Tennyson’s Poetry

by: Alfred Lord Tennyson

“The Lotos-Eaters”

Summary “The Lotos-Eaters”

In the seventh stanza, as in the first and fifth, the mariners bask in the pleasant sights and sounds of the island. They imagine how sweet it would be to lie on beds of flowers while watching the river flow and listening to the echoes in the caves. Finally, the poem closes with the mariners’ vow to spend the rest of their lives relaxing and reclining in the “hollow Lotos land.” They compare the life of abandon, which they will enjoy in Lotos land, to the carefree existence of the Gods, who could not care less about the famines, plagues, earthquakes, and other natural disasters that plague human beings on earth. These Gods simply smile upon men, who till the earth and harvest crops until they either suffer in hell or dwell in the “Elysian valleys” of heaven. Since they have concluded that “slumber is more sweet than toil,” the mariners resolve to stop wandering the seas and to settle instead in the land of the Lotos-eaters.

Form

This poem is divided into two parts: the first is a descriptive narrative (lines 1–45), and the second is a song of eight numbered stanzas of varying length (lines 46–173). The first part of the poem is written in nine-line Spenserian stanzas, so called because they were employed by Spenser in The Faerie Queene. The rhyme scheme of the Spenserian stanza is a closely interlinked ABABBCBCC, with the first eight lines in iambic pentameter and the final line an Alexandrine (or line of six iambic feet). The choric song follows a far looser structure: both the line-length and the rhyme scheme vary widely among the eight stanzas.

Commentary

This poem is based on the story of Odysseus’s mariners described in scroll IX of Homer’s Odyssey. Homer writes about a storm that blows the great hero’s mariners off course as they attempt to journey back from Troy to their homes in Ithaca. They come to a land where people do nothing but eat lotos (the Greek for our English “lotus”), a flower so delicious that some of his men, upon tasting it, lose all desire to return to Ithaca and long only to remain in the Land of the Lotos. Odysseus must drag his men away so that they can resume their journey home. In this poem, Tennyson powerfully evokes the mariners’ yearning to settle into a life of peacefulness, rest, and even death.

The poem draws not only on Homer’s Odyssey, but also on the biblical Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. In the Bible, a “life of toil” is Adam’s punishment for partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge: after succumbing to the temptation of the fruit, Adam is condemned to labor by the sweat of his brow. Yet in this poem, fruit (the lotos) provides a release from the life of labor, suggesting an inversion of the biblical story.

Tennyson provides a tempting and seductive vision of a life free from toil. His description of the Lotos Land rivals the images of pleasure in Milton’s “L’Allegro” and Marvell’s “The Garden.” Yet his lush descriptive passages are accompanied by persuasive rhetoric; nearly every stanza of the choric song presents a different argument to justify the mariners’ resolution to remain in the Lotos Land. For example, in the second stanza of the song the mariners express the irony of the fact that man, who is the pinnacle and apex of creation, is the only creature made to toil and labor all the days of his life. This stanza may also be read as a pointed inversion and overturning of Coleridge’s “Work without Hope,” in which the speaker laments that “all nature seems at work” while he alone remains unoccupied.

Although the taste of the lotos and the vision of life it offers is seductive, the poem suggests that the mariners may be deceiving themselves in succumbing to the hypnotic power of the flower. Partaking of the lotos involves abandoning external reality and living instead in a world of appearances, where everything “seems” to be but nothing actually is: the Lotos Land emerges as “a land where all things always seemed the same” (line 24). Indeed, the word “seems” recurs throughout the poem, and can be found in all but one of the opening five stanzas, suggesting that the Lotos Land is not so much a “land of streams” as a “land of seems.” In addition, in the final stanza of the choric song, the poem describes the Lotos Land as a “hollow” land with “hollow” caves, indicating that the vision of the sailors is somehow empty and insubstantial.