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.
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