Analysis of Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters

The Lotos-Eaters represents one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s most extended experiments in, and demonstrations of, the sensual nature of poetry. Tennyson—heavily influenced by John Keats—was interested in testing the limits of poetic expression, and thus, more than most poets, he wrote poems about the nature not so much of poetry but of poems themselves. How richly can a poem elaborate its own particular and specific means of producing pleasure? The kind of poetry at which Keats and Tennyson excelled was loved because of its gorgeous and sensual descriptive powers, not because of the exciting story it had to tell, nor even because of the insight into the struggles of the human soul that it afforded. Both Tennyson and Keats did afford such insight, but both were interested in the means of dwelling on human experience, of lingering, with a sustained intensity, on the mind’s experience of the world.

The Lotos-Eaters”is based on a 15-line episode in Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Odysseus and his men travel through the land of the lotos-eaters (lotus eaters) as they attempt to return home from the Trojan War. As Odysseus tells the story to his host, King Alcinous:

I was driven . . . by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eater, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in 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 company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars. (The Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler)

Homer treats the land of the lotus-eaters as a place his audience would have heard about, and he does not dwell on its description. But for Tennyson, the very languorousness of the idea of the endless pleasurable drowsiness conferred by the lotus’s narcotic suggested an endlessly pleasurable, seemingly endless languorous poem. (A more recent source also would have been Keats’s To Autumn, where the figure of Autumn is represented as “drowsed with the fume of poppies . . . hour by hour.”)

The opening of Tennyson’s poem has been justly praised:

“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 around 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.

Note that the poem diverges from Homer in being told in the third person, where Homer has Odysseus tell the story in the first person. We will not get Odysseus’s efficient rejection of the pleasures of the lotus, but Tennyson’s interest is in its languid and luxurious sensual qualities. And then we will get the song of the Lotos-Eaters themselves.

The poem begins with a moment of intense emotion—Odysseus’s cry to courage in the midst of danger and potential shipwreck. We plunge, as Horace said the epic must do, in medias res, right into the middle of the action. But the action peters out into the endless afternoon of the land of the Lotos-Eaters. Tennyson manages the transition by two interesting formal features. The first is the rime riche of the first and third lines. Rime riche means rhyming a word on itself or its own homonym, and it is generally avoided in English poetry as leading to a sense of stasis. Rhyme tends to propel poems onward: For every dove there is some love, for all fears there are tears, each onsetting rhyme anticipating a varying resolution. But with rime riche we do not move onward; we linger or idle. Tennyson called this effect of repetition “lazier” than a differing rhyme would be, and the same sense of enervated torpor can be felt in the repetition and extension of the idea of the afternoon. They come to the land of the Lotos-Eaters at a particular time, the afternoon, but that time comes to feel like an eternity since it is a land where it seems to be always afternoon. This repetition mimics the repetition of the word lotus in Homer: “They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return” (the Greek is much more compressed, so the repetition is more obvious).

The first five stanzas of “The Lotos-Eaters” are written in Spenserian stanzas, the form invented in the late 16th century by Edmund Spenser for The Faerie Queene and much imitated in the 19th century, especially by Percy Bysshe Shelley (in The Revolt of Islam and Adonais), Keats, and William Wordsworth. The rhyme scheme of the stanza itself tends to be languorous: ababbcbccc. Note what this means: Of the nine lines in the stanza, there are four b rhymes and three c rhymes, and the couplet that seems to end the first half of the stanza also begins the second half and tends to make the stanza slow down and linger around its own sounds. The last line of the Spenserian stanza is always an Alexandrine—that is to say, a 12- and not a 10-syllable line, so that it has one extra poetic foot—which further slows the line down. At the end of the first stanza, one can sense the extra syllable, perhaps, in the repetitions of “to fall and pause and fall,” a line which would be much more rapid without the pause that it both describes and enacts.

The second and longer part of the poem is an irregular choric song (like a Greek chorus), sung by Odysseus’s sailors. Its irregularity is appropriate to the slackness induced by the lotos, and it enables Tennyson to use all the resources of repetition and intense sensuality to follow the flow of sound and sense wherever it takes him. The intense beauty of the land of the Lotos-Eaters is clearly an allegory for the intense beauty of poetry itself. The poem is about poetry—about what it can do, the meaning of what it can do, and its relevance. What Odysseus might say against poetry is that it makes one content with a kind of sensual quietism, a luxurious indulgence in melancholy and dream. In fact, Spenser had offered a similar warning, which Tennyson wants us to remember, in the first book of The Faerie Queene, where the allegorical figure of Despayre offers much the same feeling of “port after stormie seas, death after life” to the questing knight whom he tempts. What Tennyson notices is that Despayre’s temptation is the most beautiful passage in the first book, and therefore that poetry seems strangely wedded to the pleasures of despair.

It is not necessary to derive a moral from “The LotosEaters,” which seems more about the fact that poetry attempts to offer some consolation for the difficulties and essential painfulness of human life. That pleasure may be just reading “The Lotos-Eaters,” or writing it, without more than the poem itself as a goal. At any rate, this poem anticipates the idea of art as the perfection of pleasure that would be the goal of Oscar Wilde (“all art is perfectly useless,” as he says in the preface to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray). It is also a major source—as is, of course, Tennyson’s Ulysses—for James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses (1922), which has an entire chapter based on the Lotos-Eaters passage in The Odyssey, but a chapter heavily indebted to Tennyson. In The Lotos-Eaters, we have Tennyson attempting to write a kind of pure poetry.

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Categories: Literary Criticism, Literature, Poetry, Victorian Literature

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