Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Tennyson wrote several poems that, like “The Lotos-Eaters,” were drawn from Greek epic materials. “Ulysses”—a monologue by the hero of the Odyssey in which he contemplates life after his return to Ithaca—is the most famous. There is also none (1832, 1842), a lengthy poem about Paris’s lamenting lover, abandoned by him for Helen; “The Sea Fairies,” about mythic sea nymphs, the nereids; and “The Hesperides,” from which material was taken for “The Lotos-Eaters.”
These lyric poems drawn from epic narrative aimed to be “modernizations” of classical themes, updating traditional sentiments into the Victorian context. In “The Lotos-Eaters,” the central theme is: Should a person live in a world of romantic vision and aesthetic reverie or turn from this dreamy life of art to the stable world of facts and hard work? For Spenser and Thomson, the moral is clearly drawn. The Cave of Morpheus and the Idle Lake are fascinating inventions, but they are places that a vigorous individual, filled with the Protestant ethic, should shun.
With Tennyson, one senses an ambivalence about the dream land, as if suspended between the Victorian love of the romantic and the insistent intrusion of scientific fact. In Spenser and Thomson, knights representing the virtue of hard work and stringent religious principles defeat the forces of indolence, but here the abandonment of the magical land is only implied. Although one knows that Odysseus’s sailors finally left those shores to be destroyed in their further adventures, such heroism is not represented directly in the poem.