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An In Depth Look at Alfred Lord Tennyson's, "Lotos-Eaters"

written by: M.K.Rukhaya • edited by: Sarah Malburg • updated: 9/11/2012

Tennyson's “The Lotos-Eaters” was published in 1832. The inspiration for the poem was Tennyson’s visit to Spain (1829) along with Arthur Hallam where they visited the Pyrenees Mountains.

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    About the Poem

    The prescribed poem deals with a group of mariners who after consuming the lotos, went into a state of trance or temporal amnesia. The poem functions as a marked contrast to Tennyson’s “Ulysses” that had as its motto, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." This particular poem is diametrically opposite in theme as it stands for Victorian complacency. The background of the poem is scroll IX of Homer’s Odyssey.

    As they proceed from Troy, the mariners get thwarted by a storm from their intended destination. Instead of Ithaca, they arrive at a land where people eat ‘lotos’(Greek for ‘Lotus)’. No description of the country is given. Some of the mariners consume the lotos and sink into lassitude, a sluggish condition devoid of activity and aspiration. The condition is probably emblematic of the pseudo-modern way of life where advanced technology has made life devoid of activity and creativity. In such a condition, George Bernard Shaw envisages that the human body will be reduced to a pulp of brain, as that would be the only organ functioning in the body. The condition is likened to and even longs for death.

    The poem has been pointed by critics to be a subversion of the story in the Book of Genesis. In the Bible, Adam is condemned to tedious toiling as he dares to consume the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The lure of the fruit reigns supreme. Consequently, Adam is damned to droning hard-work. On the other hand, in "The Lotos Eaters”, the proverbial fruit (the lotos) provides an outlet from a life of monotonous manual labor. Thus, it inverts and subverts the canonical myth. The fruit (the lotos) as opposed to the fruit of knowledge leaves the mariners in an indolent condition. Ulysses urges the recalcitrants to revert to their kingdom from their epicurean pursuits.

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    The Form

    The poem has a narrative section penned in Spenserian stanzas that elaborates on the arrival of the Greeks in the Unnamed land. The description echoes the apathy of the people and mirrors their inertia. The poem concludes with eight stanzas entitled "Choric Song".

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    Explication

    Odysseus points a conspicuous finger towards the land that was seemingly the destination for the mariners. The pointing of this finger not only functioned as a direction for guidance, it also infused them with positivism regarding reaching their target. The speaker is convinced and confident that the wave would usher them towards Ithaca. Eventually, in the afternoon, they do reach a land. However, it was not their intended destination. This particular place was singular as it always seemed like afternoon here. The poet states that it "always seemed like afternoon" because there was no action to define time or vice-versa.

    In the background, the lethargic air was typified in a state of trance. It seemed as though it was in a weary dream. The moon foregrounded the scene and stood full-faced above the valley. The phrase 'full-face" has two meanings here; one that it was a full-moon day. The second implication is that the moon had a more clear–cut identity than the inhabitants of the island, as it was more aware of its basic functions. The mariners behold the stream that fell from the cliff. It had the appearance of smoke emanating from the mountains in a pause-and-play like stance. As the streams fell in slow motion, green lawns were revealed in the process, as though veils slowly dropped with care. Some streams in this ‘land of streams’ glided through wavering lights breaking shadows in their path. They seemed to descend into the 'slumberous' froth below .They are qualified by the adjective ‘slumberous’ as they were static as opposed to the kinetic streams. The mariners visualized “three silent pinnacles of aged snow”. The poet utilizes a transferred epithet as it is not the snow that is aged but the mountains.

    The sunset appears to be ‘charmed’ as it is characterized by a roseate glow. Therefore, it appears to be blushing. As it lowered itself through the West, it was completely red. The palm seemed to be bordered in ‘yellow’ sunshine. The pine flourishing in the vale, and the meadows set with galingale foregrounded the scene. The monotonous nature of their existence made one feel that everything in the place seemed to be the same. The faces of the lotos-eaters seemed to be dark with the onset of dusk, as they gathered around the keel of the ship. Their eyes seemed to be hazed with drugged delusion. Though they are complacent, there is an element of guilt of relegating their responsibilities. Hence the phrase “The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters.”

    Odysseus' comrades find the inhabitants of the island, who offer them the fruit of the lotos. The mariners that have consumed the lotos find themselves in a somnolent state. As they sat upon the yellow sands, the only audible sounds to their ears were the rhythm of their hearts. They could not even perceive the sound of their companions. It sounded like a thin voice, as though voices emanated from the grave. The stagnation of their existence is symbolic of death itself. He seemed deep in sleep, yet he was awake. Therefore, it was a life-in-death and death-in-life like stance. They find it worthwhile to dream of their family and abode in Ithaca. The gushing of the waves comes across as a sound of mourning and raving.

    The ‘shores’ now seemed to be alien with respect to the mariners; but in truth, it was them who were alienated or estranged from their homeland. The lotos rendered them sluggish. It makes them prefer a life of languor. They are tired of a life of persistent wandering and make the resolution that, “We will return no more.” They are so exhausted by their exploits that the very sea and oars seemed ‘weary’ to them, and the foam ‘barren’. They no longer revel in prospects of adventure, exploration and discovery. Therefore, the last line functions merely as an excuse to them, a kind of escapism from their predicament.

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    Through analysis, this Tennyson poem thus creates an existential awareness, and foregrounds the futility of human struggle. Heroic achievement and intellectual pursuits are reduced to naught in the course of the poem. Though the choric song reflects such a philosophy, the author of the poem utilizes understatements to echo the opposite. Especially, when he reiterates the idea of sameness screeching ‘boredom’ and the qualities of a monotonous sterile subsistence.

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