Tuesday Poem – “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal”, 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 firefly 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 Danae 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.

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Yes, I know. No-one with any taste is supposed to be a fan of Tennyson. Well sod that, I am. Yes, he is Romantic with a capital R, and can be sentimental to the point of being in serious danger of being used as a replacement for high fructose corn syrup, but when on song he wrote some of the most touching poems in the English language, and is the second most quoted writer we have, after another hack by the name of William Shakespeare. “Nature, red in tooth and claw”? Tennyson. “Better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all”? Ditto.

He was one of the first writers I ever read – it may be a family myth, but apparently The May Queen and The Lady of Shallot were two of the texts that I learnt to read with. (Beat the heck out of Dick and Jane!) The book in question is a family heirloom that has just come into my keeping: a 100+ year-old edition of the Collected Poems that was given as a prize to my great uncle, Stanley Coombes (the one I wrote about in Lijssenthoek). I’m looking at it as I type – showing its age, as do the poems, but precious and well made (as ditto).

So why this poem? Hard to say. Because it’s so eerie and so open to interpretation. Because it can be read as love, longing, obsession, command, even enchantment or delusion. Because it mixes Eros and Thanatos in a way that Stephanie Meyer could only dream of, and which explains why Vampire is the new black and why Gothic has never really gone out of fashion. Because it sounds beautiful, and the rhythm is hypnotic. And because it makes me want to take up my pen and write my own version of it.

For more Tuesday Poems, visit: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com/.

8 Replies to “Tuesday Poem – “Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal”, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson”

  1. Joanna,

    Don’t you just hate that injunction, ‘what one’s supposed to like & dislike’? I’m with you on Tennyson, and a lovely choice even if the ‘Now …’ construction gets a little jaded.

    1. Ooooh yes. (Although I’m probably guilty of saying it myself …)
      Interesting that the ‘now’ construction bugs you – I can see what you mean, although I quite like the repetition.

  2. My mum used to “do” The Lady of Shalott, as she’d been taught to at Auckland Girls’ Grammar in the old days: perfectly timed gestures, speech-trained enunciation, the lot. We three daughters used to cry laughing at her – and yet … and yet … it’s actually a damn fine piece of work. So thank you for your unfashionable choice: you go girl!

  3. Funnily enough, I instantly ‘got’ the vampyre possibilities, too. But overall, I am for Tennyson, too. Yeah, sometimes he gets saccharine, but there’s also a power and richness to his poetry that stands the test of time, as with “Ulysses” which Tim Jones published a while back.

  4. Like John, I find the construction of this poem awkward – but your comment after it – that I loved. We all like and dislike. What I like is how you stand up for your point of view even when you think it might be unpopular. It’s easy to dismiss something as saccharine, it’s not so easy to hit back!

  5. When did Tennyson go out of fashion? It can’t have been until sometime after my high school years, where he was the major poet we studied in the sixth form (now Year 12). I seem to recall taking a shine to “Locksley Hall”, it must have been the youthful idealist in me.

  6. Count me among the Tennysonians (Tennysonites?) – most of the time, at least. I enjoyed this poem. And I was pleased to see the word “porphyry” again.

  7. I love this one – there’s a wonderful musical setting of it by a composer called Quilter, which you can probably listen to on YouTube. Tennyson was an amazing man – i think it was Tennyson who wrote ‘There is no equality that does not take account of difference’, which seems far too 21st century for someone perceived as being a 19th century ‘Pa’ man.

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