The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002

“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.

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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 song” that evokes the gentle, aesthetic sense of indolence and restfulness, their drugged state of perpetual reverie and laziness.

The land of the lotos-eaters is not simply idyllic and pastoral. It is so restful that men become tired without working: “There is sweet music here that softer falls/ Than petals from blown roses on the grass.” There is “Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,/ Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes.” Under the effects of the lotos, the men of Ithaca find no reason to return to the sea. Their duty as sailors now seems too great a demand, and they complain of life’s harshness, as if it were unjust that they should work so hard and continually struggle against the elements: “Why are we weighed upon with heaviness,/ And utterly consumed with sharp distress./ While all things else have rest from weariness?”

Stanza 3 of the choric song sounds like a pastoral appreciation of woodland beauties, but it is actually an aspect of the sailors’ case against heroic adventure and industry: Why should they struggle on the sea, when the natural way of life is surrender to the cycles of nature? Great struggles are unnatural, for nature itself is free from effort: “The flower ripens in its place,/ Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil, fast-footed in the fruitful soil.”

Stanza 4 carries this argument further, pointing to the ultimate fruitlessness of great endeavors. Although when a flower falls, it leaves a seed to grow “in the fruitful soil,” their human efforts are in vain. The sailors argue that the struggles of people only end in death, and so they turn away from the sea, a challenge to human courage and ingenuity and, thus, a symbol of ambition and goals: “Hateful is the dark blue sky,/ Vaulted o’er the dark blue sea.” The effort to sail across the ocean to wage war is pointless. It is better to surrender, like the falling flower, to the cyclic laws of nature: “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.” So stanza 5 describes the restful alternative: It is better to dream and, in this dream, transcend the present to live in sweet memories of the past.

In stanza 6, they foresee the evil outcomes of the final return to families that are now in disorder—families that have changed beyond recognition after the men’s ten-year absence at Troy. As is known from the Odyssey and Greek tragedies, they are right. Only doom awaits them.

The sailors swear to remain indolently in the magical land and live like gods in stanza 8. Verses 155 to the end evoke the luxurious and carefree life of the Greek gods as described by the Roman poet Lucretius (circa 96-55 b.c.e.) in his famous philosophical poem De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things). This passage presents Tennyson’s version of the Lucretian epicurean cosmology and moral system, a system in which humankind is freed by philosophy from superstitious fear and in which an enlightened self-interest and acceptance of pleasure provide the thinker with spiritual peace.

The last lines summarize the poem, which turns out to have been one long argument against industry. The sailors imagine they are gods looking down on the life of humans. The Greek view of death does not give meaning to life; thus, one’s actions, whether heroic or not, do not count in the long run. The sailors conclude by saying they will not return to the sea.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

“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 descent, and settling.

“A land where all things always seemed the same!” is an allusion to a line from Lucretius in which nature argues with man that death and sleep are not so different from one another, and therefore death should not be feared even as life should not be clung to. The references to Thomson’s imitation of Spenser have the same effect: “And up the hills, on either side, a wood/ Of blackening pines, ay waving to and fro,/ Sent forth a sleepy horror through the blood,/ And where this valley winded out, below,/ The murmuring main was heard, and scarcely heard, to flow.”

The “Choric Song” is in theory a balladic genre. In contrast to the epic mode of the proem, its rhythms and rhyme scheme are shifting and melodic. This combination of epic and pseudoballadic verse is found elsewhere in Tennyson, particularly in “The Lady of Shallot” (another story that opposes an unreal, poetically beautiful world to a deadly daily reality).

The song, however, involves a sort of contradiction, for although its imagery and style suggest release, surrender, and passivity, its rhetorical structure argues initiative and careful thought. The sailors may be drugged, but they go to great trouble to make a strong argument for inaction. The rhetorical qualities of the “Choric Song” thus may foreshadow the sailors’ leaving the island, abandoning their paradise of effortless living.

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