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?