Lord Alfred Tennyson's "The Lotos Eaters" is a construct of contrasts. Drawing from Homer's Odyssey, Tennyson creates a lyrical poem in which romance and Victorian principles collide. Based on the incident when Odysseus' ship lands on the island of the Lotus Eaters,
On the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flowerÉ 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." (Book IX of Homer's Odyssey).
Tennyson's poem focuses on the mariner's desire to remain on this island that offers a life of passive oblivion. Through the persuasive rhetoric of the Lotus-eaters, Tennyson presents an enticing view of a life free from labor while seemingly condemning the implicit evils of such a choice. In doing so, he compares and conflicts the Romantic's attraction to dreams, beauty and death with the Victorian ideals of hard work, social responsibility, and the urge to live fully.
The first part of the text (lines 1-45) immerses the reader into the atmosphere of the Lotos-eater's island paradise. Tennyson's use of rhythmic nine-line Spenserian stanzas is almost hypnotic, putting his readers in their own state of relaxation. The opening line contains a plea from Odysseus to his men to have "Courage" as they approach a land "in which it seemed always afternoon." The natives of the island offer Odysseus' men the fruit of a lotus, but once the exiled mariners taste the exotic fruit, their previous yearnings to return home are overtaken by drug-induced desires for stasis, and they proclaimi they will "return no more".
The remaining part of the poem consists of eight numbered stanzas composed of the drugged men's choric song explaining their resolution to remain forever in the land of the Lotos-eaters. The sailors describe their travels on the sea, their rightful place of work, in terms of "sharp distress", "heaviness," and "sorrow". They question "whatÉ will last"? declaring that everything in life is fleeting and therefore futile, and they complain that their arduous journey home is itself a death wish and that they are only driving themselves closer to it by labor (stanza 4). In stanza six the mariners proclaim they have been gone for so long their families have probably already forgotten and replaced them. Pleading to Odysseus for "long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease" (stanza 4) they wish to abandon their duties and responsibility to their families for a seemingly idyllic life of lotus and dreams. The poem's final stanza compares the relaxing death-like existence of the Land of the Lotos to the carefree existence of the Gods, who could seem to care less about the problems which plague the immortals inhabiting the earth. Concluding that "Slumber is more sweet than toil," the mariners resolve to remain on the land of the Lotus-eaters and succumb to a life of abandonment.
Each stanza of the second half provides a different argument for the mariners decision to stay on the island, while Tennyson provides detailed descriptions of the lush island paradise, enticing the reader to side with the mariners and surrender to a life of ease. But this enchanted paradise is not as perfect as it seems to be. To live in the land of the lotus is to live in a land where everything appears to be, but nothing actually is. It is "a land where all things always seemed the same" (line 24). Tennyson includes the word seems in all but one of the five opening stanzas. The description of the "hollow" land with "hallow caves," adds to Tennyson's underlying scheme, indicating that the sailors' initial impression of the island life as empty and uncertain.
"The Lotos Eaters" illustrates Tennyson's understanding of the human desire for escape from pain and responsibility. Tennyson warns his audience against such self-deceit by proposing there is a time when labor and struggle are necessary.
Last modified 19 March 2007