Always praised for his ability to create musical lyrics, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is now recognized as a master of a number of verse forms and a thinker who brooded deeply over the problems of his age, attempting to capture these problems and deal with them in his poetry. He is also credited with being one of the few poets whose works demonstrate a real assimilation of the poetic tradition that preceded him. His poems reflect an insight into the crises of his own age, as well as an appreciation of problems that have faced all people, especially the problems of death, loss, and nostalgic yearning for a more stable world.
Early works such as “The Palace of Art” and “The Two Voices” are clear examples of the kind of poem for which Tennyson traditionally has been acclaimed. In each, the poet presents a sensitive person who faces a crisis and is forced to choose between radical alternatives. In “The Palace of Art,” the speaker must choose between self-indulgence in a world of artistic beauty and commitment to a life of service; in “The Two Voices,” the speaker’s choice is either to escape the harsh realities of an oppressive world through suicide, or to continue living with only the faintest glimmer of hope.
Tennyson’s highly regarded classical poem “The Lotos-Eaters” explores similar themes to “The Palace of Art” and “The Two Voices.” For his subject, the poet drew on the incident in the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) in which Odysseus’s men disembark in the paradisiacal land of the lotus-eaters and fall under the enchantment of the lotus fruit. The poem is also influenced by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), where the figure of Despair argues for the same kind of languid repose that the mariners sing of in “The Lotos-Eaters.” Tennyson uses all his powers of description and his special command of the language to select words and phrases whose tonal qualities and connotative meanings strongly suggest the sense of repose and stasis. The musical quality of the poem is enhanced by the meter, the effectiveness of caesura and enjambment, and the varying line lengths used throughout, especially the extensive use of long lines broken by numerous caesuras near the end of the lyric. “The Lotos-Eaters,” a combination of narrative and choric song, describes the arrival of the mariners in a land that appears to be perpetually “afternoon,” where “all things always seemed the same.” Here the “wild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters” bring to the travelers the food that will dull their desire to continue on to Ithaca. Having partaken of the fruit of the lotus, the mariners begin to think of their homeland as merely a dream, too distant a goal, no longer worth striving for. As they lie on the beach, one suggests that they “return no more,” and the others quickly take up the chant; their choric song, in eight sections, makes up the remainder of the poem. In the song, the mariners review the many hardships they have faced and the many more that await them if they continue their journey. About them they see that “all things have rest”; they ask “Why should we toil alone?” Rather than continue, they beg to be given “long rest or death, dark death, or dremful ease.” The poem’s final statement is an exhortation to “rest, ye brother mariners, we will not wander more.” It is unwise, however, to assume that the mariners’ decision to opt for “dreamful ease” over a life of “toil” is Tennyson’s own position. Rather, “The Lotos-Eaters” explores, from only one perspective, the dilemma of commitment versus retreat. The poet treats the same theme in many other poems in which the speaker takes a decidedly different view.
Tennyson’s complex treatment of this theme of commitment to...
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