Lotos Eaters By Alfred Lord Tennyson, Summary and Analysis
The poem discussed today is by the British poet Alfred Tennyson. It is based upon a short incident in the ancient Greek Odyssey by Homer, which tells of the years-long attempt of Odysseus and his sailors to return to their island home of Ithaca. Here is the incident upon which the poem is based:
“I was driven from there by foul winds for a length of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotos-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take on fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk, I sent two of my crew to see what kind of men the people of that place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotos-eaters, who did them no harm, but gave them the lotos to eat, which was so delicious that those who ate of it stopped caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and chewing lotus with the Lotos-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly, I forced them back to the ships and tied them firmly under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotos and stop wanting to get home, so they took their places and struck the grey sea with their oars.”
I will discuss Tennyson’s poem on this subject — The Lotos-Eaters– part by part. It is a longer poem than usual, but perhaps a good antidote to those among us brought up on the quick edits of television that create a ceaseless, jittery leap from one image to another. If we give it our attention — which we must to appreciate and understand it — it will cause us to slow down, and will lull us into a not-unpleasant state of drowsiness. The key to understanding The Lotos-Eaters is to realize that it is a kind of enchantment of words and phrases that weave a sleepy spell. It would make an excellent bedtime poem because of this relaxing effect.
It begins when the sailors come upon the Lotos-Land:
“COURAGE!” he said, and pointed toward the land, “This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.” In the afternoon they came unto a land In which it seemed always afternoon. All round the coast the languid air did swoon, Breathing like one that hath a weary dream. Full-faced above the valley stood the moon; And, like a downward smoke, the slender stream Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.
Odysseus, on board ship with his crew, tells them to have courage; he points out that they are
near land, which is visible in the distance. He tells them that a rising wave will soon carry the ship toward that shore.
It is afternoon as they reach the beach of that land, a place where, strangely, it always seems to be afternoon. All around the shore on which the waves beat, the languid (relaxed, at ease, without energy) air swoons (seems as though falling into a state of relaxation like that of fainting), and the soft air is very gentle and slow, breathing like a person in a weary dream. Above the valley that extends inland from the shore, the moon is full in the sky even though it is day. A stream falls from a cliff in the distance, but in a most unusual way; it seems like a slender wisp of smoke that wafts slowly downward, hesitates, then continues its descent. We can see that already we are under the spell of the place, because even the fall of water happens in a drowsy slow motion. This is not the ordinary world.
A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke, Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn, did go; And some thro’ wavering lights and shadows broke, Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below. They saw the gleaming river seaward flow From the inner land; far off, three mountain-tops, Three silent pinnacles of aged snow, Stood sunset-flush’d; and, dew’d with showery drops, Up-clomb the shadowy pine above the woven copse.
The Lotos-Land is a land of streams. Some of them fall, as we have seen, like drowsy smoke, like slowly-dropping veils made of the thinnest “lawn,” a kind of gauzy, semi-transparent white cloth. Some streams are seen through wavering lights and shadows in the distance, creating a sleep-slow foam as they flow downward. A river winds languidly from inland toward the sea. Far off are three mountain peaks covered with snow that has been there a long, long time (note how Tennyson constantly emphasizes slowness, drowsiness, a sense of time moving barely if at all). The late afternoon sun turns the snow reddish, like a “flush” or blush on a person’s face. The shadowy pines (one pine stands for many here) rise up (“up-clomb”) here and there from the intertwined (“woven”) branches of the copse (a thicket of small trees and shrubs); drops of moisture as though from a shower are on the boughs of these high pines that rise above the lower foliage.
The charmed sunset linger’d low adown In the red West; thro’ mountain clefts the dale Was seen far inland, and the yellow down Border’d with palm, and many a winding vale And meadow, set with slender galingale; A land where all things always seem’d the same! And round about the keel with faces pale, Dark faces pale against that rosy flame, The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.
Notice that Tennyson repeats the feeling that it is always afternoon here. The sun seems always to be in that late, sleepy time of day, as though enchanted (charmed), under a magic spell. The western sky, like the snowy peaks on which it reflects, is red. Through gaps (clefts) in the mountains of the island, we can see farther inland to a valley (dale), and we see a yellow down (smooth, higher meadow-like slope) bordered with palm trees; and we see other winding
valleys and meadows where grows (“set with”) a sedge-like plant with aromatic roots that is called galingale. Tennyson probably had in mind the kind of galingale he had seen in Spain, which is Cyperus esculentus.
This is, he reiterates, a land where nothing seems to change, — where time does not exist — at least not in the ordinary way. And then Tennyson has Odysseus look downward to see people approaching the keel — the base of his ship. Their faces are dark against the rosy flame of the western late afternoon sky, and they appear mild-eyed and gentle, yet he feels a melancholy in them. His description of them is likely to call drug addicts to mind:
Branches they bore of that enchanted stem, Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave To each, but whoso did receive of them And taste, to him the gushing of the wave Far far away did seem to mourn and rave On alien shores; and if his fellow spake, His voice was thin, as voices from the grave; And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake, And music in his ears his beating heart did make.
The inhabitants of Lotos-Land carry branches of the lotos — “that enchanted stem,” branches loaded with flowers and fruit, and they give some to each sailor. But a very strange thing happens: whoever eats the lotos is quickly affected. The sound of the ocean waves suddenly seems very far-off and muted, as though it were breaking on some other shore of some other land. Note how in that distance, the waves seem to “mourn and rave,” unhappy and troubled in the ears of the hearer; we feel already in that an aversion to sailing upon them. And the voices of the other sailors seem very thin and without strength, like a voice of a ghost (“from the grave.”). Whoever eats the lotos falls into a kind of waking sleep; even the beating of the heart changes into a kind of soft, strange music in their ears.
This is very important to understanding the poem. The Lotos-Land is a land where time as we know it does not exist, and the lotos itself is a plant that induces a kind of trance condition, a dream-like state very much like that, we may suppose, of an opium addict. And that is why the Lotos-eaters seem melancholy to Odysseus; they are caught by the drug.
They sat them down upon the yellow sand, Between the sun and moon upon the shore; And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland, Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar, Weary the wandering fields of barren foam. Then some one said, “We will return no more;” And all at once they sang, “Our island home Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.”
The sailors, having eaten of the lotos, sit down on the sand of the shore, with both the sun and moon in the sky above them. And even though their dreams of returning to their homeland and children and wives had seemed sweet to them, now they are under the spell of the Lotus-Land; they have growing ever greater in them the conviction that it is tiresome to be sailing on the restless sea, tiresome to be pulling on the oars of the ship, and this growing feeling makes the
endless, empty waters on which they must sail to reach home seem wearisome and travel on it pointless. At last one of the sailors speaks what is in all their minds: “We will return no more.” And enchanted all together by the Lotus-Land and its fruits, they break into a remarkable chorus of sleepy song, the first words of which are,
“Our island home Is far beyond the wave; We will no longer roam.”
And now that we and the sailors have been lulled into this drowsy, dream-state that is neither sleep nor waking, the sailors take up their choric song, their chorus, and this is the most affecting part of the whole poem, and it is full of meaning:
Figures of Speech …….
Following are among the figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech,
Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness (line 57) Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil, Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil. (lines 82-83)
mild-minded melancholy (line 109) For surely now our household hearths are cold (line 117)
The Lotos blooms below the barren peak The Lotos blows by every winding creek (lines 145-146)
Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea (line 152)
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined (line 154)
and the clouds are lightly curl’d Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world (lines 157-158)
three mountain-tops, Three silent pinnacles of aged snow (lines 15-16)
Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine, Only to hear were sweet, stretch’d out beneath the pine. (lines 143-144)
Give us long rest or death (line 98)
from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep. (line 56)
Comparison of the poppy to a sleeping creature
Nor ever fold our wings (line 64) Comparison of the crewmen to birds
All round the coast the languid air did swoon, Breathing like one that hath a weary dream. (lines 5-6)
Metaphor: Comparison of the air to a creature that breathes Simile: Comparison of the breathing to that of a person having a dream
And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake (line 35)
There is sweet music here that softer falls Than petals from blown roses on the grass, Or night-dews on still waters between walls. . . . (lines 46-48) Comparison of the lilt of a sound to the fall of rose petals and dew we should come like ghosts to trouble joy (line 119) Comparison of the crewmen to ghosts
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”.
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.
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.