Music and Meaning (7): ‘Set the wild echoes flying’ in The Princess (1847)
Mychael Dama, 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal'
Listen to 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal', a song which features in the 2004 feature-film version of William Makepiece Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair. Although the music is composed by Mychael Dama, the words are Tennyson's. Thinking again about Sir Charles Stanford's remark regarding the difficulty of setting Tennyson's poetry to music (discussed in Music and Meaning 2), it is useful to read 'Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white', as it first appeared within his longer work The Princess in 1847:
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 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.
What Sir Charles Stanford actually claimed is that 'the perfection of vowel balance' in Tennyson's poetry was so extreme 'that very little is left for actual music to supply'. Do you think that the singer, Custer LaRue, accentuates Tennyson's vowel sounds? Sir Charles also claimed that Tennyson was 'very particular about clear diction in singing': 'he knew that the poem should be the key to the work and should be so clearly enunciated that every word can reach the listener'. Do you think that Custer LaRue does so? Finally, Sir Charles claimed it was Tennyson's opinion that 'the composer must never over-balance the voice with the illustrative detail of the accompaniment'. If you listen to Mychael Dama's composition again, you will notice that the piano part is actually quite dominant and powerful. Do you think that this detracts attention from the meaning of the words or helps add to the meaning of them?
In Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism Herbert F. Tucker considers this poem as part of the 'carpe diem' tradition He claims that 'Tennyson's deliciously narcotic version bends this carpe diem tradition in significant ways'. As we know from thinking about medical narcotics, if something is 'narcotic' it soothes, relieves, or lulls. The idea of poetry being 'narcotic' might link this poem to Tennyson's Lotus-Eaters (see Music and Meaning 6), who sang 'sweet music' and seemed 'deep-asleep' even when they weren't. What Tennyson says about 'The Lotus-Eaters' might relate to 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal': is there perhaps a parallel between this narrator's call for another to slip inside his bosom and 'be lost' and the Lotus-eaters' call for the sailors to abandon their other commitments and remain effectively lost at sea? If so, what do you think is revealing about this parallel?
Do you think that Dama's musical version of 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' is attempting to explore a 'narcotic' effect?
What, do you think, is the effect of the fact that a woman sings this 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' in the BBC's Vanity Fair production?
Tucker highlights how 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' 'seems to generate itself out of the sounds of its leading verb'. According to him, 'the clustered consonants' of 'sleep' 'come back reshuffled' in 'palace', and every other verb in the poem ('droops', 'leaves', 'folds', etc.) similarly 'appears a phonetic permutation of "sleeps"'. Tucker is essentially saying that lots of the words in this poem sound alike. If this is true, though, then he thinks that we can also say something more, for 'Tennyson's phonemes [units of sound] function beyond this as sememes, units of sense'. Again, the very sound of the verse (or its music) might be seen to contribute to its meaning. How do you think this might be so and does this relation between sound and sense hold true in Dama's musical interpretation of Tennyson's poem?
'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal' is just one of a few short 'lyrics' that are embedded within Tennyson's epic poem The Princess, others of which may also interest you because of their suggestions about 'music' and 'meaning' in Tennyson's poetry. You could leave the 'Music and Meaning' resource and travel to another part of this site which uses analysis of another lyric from The Princess ('Tears, idle tears') to pose and respond to various questions regarding how we can go about discovering the 'meaning' of Tennyson's poetry.
Meanwhile it will be useful to take a quick look at one of the final Princess lyrics, 'The splendour falls on castle walls'. With its internal rhyme, between 'falls' and 'walls', even this poem's title is musical; it is appropriate then that its opening stanza closes like this:
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.
Look at the final line of this first stanza and you'll notice that only the first word, 'Blow', is monosyllabic (has just one syllable): 'bugle', 'answer', 'echoes' and the three 'dying's each have two syllables. They are not connected to form an actual sentence. It might again be the case that how this line of poetry sounds is just as important as (or more important than) any abstract meaning we might want to extract from it. Possibly, as well as registering how they express particular meanings alone, Tennyson wants us to feel that - when vocalised together - these words meaningfully embody the idea that 'wild echoes' have been 'set... flying' in the previous line of the poetry.
'Our echoes roll from soul to soul, And grow for ever and for ever.' So Tennyson states in the two lines immediately before the closing couplet of the poem. The poem's various echoes, that 'roll from soul to soul', recall Arthur Hallam's claim that 'music' provides a medium through which emotions 'pass from heart to heart'. In order to consider these thoughts further, let's take a closer look at what Tennyson both says and demonstrates about music in In Memoriam, a poem that responds to the death of Arthur Hallam himself.