‘The Lotos-eaters’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson is a famous poem of the Victorian period. The poet found inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey and wrote this poem. The poem is based on an episode of the hero’s wanderings into the troublesome world. It depicts the sufferings as well as their mental state standing between hopelessness and death. However, Tennyson visited the Pyrenees mountains and the scenic beauty might have compelled him to look back to the story of Odysseus again. He tried to revisit Odysseus’ world through his poetic imagination in this poem.
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Summary of The Lotos-eaters
The poem begins with Odysseus commanding his men to have “Courage.” They will soon find a shorn on which to land. They do so almost immediately and it enchants them with it’s otherworldly beauty. There are valleys, snowy mountains, and cliffs that are covered in streams.
While the men are looking at their surrounding the “Lotos-eaters” appear and deliver to the men branches covered in lotos flowers and fruits. The men who eat these fruits, all but Odysseus, fall under the empty spell of the land. They believe that they no longer want to continue their quest homeward and would rather stay there where they do not have to worry about making their way back to the “Fatherland.”
The second half of the poem is made up of a “Choric Song” in which the men describe all the reasons that they want to remain on the island. They do not think that it is fair that they should have to labor their whole lives while no other being is forced into the same fate. As humans, this is what their lives consist of and they no longer want to take part. They confess that what they want most is a life in which they relax until their death. They want to live as a leaf does, simply existing and then dying when it is their time. Instead, the men state, they are head towards death through a life that is nothing but misery. They would rather die now than have to work their whole lives.
The men do make sure to mention their wives and the homes they are abandoning. But they believe that their families will be better off without them by this point. Life has moved on and their return would only cause more problems. They are content to live as they believe the Gods do. They will lay in their fields of lotos, as the Gods do in their valleys of asphodel, and look out on human misery. They will make no effort to intervene or help. The poem concludes with the men stating once more, reassuring one another, that their wanders are truly finished.
Structure of The Lotos-eaters
The first and second halves of The Lotos-eaters are formed differently. The first half is divided into five stanzas of nine lines. These nine-line stanzas are referred to as Spenserian stanzas due to their use by Spenser in The Faerie Queen. The rhyme scheme remains consistent throughout, following the pattern of ABABBCBCC. Additionally, each line follows the same pattern of meter, except for the final, ninth line, of each stanza. The first eight are written in iambic pentameter while the ninth is composed of six iambic feet, also known as an “alexandrine.”
The second half of the poem is structured much more loosely. There is no defined rhyme scheme. Just as each section has it’s own theme, so too does it have its own rhyme scheme.
Analysis of The Lotos-eaters
“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.
The poem begins with Odysseus of Ithaca driving his men onward through “mounting wave[s].” They are in the midst of their ten year journey home from the battle of Troy. Tennyson’s poem begins after Zeus has swept Odysseus’s’ boat along to the land of the “Lotos-eaters”(as can be read in Homer’s Odyssey). He adds in, and embellishes, details that Homer started.
Odysseus, is encouraging his men, telling them to have “Courage,” in the face of these mighty waves that Zeus has sent them. This next one, he tells them, will surely “roll us shoreward soon.”
His words end up being true and the men are brought to land by that “afternoon.” The speaker of the poem then gives the reader a number of details regarding the land to which they have come. It is a place that, no matter the time of day, seems to perpetually exist in the afternoon. This could be due to the heat or the activities of those that reside on the island. The air seems to move very slowly around the island, it is “languid” and “swoon[ing].” These words foreshadow the change that will soon come over the men as they taste the lotos fruit.
The air of the land is further compared to “Breathing” as if one is in a dream. Each breath is long and requires effort. The moon is standing “Full-faced above the valley,” and from there a stream weaves its way “Along the cliff” pausing and falling.
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.
In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker is sharing the amazement he, and Odysseus’s party feel upon seeing this land. It seems to them to be “A land of streams!” There are all different kinds around them, some thin, and some lumbering and powerful. Each of these streams connects to one river that is flowing “seaward.”
Far in the distance, the travelers and the omniscient narrator are able to see “three mountain-tops” that are like three old monuments of “aged snow.” They are standing strong in the sunlight, unrelenting to the warmth. There is mention of a “shadowy pine,” one dominating pine tree that is covered with dew and appears to “up-clomb” or climb up, the “woven copse,” or a small grouping of trees. This one larger tree is grander than the rest and it only seems to grow larger as they stare at the scene before them.
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.
The sun is setting when they arrive, the afternoon is moving on. But it is not moving quickly. It has “linger’d low” endowing the “West” with “red.” The speaker and the travelers can see through or “thro’” the mountains to what is a “dale,” or large valley, further in the distance. Even though they have just landed and are at sea level, they are still high enough to see far into the distance. The land seems to be “Border’d” with palm trees and “many a wandering vale / And meadow.” In these places, and in the meadow, the speaker is able to see “galingale” a type of sedge found in Europe and Asia. This land is one in which these things are equally beautiful. They are all a part of one another and make up the living environment.
The men are still on the boat as the speaker describes them looking down and seeing that while they have been entranced by the land the “Lotos-eaters” has come. They are gathered around the “keel,” of the ship and are looking up at them with their “mild…melancholy” eyes and “pale /Dark faces.”
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 speaker continues his narrative by describing the lotos fruit which the “Lotos-eaters” brought to the sailors. They all had “Branches” that “bore…that enchanted stem.” The branches were filled with the fruit and flowers of the lotos plant which the “Lotos-eaters” shared with each man from the ship.
After eating from the plant the men were overcome. What they “tasted” came onto the men like the “gushing of the wave” and made their problem seem very distant. Each man became extraordinarily tired and their voices sounded like those of dead men, coming from the grave. They were all still awake, but only in a semi-conscious state. It was if they were both asleep and awake at the same time. The fruit had some kind of magical effect on the men and cast a spell upon their intentions. Each became consume solely with their own self. The only thing they could hear was the “beating” of their own hearts.
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.”
In the last stanza before the second half of the poem, the men confess to a new desire.
They sat themselves down “upon the yellow sand” at the shore of the land. Their thoughts were cast to “Fatherland,” their home, and all that was waiting for them there. They dreamed of “child, and wife, and slave,” and all they left behind, but this desire for home was now deeply outweighed by their weariness. They no longer felt they had the energy or need to return to the ship and face the ocean once more. The men were more than content to remain with the “Lotos-eaters” for the rest of their lives.
They were, weary the oar, / Weary the wandering fields of barren foam,” or the vast expanses of the ocean.” A sight which once gave them all pleasure and excited their inner adventurer now means nothing.
They turned to one another and said that they would “return no more.” They did not want to return to the arduous ten-year journey. They state that their island, Ithaca, is “far beyond the wave,” it is too far for them to reach or even try to get back to. They decide they will “no longer roam.”
There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro’ the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.”
The second half of this poem is made up of eight stanzas. These stanzas act as a “Chroic Song.” In them, Odysseus’s crew describes the safety and comfort of the land of the “Lotos-eaters” and the lack of desire they feel to return home.
In the first of these stanzas, the men begin by stating that this land is full of music that falls softly. It’s sound resembles the petals of “roses” blowing onto the grass or perhaps it resembles “night-dews” that softly collect on “still waters.”
They continue piling up metaphors and state that it is gentler than the feeling of closing one’s eyes when one is tired. It brings joy to them that is like “sweet sleep” falling down “from the blissful skies.”
They have everything they could want. The earth is made from “cool mosses” and is wound with “ivies.” This beautiful unity of plants is complemented by “stream[s]” that hold flowers and the “craggy ledge” which plays host to poppies.
The world around them resembles their own interior feelings. They are seeing their own inner peace reflected in plants, streams, and one another.
II Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!”
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?
The second part of the choral song follows a particular theme of discontent. The narrator, speaking for the men, asks the universe why men have no rest, while all others do. They state that they are “weigh’d upon with heaviness” while also being “consumed by sharp distress.” The men do not believe that this is fair as everything else in the world has “rest.” Why should they be the only creatures to consistently “toil alone?”
As was found in the first part of this poem the men, after eating the lotos fruits are only concerned with their own well being. They no longer feel for those beyond their reach.
They, the “first of things” are the only ones to “toil” and the only to make “perpetual moan[s].” The men are rejecting their previous lives of hard work and struggle in favor of one in which they will only rest. They no longer want to be thrown from sorrow to sorrow, “Nor” ever have to stop doing as they please in favor of working.
III Lo! in the middle of the wood,
The folded leaf is woo’d from out the bud
With winds upon the branch, and there
Grows green and broad, and takes no care,
Sun-steep’d at noon, and in the moon
Nightly dew-fed; and turning yellow
Falls, and floats adown the air.
Lo! sweeten’d with the summer light,
The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
Drops in a silent autumn night.
All its allotted length of days
The flower ripens in its place,
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.
The third of these “Choric Song” stanzas speaks on how the men feel that unlike the rest of creation, they are unable to have a peaceful life that consists of living and then dying. They want to live as a leaf does. Budding, being blown on its branch, growing green “and broad,” never having to take care, and then finally after being “dew-fed” under the moon, turn yellow and float to the ground. They are seeing the life cycle of the simplest parts of creation as the most appealing to them.
All things, the chorus states, are able to live to an “allotted length of days” and then be replaced by something else that will eventually ripen and fade. These lives are the most fulfilling as they have a distinct purpose that does not including toiling.
IV Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
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.
In the fourth stanza, the speakers are bemoaning the fact that we are all heading towards death and must “labour” on the way there. They do not believe that life should be completely made up of “labour.” They want to be left totally alone. Unbothered by the real world.
Their lives are moving very quickly and death will soon approach. While they are still alive they want to be left alone and have nothing else taken from them. There is no point that they can see fighting wars against evil as there is no pleasure in it. Nothing in the world is going to last, so why waste their time making dreadful memories.
By the end of the stanza, they have come to the conclusion that it is better to just die now rather than live a life of labour.
VHow sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream!
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
To hear each other’s whisper’d speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heap’d over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!
The fifth stanza of the chorus describes how sweet a life it would be to lay around in a “half-dream” all the time. The speakers are seeing all of the good parts of a completely simple life and none of the bad parts of idleness. The men are dreaming here of a life in which they can “hear each other’s whisper’d speech” while they are laying around “Eating the Lotos day by day.” That is the only task which they have to complete and the more they eat, the more satisfied with their situation they will become.
The men will “watch crisping ripples” or waves, washing up on the beach and admire the “curving lines” of the spray which it creates. They will commit their bodies, “hearts and spirits” to “melancholy” and spend their rest of the time “brood[ing]” over memories of the past.
They will remember all those that have passed away since they were born and that is now buried under a “mound of grass” or cremated and shut up in “an urn of brass!” They will not be bothered by death though ad they will know they are living the best possible version of their lives here on the island.
VI Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears: but all hath suffer’d change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
Or else the island princes over-bold
Have eat our substance, and the minstrel sings
Before them of the ten years’ war in Troy,
And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things.
Is there confusion in the little isle?
Let what is broken so remain.
The Gods are hard to reconcile:
‘Tis hard to settle order once again.
There is confusion worse than death,
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
Long labour unto aged breath,
Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.
The men continue on, saying that they will not forget their past lives. Their “wedded lives” will remain “dear” to them, as will the last moments they spent with their wives. They are not going to forget everything that used to matter to them but are accepting of the fact that there is nothing they can do to get back to how things were. Their households are probably “cold” they say and their sons, all grown up, having inherited their father’s “looks.” If they did return they would bring nothing but trouble to the home. They’ve been gone for so long that they do not believe things would ever go back to the way they were.
Or, they state, things could not have gone so peacefully at home. While they were fighting in Troy for ten years, “island princes” could have been “over-bold” and taken over their homes. The men’s “deeds” could have been forgotten and their names smeared.
They have no intention of fixing this state of things if it is indeed the case, they are fine to let it stay broken as it is too hard to regain order once it is lost. Still, they believe they would only make things worse, even if things have not gone well from the start.
VII But, propt on beds of amaranth and moly,
How sweet (while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly)
With half-dropt eyelid still,
Beneath a heaven dark and holy,
To watch the long bright river drawing slowly
His waters from the purple hill—
To hear the dewy echoes calling
From cave to cave thro’ the thick-twined vine—
To watch the emerald-colour’d water falling
Thro’ many a wov’n acanthus-wreath divine!
Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,
Only to hear were sweet, stretch’d out beneath the pine.
In the seventh stanza of the “Choric Song” the men once more reiterate what the alternative to returning home and creating more chaos would be. They could, and want to, just stay here, “propt on beds of amaranth and moly,” two different types of European plants, (moly is said to have had magic properties).
They will relax, with “half-dropt eyelids” and spend their days watching the river and “His” waters from their “purple hill.” The sea will now be to them just sight in the distance. There will be no more sailing or dangers they have to face. They will be guaranteed safety and endless days of “gazing” on the rivers of this land.
VIIIThe Lotos blooms below the barren peak:
The Lotos blows by every winding creek:
All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone:
Thro’ every hollow cave and alley lone
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.
We have had enough of action, and of motion we,
Roll’d to starboard, roll’d to larboard, when the surge was seething free,
Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea.
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
The final stanza of this section of the poems is longer than the seven that have preceded it. The speaker begins by describing how the Lotos blooms everywhere that they look. It survives in the most barren and most wet of places. The wind that gently “blows” through the island sweeps up the “yellow Lotos-dust,” most likely a reference to pollen, and carries it from place to place, spreading the plant farther.
The men have had enough of “action” and being blown around on a ship from side to side. They no longer want to face the monsters of the deep. Instead, they state, they will swear an oath to ignore the rest of mankind and only exert enough energy to lay around on the island and eat lotos. They will be as Gods, observing but not interfering with mankind. This is a misrepresentation of the Gods of Greek mythology as they were most known for the inability to stop interfering with mankind. They were constantly changing the course of history.
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl’d
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl’d
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world:
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
Till they perish and they suffer—some, ’tis whisper’d—down in hell
Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.
In the second half of this stanza, the sailors say that they see the Gods as spending all their time just as the men are now. The only difference being that they recline alongside “their nectar” while hurling bolts of lighting into the “valleys.” The Gods, they state, do not care about the impact of “famine, plague, and earthquake” on the humans below them. They “smile” and listen to music while men suffer.
The speakers describe the music as being created by the God’s indifference consists of human lamentation and misuse. The maltreatment of humans by the Gods has been going on forever, it is an “ancient” problem and the Gods have enjoyed all of the time.
Mankind is forced to “Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil.” A person’s life is made up of nothing but hard work and misery until “they perish and they suffer…down in hell.” Others, the speaker’s state, are dwelling in “Elysian valleys,” or paradise. These lucky beings are “Resting weary limbs on beds of asphodel,” an immortal flower that grows in Elysian.
They conclude the poem by restating that “surely, slumber is sweeter than toil” and by reassuring one another that they will cease their wanders from now on.
In the myth on which this poem is based Odysseus, having not eaten from the lotos plants, is forced to carry his men back onto the ship and single-handedly sail away from the island. The men eventually come to their senses once the magic of the plant has worn off.
About Alfred Lord Tennyson
In 1827 Tennyson left his home to attend Trinity College, Cambridge. It was there he and his brother, Charles, co-published a book of poems titled, Poems by Two Brothers. This book put Tennyson on the radar of other prolific college writers and he made friends with another student, Arthur Hallam. After a brief but intense friendship, Hallam died, leaving a bereft Tennyson to devoted a number of poems to his memory.
From 1830 to 1832, Tennyson published two more books of poetry. These were not met with outstanding reviews and the poet was greatly disappointed. His naturally shy disposition would keep him from publishing again for another nine years. Tennyson finally met with some success in 1842 after the publication of this book, Poems in two volumes. When Tennyson published In Memoriam, one of the pieces dedicated to his college friend, Hallam, his reputation was solidified throughout Britain. That same year he married Emily Sellwood, with whom he would have two sons.
Tennyson’s popularity and success allowed him to continue writing full time and purchase a home for his family in the country. Tennyson died in 1892 and remains one of the most popular Victorian poets.