How does Tennyson's poem "The Lotos-Eaters" change or revise lines 62–104 in Book IX of Homer's Odyssey?

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droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Tennyson's poem "The Lotos-Eaters" is not so much a revision of as an elaboration upon this section from the Odyssey. Homer's description of the visit to the land of the Lotus Eaters is rather brief. He details how his heroes "landed / in the land of the Lotus Eaters, who eat a flowery food." When some of the men are sent to discover the identity of the Lotus Eaters, they find that "the Lotus Eaters did not intend destruction" and receive lotus fruit to eat themselves. Importantly,

Whoever of them ate the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus
No longer wished to report or come back,
But wanted to stay there among the Lotus Eater men,
To feed on lotus and forget return home.

Ultimately, the men have to be dragged back to the ship, weeping, and tied there.

Tennyson's poem, then, offers further elaboration upon the Lotos Eaters themselves, whom Homer does not really describe, and upon the effects of the fruit. In Homer's poem, we do not know how the sailors were aware that they had landed "in the land of the Lotus Eaters"—they go out deliberately to find these people. In Tennyson's poem, the Lotus Eaters approach the sailors: "the mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came."

Tennyson's depiction of Lotus Eater country is very much one of a land in stasis, "a land where all things always seem'd the same." The idea that the land and its inhabitants are always, to a certain extent, asleep is conveyed by the semantic field of sleep in the language: "languid," "dream," "slumbrous." The sailors who eat the fruit, accordingly, "deep asleep . . . seem'd, yet all awake," with voices "as voices from the grave." This sleep, then, is perhaps not one they are intended to wake from. The term "Lotos-eaters" is often equated with opium smokers, a common vice in the Victorian age and one which was known to create a similar kind of endless sleepy languidness. Some have argued that Tennyson's poem interprets the behavior of Homer's sailors through the lens of this contemporary understanding. This is supported by Tennyson's comment in the poem that "the poppy hangs in sleep."

Tennyson's poem offers an eerie explanation as to why those who ate the fruit should all have decided to "forget return home." In Homer, we do not see the sailors' point of view; they are not allowed to explain themselves. In "The Lotos-Eaters," the fruit seems to induce a sort of group hallucination:

And all at once they sang, "Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam."

The "choric songs" seem to represent the feelings of these affected sailors and the attitude towards "return home" which, in Homer's poem, we are not presented with. Homer tells us only that the men refused to come back to the ship and had to be dragged there. According to Tennyson, the lotus fruit made the men feel that they had good reason for this. After all, "why should we toil alone" when there is "sweet music here," and "weary seem'd the sea"? While the men still like to dream of the "Fatherland," the idea of embarking once again upon the sea seems an unbearable toil to them by contrast to the lure of "the Lotos-land." The men seem to know, or sense, that to stay here is to accept death, or waking death, but this does not dissuade them:

Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.

The Lotus Eaters convince themselves that, while they would like to see their homes again, it may have been too long for them to be welcome and that they will "come like ghosts to trouble joy." They would rather "in the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined" and take an oath to do so.

What is interesting about Tennyson's poem is that it gives voice to those men who, in Homer's epic, are presented only as resistant to their Captain's orders. We can interpret their pleas in two ways—on one hand, as a reasonable protest against a journey which has gone on too long and from which they crave respite. On the other hand, we know that they have eaten of the lotus fruit at this point. Does the lotus fruit simply allow them to express what they had been feeling already, now that they have been given another option? Or does it put ideas in their heads that were not already there? Either way, it illuminates these lines from Homer and helps us consider another point of view on the story.

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