristina A said...

That was a lovely translation of the poem. I too love this poem, but was unaware it had the middle three stanzas. I sang the Quilter version of this song for school. If you haven't heard it I think you would very much enjoy it. Thanks again!

Kelly Fineman said...

What a lovely song setting! Thank you for sharing it!

david said...

This will go well with the new BBC drama due soon.

Kelly Fineman said...

New BBC drama? Do tell!

MR said...

The new BBC drama David mentions is an adaptation of Michel Faber's book "The Crimson Petal and the White", which takes its name from Tennyson's poem. If the programme — or the book for that matter — is half as good as the poem I'll be a happy man.

Kelly Fineman said...

I'll keep an eye out for it. Sounds right up my alley!

Anonymous said...

So glad to have found your site; I have been singing the Quilter version for over 40 years and the words and music have always given me (and, I hope, others) great pleasure. I shall now be able to sing the song with a more informed understanding of Tennyson's words. Peter

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Analysis!

Anonymous said...

I found your blog via a rather circuitous browse. First, thanks for this nice analysis of “Now Sleeps…”. I thoroughly enjoyed your insights and perspective. Since you play guitar you must have some interest in music and verse, and must certainly be aware that the Tennyson poem has been set to music over the years, let me tell you what lead me here.

Last week while watching the third hour of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, I was enthralled by the choirs singing. After a little rewinding and researching I learned that the piece that affected me so was “Ubi Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (“Where charity and love are, God is there”), an ancient Gregorian hymn composed between the fourth and tenth centuries. But that could not be right. The harmonies were too modern to have been that old. As a looked further it turned out the music was by 35 year-old Welsh composer Paul Mealor, who wrote the piece for the wedding, or at least adapted the well-trodden lyrics to his new melody.

But wait! Not only did Mealor borrow the lyrics, he borrowed the music and arrangement as well… from himself! In October of 2010 he premiered an original set of four art songs, all with rose themes: a rose cycle. The last three of these use lyrics from very old poems or songs and have religious influence. But the first motet in the cycle is “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal”. Its music is what he used for “Ubi Caritas” at the wedding, but with the Tennyson as lyrics, it truly soars. He omits one line from the first stanza, and the fourth stanza altogether. It is a short piece, best heard with headphones (you can download it from a number if places).

So in browsing to learn about “Now Sleeps…” I arrived here. This poem is powerful to me. There is much mystery in the world, and I was surprised at how connected I feel to this poem. I find that Zeus and I have common interests, but most stunning was the reference to fireflies. I happen to make the best fireflies in Second Life.

Thanks again :)
Dashiell Slade

Kelly Fineman said...

Dashiell, thank you very much for visiting, and for your lovely, thoughtful comment.

I love choral settings of poems - being a voice major, I sang quite a number of them, whether solo or as part of various choirs. Fabulous to hear about these new settings - I'll be sure to check them out!

soha said...

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. I'm a student of English literature in Iran and your blog helped me so much. I will share your URL on my FB page.

Kelly Fineman said...

soha - thank you so much for your comment - it made me very happy!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful analysis of this luscious poem. If you haven't heard Mychel Danna's song using it as its lyrics, you are missing out. Custer LaRue has a version on iTunes that is splendid.

David Clark said...

Thank you,Kelly, I'm singing two settings of this poem on Sat 4th Feb 2012 7.30pm at St Margaret's Church, Lee (next to Lewisham), just outside London. One by Roger Quilter, who misses out the three two-line verses, and Benjamin Britten (with piano and horn!)who sets it all. Thanks for the analysis - most helpful. I'll try not to look suggestively at the prettiest girl in the audience.

Kelly Fineman said...

David: You made me laugh loud and long with your remarks. I hope you enjoy your performance - both of those settings are marvelous!

All best,

Karenj said...

First heard this poem sung beautifully by Reese Witherspoon in "Vanity Fair"
Your lovely interpretation makes it all the more meaningfully as a choice for this part of the story with the character played by Gabriel Byrne who is seducing Reese's character.
Thanks so much. Stunning poem and interpretation.

Anonymous said...

For me, this poem is totally out of place in this film. 'Vanity Fair' is set in late Georgian England, and Tennyson wrote the poem in 1847. The music used in the film is anachronistic too, with its "decadent" fin de siecle harmonies.

GeeBee said...

Once read,never forgotten!
The firefly is evidently a metaphor for desire.
But that white peacock is a rare bird indeed.I read it as a metaphor for an opportunity not to be missed,or as Victoria Wood put it,"let's do it"

Bernard said...

Kelly, Your references to sexual eroticism within this poem are quite ludicrous! Perhaps you would have another look at it with the tranquility of a beautiful soft summer night in mind , rather than fertilizer.

Poor old Tennyson Must be turning in his grave.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for helping interpret this poem! Because of you, this has become one of my favorites. Thank you so much!!

Anonymous said...


I see what are you trying to say, and I understand it. But I think eroticism and sexuality are not the same. Yes they are close, but they are diferent items. Sometimes it's dificult for us understand the diference, because nowdays both are very linked.

Of course on Victorian Age the writers had sexual sense, but I think we don't have to try find always a sexual sense on poetry. It is very fashionable nowdays, but not always correct.

I think nature, flowers, life and existence can be erotic too. Use erotic language to describe them is not a sexual writing.

But I don't think your words are ludicrous. Literature is understanding texts, reading and trying to provide new visions and meanings. I think bernard si not too polite.

Excuse my english, I'm not from uk.Keep writting, I'll read you, even when I will see te text in a diferent point of view.



Anonymous said...

I disagree with your intepretation of the poem. I think he wrote the poem simply for the pleasure of the way it sounds and it has no real significant meaning. There are many poets that do this, and then others who like the poem spend hours explaining what it means. Sort of like a Beatle's song. Helter Skelter was the name of a roller coaster, but was misinterpreted by so many and of course I don't need to go into the whole crazy part of that. I think this is a beautiful sounding poem that is really just fluff. Like modern art.

RomanticScot said...

Thanks for this post - from another huge fan of this exquisite fragment of The Princess. In my humble opinion this is simply one of the most exquisite passages ever crafted in our language. But, if I may dare to venture a criticism, does anyone agree it is flawed (although I know this suggests a powerful and relevant image to those versed in classical mythology - and not fatally flawed, just flawed) by the intrusion of the word 'Danae', which introduces confusion, certainly for the casual reader, over both pronunciation and meaning?

Forgive the note of discord, and it still remains a deeply treasured favourite for me....