Crimson Petals
Monday, August 10, 2015 at 11:38AM
Mark Scarbrough in Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White

The title of Michael Faber's novel, THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE, comes from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published in 1847, a smaller part of his satiric work, The Princess.

That longer poem concerns a heroic princess who swears off men and founds a women's university where men cannot enter. Her betrothed does indeed gain access with his friends, all disguised as women. They are discovered and escape--but then fight a battle for the women and are severely injured. The Princess nurses them back to health and returns to the world of men by finally marrying her betrothed. The larger poem is the basis of Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera, Princess Ida.

But for now, here's the smaller poem itself that lends its line to Faber's title:


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 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.


Danae is the women who Zeus rapes by falling on her as a shower of gold. Her son by that union is Perseus, a legendary hero.

The poem is well-known for its subtle but very evident erotic . . . no, pornographic images. Ahem.

It's also been set to music by quite a few. Here's Paul Mealor's version:

Article originally appeared on The Norfolk Library Book Group (
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