The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Lotos-Eaters” in its final form is 173 lines long. The first forty-five lines, the proem, are an imitation of the Spenserian stanza, a form used in Edmund Spenser’s gigantic Christian allegorical epic, The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). It is made up of eight even lines of iambic pentameter, plus a ninth line an extra iamb long. The rhyme pattern is abab, bcbc, c.
The proem describes a scene from the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) in which Odysseus and his men, after a terrible storm, arrive on the shores of the land of the lotos-eaters. His men are returning home to Ithaca after participating in the sack of Troy. It is known from Homer that in the end Odysseus actually will reach Ithaca and the others will die in the course of various adventures on the sea. Their difficult journey, however, almost ends on this island, because of the drugging effect of the lotos plant, a staple of the inhabitants.
In Homer’s epic, Odysseus tells the story in a first-person narrative, saying, “My men went on and presently met the lotos-Eaters,/But any of them who ate the honey-sweet fruit of lotos/ was unwilling to take any message back, or to go/ away, but they wanted to stay there with the lotos-eating/ peopleand forget the way home.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s version, on the other hand, is in the third person until line 46. The word “Courage” is spoken by Odysseus himself, as he directs his men to land their ship. Tennyson proceeds to describe in lyrical elaboration of the Homeric text the dreamy country of the lotos-eaters. His description is a frank imitation of several famous poems about magical lands. In these lands, sleep, reverie, inaction, and all that is the opposite of industry are the rule. Several places in The Faerie Queene come to mind, such as the cave of Morpheus, god of sleep, and the house of Despair, a personification who destroys men by sapping their will to live.
Another important influence is James Thomson’s short epic The Castle of Indolence (1748), which is also based on Spenser. The Greek sailors, drugged by the lotos, lose their will to continue the struggle against the sea and decide to abandon their efforts to return home. Home, their families, and their domestic lives become bittersweet memories, sentimentally moving, but pale and powerless to motivate further heroic exertions. They sing a “Choric...
(The entire section is 1002 words.)
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Lotos-Eaters” could be seen as a stitching together of imitations of several other epic poems Tennyson admired. The proem imitates those moments in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene that describe reverie as an evil temptation to the Christian state, scenes that suggest a state of drowsiness and a sense of will-less dreaming. This effect is heightened by Tennyson’s use of the Spenserian rhyme scheme to communicate languor and lassitude. The Spenserian stanza allows only three rhymes, abab, bcbc, c. Tennyson heightens this effect by simplifying the pattern further, rhyming, for example, “land” with “land” in the first quatrain. The other rhymes are also purposefully weak and unadventurous: “soon,” “afternoon,” “swoon,” and “moon.”
The streams, rolling hills, fields, and valleys of the lotos land give a sense of illusion because they are constantly connected with the verb “seem,” connoting mere appearance. They are lit by a paradoxical dream light from the sun and moon, which appear in the sky at the same time. The similes also promote a sense of illusion by comparing the elements of this pastoral scene to vague and half-seen things. The descending stream is like smoke moving downward. It seems to pause in the air as it descends and is like “thinnest lawn.” Lawn in this case is a kind of cloth used to represent waterfalls in the theater. There are numerous images of falling, slow...
(The entire section is 462 words.)