How do the Greek myths function in Tennyson's poems "The Lotos-Eaters" and "Ulysses"? Why did he go back to Greek and Roman myths in the Victorian age? Does being the poet laureate of the age have any importance on this issue? If so, why?

Alfred, Lord Tennyson used Greek mythology to glorify Queen Victoria and her expanding English empire. Greek mythology might also function as a means to contextualize the hardships that many people experienced during the Victorian age.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Greek myths function to make a thematic point in both "The Lotos-Eaters" and "Ulysses." Both poems allude to Homer's epic poem The Odyssey . In "The Lotos-Eaters," Ulysses and his men land on an island where the men eat the lotus, an opiate-like magical plant that...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

Greek myths function to make a thematic point in both "The Lotos-Eaters" and "Ulysses." Both poems allude to Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. In "The Lotos-Eaters," Ulysses and his men land on an island where the men eat the lotus, an opiate-like magical plant that drugs them. They lose all ambition to return home and want to do nothing more than loll about on the island, enjoying the present dream world in which they live. The poem cautions the British people against becoming too complacent in their position as the world's wealthy superpower. There is always more to strive for.

In "Ulysses," the speaker is the aged Ulysses, who does not want to be put on the shelf or forced into retirement. He is determined to keep on in the struggle with life until he has no life left. It is very much opposite from "The Lotos-Eaters" in its emphasis on the virtues of resolution, hard work, and perseverance that were dear to the Victorian heart.

Tennyson went back to Greek and Roman myths because these stories are what the educated classes, especially males, knew inside out. Middle and upper class Victorian males had a rigorous education in Greek and Roman classics as they rose through school, so they would instantly understand the allusions to Homer, just as today we understand allusions to mythic epics like Star Wars.

Both "The Lotos-Eaters" and "Ulysses" were published in 1842. Tennyson became poet laureate of England in 1850, following the death of William Wordsworth. Both poems helped establish Tennyson as a poet-sage who could comment broadly on life and society while expressing British ideals of hard work, striving, and fortitude, allowing people to envision him as poet laureate.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Alfred, Lord Tennyson possibly returned to Greek mythology during the Victorian period because he saw links between Greek narratives and what was happening during his own time. Often, writers use history—mythological or otherwise—to illustrate current circumstances. For example, Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible used Salem and their seventeenth-century witch accusations to comment on America and its twentieth-century communist accusations.

Yet Miller was not explicitly connected to the government: Tennyson, as the question notes, was. While Miller used history to critique his country, Tennyson uses history to, more or less, glorify England. By connecting Queen Victoria and her government to Greek myths, he’s idealizing her and praising her reign.

In “The Lotos-Eaters,” consider how Tennyson romanticizes imperialism by connecting Greek sailors to Victorian-era colonizers. Both, so it seems, had it tough, but that doesn’t mean that they should give in and “fold” their “wings.”

The rosy, flattering stance on Victoria’s imperialism continues with “Ulysses.” In the third stanza, the king tells the mariners it’s “not too late to seek a new world.” Once again, Tennyson appears to use myth to justify and extoll England’s growing empire. Transported to Victorian times, the “new world” likely means “new colonies.”

It’s also possible that Tennyson is using Greek mythology to illuminate how people throughout history have had to struggle. While the Victorian period saw the growth of the English empire, as well as an array of scientific and technological advancements, the era was not without harsh poverty and lethal famines. By showing Victorian readers how figures from myths dealt with despair, maybe Tennyson is hoping that people in the Victorian age can more effectively deal with their own hardships.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"The Lotos-Eaters" alludes to the encounter with the lotus eaters had by Odysseus and his crew in Homer's The Odyssey.  The speaker tells of the lotus eaters approaching Odysseus's ship and the way they seem so "melancholy"; further, anyone who partakes of the lotus fruit they offer no longer wishes to return home.  These crewmen think,

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears: all hath suffer'd change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.

The men who eat the lotus have many ways to justify their desire to remain there and never return home again.  Though they recall home fondly, they have been away so long now they think that they would be like strangers to their loved ones and that their homes would have changed so much in their long absence.  There are so many reasons to stay.  In the Land of the Lotus Eaters, they can rest peacefully, like the gods, and not worry over humankind anymore, neatly escaping the mariner's death at sea for surely "slumber is more sweet than toil."  They decide that they "will not wander more."  In The Odyssey, Odysseus sends a few of his men to investigate the Land of the Lotus Eaters, and the ones who eat the lotus do, indeed, say that they prefer to stay there and never return home.  He actually has to overpower them physically to get them back to the ship.  This poem alludes to that episode, filling in the part of those crew members who eat the lotus.  There is no mention of Odysseus and his monumental journey; rather, this story is theirs, and they want to stay—not go.

"Ulysses," on the other hand, is narrated by Odysseus, and he wishes to go, not stay.  He finishes the poem by saying his will is "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield," and he seems to assume this same goal is possessed by his crew as well.  He refers to them all when he says, "We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are."  He believes that he and they are of "equal temper" and in possession of "heroic hearts."  However, when comparing his assumptions of his men to their own words in the other poem, we see that Odysseus is wrong: he wants adventure and danger; they want safety and peace.  

Thus, the two poems use allusions to the ancient Greek tale of Odysseus in order to show two sides of the story: in The Odyssey itself, we do not hear from the crew that ate of the lotus as we do in the first poem.  In the second, Tennyson gives us a sense of how self-centered and unaware Odysseus really is: he does not realize that he has imposed his own will on his men, who would rather have rested peacefully.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team