Alfred, Lord Tennyson – Now Sleeps
My Key to Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Diction to Evoke Mood
In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, the diction of Tennyson is masterful, particularly the selection of words that connote a romantic, erotic feeling.
First, Tennyson chooses words for their sound quality. Tennyson uses many words that start with or contain the “l” and “s” consonants – for example: sleeps, lies, glimmers, slides, silent, leaves, lily, sweetness, slips, lake, slip, and lost. His use of alliteration and consonance with the s and l connotes liquidity, sighing, and softness. You can imagine being in a pensive mood beside a lake, as the speaker is, just listening to the musical qualities of Tennyson’s words.
Second, Tennyson makes word choices to create purposeful structure and meaning in the poem. The poem is a fourteen line blank verse sonnet, with an opening and closing stanza of four lines each and three two-line couplets in the interior. The repetition of “Now” as the first word of several lines in the poem is called anaphora. Tennyson uses this rhetorical device to set up a time-based sequence of events in the poem (Now this happens, now that happens). As various natural elements go to sleep or perform things specific to nighttime, Tennyson builds to a climax in the last stanza where the lily folds and immerses itself in the lake, and asks his lover to likewise fold and be “lost in me.”
There is no rhyme scheme, although Tennyson ends each stanza with a line whose final word is “me.” Tennyson is putting the speaker in the poem in a consistent way by ending each stanza with a repeated, explicit personal reference.
Third, Tennyson chooses words and allusions for their romantic and erotic connotation. In the first stanza, while setting the scene and establishing the speaker and context, Tennyson chooses words for their imagery that evoke a still, sleepy atmosphere. The speaker discusses the flowers falling asleep, and the cypress unwaving, and then “nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font.” A font is a stone receptacle, typically used for holy water, and porphyry is a hard Egyptian rock of a dark purplish red color, filled with deposits of coarse crystal. “Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font” means that the goldfish are not swimming in the stone basin, having gone to bed for the night. In the last line of the stanza, Tennyson contrasts the fire-fly, who is waking, with these other natural elements falling asleep, and asks the lover to waken, too.
Tennyson continues using imagery in the second stanza by comparing a white peacock, then the lover, to a ghost. These similes evoke a haunting, spiritual quality.
Tennyson alludes to Greek mythology by beginning the third stanza begins with “Now lies the earth all Danaë to the stars” – Danaë was the mother of Perseus by Zeus. In Greek mythology, an oracle told her father Acrisuis that eventually a son of hers would kill him – so her father imprisoned her in a bronze enclosure. But Zeus appeared to her in the form of golden rain and impregnated her, and eventually she gave birth to Perseus. This reference connotes that the earth lies open to being fertilized by the stars. Tennyson follows this with “And all thy hearts lies open unto me.” The romantic and erotic connotations are strongly made.
The erotic imagery continues in the fourth stanza, “Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves /A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.” The sliding meteor and shining furrow are erotic references to male and female anatomy. The meteors could come to earth as golden rain, and symbolize fertility, to tie with the mythological allusions in the third stanza. The fertile thoughts of the speaker are evident.
In the final lines “So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip/Into my bosom and be lost in me,” the speaker asks the female to yield completely, to be possessed by the speaker just as the lake possesses the lily. Both romance and sexual abandon are evoked by Tennyson’s diction.