he adventure of Odysseus and his men in the land of the Lotos-eaters forms the basis for Alfred Lord Tennyson's 1833 poem. Homer's version is notoriously sparse in comparison to Tennyson's. In just twenty-three lines Homer describes how on the tenth day of their voyage from Troy the Greeks land in the country of the Lotus-eaters. Odysseus sends a party to survey the land and inhabitants. They are warmly welcomed and accept a taste of lotus, a mind-numbing plant which has the effect of making the sailors lose any interest in continuing their voyage home. Odysseus, however, drags the recalcitrants back onto the ship and orders his men to set sail before others eat lotos and abandon the journey.
Notably, Homer does not describe the country, the lotus-eaters' characteristics, or the specific effects of the plant, whereas Tennyson does. His landscape is a pastoral ideal. A sandy shore gives way to a land of fruitful abundance capped by picturesque mountains.
The flower ripens in its place,
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil. [III.36-39].
It is country that requires no toil to reap the bounty of the earth, and expectedly, its inhabitants do not labor. By eating lotos, the battle-hardened Greeks join the lotus-eaters in a semi-sleep sate, "careless of mankind," and ignorant of trouble, pain, and death. Memories of wives, households, sons, and Fatherland fade. It is truly an Epicurean, ethereal world.
The most startling difference, however, is that in Tennyson's poem Odysseus does not rescue the dopey Greeks, nor is there any indication they will ever leave. This, of course, begs the obvious question of why? The answer lies within a more nuanced reading of the poem within the England's imperial and industrial landscape in the 1830s. Like the later paintings of Jean-Leon Gérome, Tennyson's poetry projects repressed cultural desires onto a historical but fictional landscape. According David Reide, "Certainly Tennyson's relocation of excesses of eroticism to the edges of the imperial world provides a kind of outlet for overflow that might otherwise threaten the orderly authority at the imperial center." I believe, however, that "The Lotos-Eaters" is more of a critique of British work habits and imperial duty than an Orientalist fantasy. Tennyson repeatedly emphasizes that the lotus eaters do no work and bear no responsibility. "Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?" asks one sluggish Grecian. Figuratively at least, the land of the lotus-eaters is a romantic escape from a life of "enduring toil" that most industrial age Britons knew only too well.
Tennyson's roots his criticism in a mild diatribe against historical legacy.
What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcel of the dreadful Past . . .
The minstrel sings/ Before them [their sons] of the ten years' war in Troy,
And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things. [IV.45-47; VI.77-80]
Tennyson's comment is ironic since many of his literary subjects are legendary historical figures, as he is today. Perhaps he was voicing dissatisfaction of common Englishmen who wondered to what end they contributed their lives to industrial growth and empire. It was easy for an Odysseus or a Nelson to justify toil, but less so for the faceless sailor.
1. Why does Tennyson refer to Odysseus only as "he" in the poem?
2. Compare the first ("'Courage!' he said, and pointed toward the land") and last line ("Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.") and decide which attitude typified imperial England in 1833. Is the poem forward or backward looking?
3. Consider Protestant religion in "The Lotos-Eaters." Is Tennyson suggesting there is no reward for good work?
Riede, D.G. "Tennyson's Poetics of Melancholy and the Imperial Imagination." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 2000 (Autumn 2000): 659. ISSN 0039-3657. Project Muse.
Last modified 19 March 2007