The Lotus-Eaters
By Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication
Background
Tone
Setting
Summary
Text of the Poem
Theme
Christian View
Structure
Meter, End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Author's Biography

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012

Type of Work

......."The Lotus-Eaters" is a lyric poem. However, the first forty-five lines contain narration as well as lyricism.
 
Publication

.......The first version of "The Lotus-Eaters" was published by Edward Moxon in London in December 1832 but was printed with a publication year of 1833. The work appeared in a Tennyson collection entitled Poems. The final, extensively revised version of the poem was published by Moxon in an 1842 Tennyson collection with the same title.

Background

.......Tennyson based the poem on an episode in The Odyssey, Homer's great epic poem recounting the harrowing adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus during his sea voyage home after the Trojan War. (In his writings, Tennyson referred to Odysseus by his Roman name, Ulysses.) Ancient storytellers placed the time of the voyage between 1200 and 1180 BC, during the age of myth and legend. While on the voyage, Odysseus and his crewmen encountered many perilsincluding monsters and violent stormsand visited strange lands. In one of these lands lived people who consumed the edible parts of the lotus flower. (Ltos was the Greek name for many plants containing substances from which narcotics could be made or extracted.) After several crewmen ate of the lotus, it induced in them a pleasant, trancelike state. Of the incident, Odysseus presents the following account in Book 9 of The Odyssey:
Whosoever of them did eat the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no more wish to  . . . come back, but there he chose to abide with the lotus-eating men, ever feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of his homeward way. Therefore I led them back to the ships weeping, and sore against their will, and dragged them beneath the benches, and bound them in the hollow barques. But I commanded the rest of my well-loved company to make speed and go on board the swift ships, lest haply any should eat of the lotus and be forgetful of returning. Right soon they embarked, and sat upon the benches, and sitting orderly they smote the grey sea water with their oars. (Translation by Samuel H. Butcher and Andrew Lang. London: Macmillan, 1879)
Tone

.......The tone of "The Lotus-Eaters" is melancholic and objective. The atmosphere is surreal, as if the events in the poem are part of a dream.

Setting

....... The setting is an unidentified land with a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere. In Homer's Odyssey, this land was probably along the coast of North Africa.

Summary

.......While Odysseus and his men are sailing home from Troy, a storm blows them to the shore of a strange land where time stands still and the air seems to breathe like a weary dreamer. There is a full moon in the afternoon sky. Streams are all around, effusing mist, and a sparkling river flows to the sea. In the distance are three snow-capped mountain peaks tinged with the color of the lingering western sun. Beyond the mountains are a valley and meadows, flowers and palm trees.
.......Pale-faced men approach the crewmen and offer them the flowers and fruit of the lotus tree. After the men eat of the offering, they enter a trancelike state—as if asleep and awake at the same time. They sit down on the beach, dreamy-eyed, envisioning home and wife and child. But one of them says he will cease roaming the seas. Here is his home. And all the rest sing: “Our island home / Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam” (lines 44-45).
.......And then they sing of the softly lilting music that falls upon their weary eyes and brings restful, peaceful sleep among mosses, creeping ivies, and flowers. Why should they toil and fret, enduring sorrow after sorrow? Why should they wander from one place to the next? Why should they not stay Lotus land, enjoying everlasting calm?
.......Nature does not toil. Coaxed by the wind, the leaf emerges from its bud and grows in the warmth of the sun, fed by the nighttime dew. The apple, the flower—both mature where they are, never traveling, never toiling. The men ask why they should spend their days in ships on the sea, laboring under the dark blue sky, pursued by death? Is there any peace to be gained by rolling over one wave and another? "Let us alone," they sing. “Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease” (line 98).
.......How soothing it is for them to sit there half asleep as they eat the lotus and listen to the stream water and one another's quiet talk. How pleasant it is to watch the rippling waters on the beach and to recall old memories of married lives. They were happy then, true; but now all is changed. Their wives are older, their sons are grown, and they would look like ghosts to their families if they returned. They wonder whether anyone would remember their feats in the war at Troy. What is past is past. They want to stay where they are. They want to avoid pain and labor. They are sea-weary.
.......In the land of the lotus, there is quiet contentment on beds of flowers with warm breezes blowing and streams falling into the river from purple hills. The sounds of nature lull rather than disturb. When the wind wafts, the lotus blossoms fall. There's been enough of sea life, tossing and rolling and turning about. The chorus of men says,
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind. (lines 153-155)
.......No longer will they be part of the troubles of the world—hunger, toil, plague, and anguish. It is better to rest on the shore than roam in the ocean. “We will wander no more” (line 173), the men say.

Top



The Lotus-Eaters
By Alfred Lord Tennyson

Courage!” he said, and pointed toward the land,   
This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.”1   
In the afternoon they came unto a land   
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon, 5
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.

A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke, 10
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,            15
Three silent pinnacles of aged snow,   
Stood sunset-flush’d; and, dew’d with showery drops,   
Up-clomb2 the shadowy pine above the woven copse.

The charmed sunset linger’d low adown   
In the red West; thro’ mountain clefts the dale            20
Was seen far inland, and the yellow down   
Border’d with palm, and many a winding vale   
And meadow, set with slender galingale;3  
A land where all things always seem’d the same!   
And round about the keel with faces pale,            25
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.   

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,   
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave   
To each, but whoso did receive of them            30
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,            35
And music in his ears his beating heart did make.

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 40
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.”            45


CHORIC SONG

I
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,            50
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,            55
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.   

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,            60
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,            65
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?4   

III
Lo! in the middle of the wood, 70
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            75
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            80
The flower ripens in its place,   
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,   
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.   

IV
Hateful is the dark-blue sky,   
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.            85
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labor 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?            90
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?            95
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.   

V
How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem            100
Falling asleep in a half-dream!   
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,   
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush5 on the height;   
To hear each other’s whisper’d speech;   
Eating the Lotos day by day,            105
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, 110
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!6   

VI
Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives            115
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            120
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?7   
Let what is broken so remain. 125
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 labor unto aged breath, 130
Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.8   

VII
But, propped on beds of amaranth9 and moly,10   
How sweet—while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly—   
With half-dropped eyelids still,            135
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—            140
To watch the emerald-color’d water falling   
Thro’ many a woven acanthus-wreath11 divine!   
Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,   
Only to hear were sweet, stretch’d out beneath the pine.   

VIII
The Lotos blooms below the barren peak, 145
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,            150
Roll’d to starboard,12 roll’d to larboard,13 when the surge was seething free,   
Where the wallowing monster14 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   
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind. 155
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,            160
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 cleave15 the soil,            165
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.16            170
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;   
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.   

Notes

1.... Courage . . . soon: Odysseus (Ulysses) is speaking.
2....clomb: Climbed.
3....galingale: Sedge having leaves with rough edges.
4....Why . . . things: Why should a human being, the crowning glory of earthly creation, have to spend his days in toil?
5....myrrh-bush: Source of myrrh, an aromatic resin (sticky substance) used in incense, perfume, and medicinal preparations.
6....those old faces . . . brass: The old faces (friends, acquaintances) are now buried corpses or ashes in an urn.
7....little isle: Greek island of Ithaca, west of mainland Greece. It was the home of Odysseus.
8....pilot-stars: Stars that ship captains use to plot their courses.
9....amaranth: Flowering herb with edible seeds.
10...moly: In Greek mythology, an herb with magical properties. Odysseus ate it on one of his adventures to protect himself from the power of a sorceress.
11...acanthus-wreath: Wreath made of acanthus, an herb or shrub with spiny leaves and white or purple flowers.
12...starboard: The right side of a ship as one looks forward to the bow.
13...larboard: The left side of a ship as one looks forward to the bow.
14...wallowing monster: Probably a whale.
15...cleave: Break up; plow.
16...asphodel: Plant in the lily family.

Interpretation and Theme

.......The poem centers on idle contentment. Whether the author is condemning it, sanctioning it, or remaining neutral is arguable.
.......One can logically conclude that the purpose of the poem is to deplore a life of do-nothing leisure. Tennyson himself—and his father, the Rev. George Clayton—were both hard workers. When Tennyson wrote the poem, many of the nobility in England and the rest of Europe lived a life of leisure, using their inherited estates to generate income to pay for their fashions, parties, and servants staffs.
.......Although Tennyson himself had noble ancestry, his father had been disinherited. Consequently, he had to manage money diligently to maintain his large family. (Alfred was one of twelve Tennyson children.) While Alfred was attending Cambridge University, his father died and the youth had to return home to help out. It was not until years later, when he gained fame as a poet, that Tennyson began earning enough money to live comfortably.
.......Given his background, it seems only natural that Tennyson would frown on an unproductive life of leisure. He may also have frowned on the use of drugs and alcohol as means to escape reality, inasmuch as his financially beleaguered father started to drink heavily when Alfred was a teenager. 
.......On the other hand, one can conclude that Tennyson was endorsing a leisurely life as a way of calling attention to the preoccupation of England's lower and middle classes with their jobs. In the industrial age of the early nineteenth century, many breadwinners were spending long hours in factories, shops, and offices. Life was fast-paced. Industrial centers like London were crowded and smoky. Everyone seemed to be rushing about to put a jingle in his pocket. Life at sea was just as busy. Ships were sailing to the Americas, the East Indies, and elsewhere to expand commerce and build the empire.
.......That Ulysses' crewmen speak of melancholy and even death as allies only underscores their aversion to a life of toil, tension, and sea travel—and perhaps Tennyson's dissatisfaction with the direction of the British Empire.
.......It is also possible that Tennyson was merely presenting a lyrical response to the episode about the lotus eaters in The Odyssey—or that he was preaching moderation: too much leisure is bad, and too much work is equally bad.
.......The reader can intelligently argue in favor of any of these themes.

The Lotus Eaters and Christianity

.......Christians generally regard hard work as beneficial to their spiritual as well as material well-being. But they also believe that good people will enjoy eternal peace and contentment—free of toil and drudgery—after they die. Does the nature of their life in heaven mean that they will be, in effect, lotus-eaters? Tennyson's poem raises this question.

Structure

.......The poem consists of an introductory section of five stanzas and a "choric song" of eight stanzas.

Meter and End Rhyme


Section 1

.......Each stanza in the introductory section (first forty-five lines) contains nine lines. The first eight lines of a stanza generally contain ten syllables eachusually in pairs of iambsand the last line contains twelve or thirteen. The end rhyme in the introductory section follows a definite pattern in each nine-line stanza: abab bcbc c.
Both the meter and end rhyme of each stanza imitate the meter and rhyme pattern in the nine-line stanza that Edmund Spenser (1522-1599) established in his long epic poem, The Faerie Queene. Such a stanza came to be known as the Spenserian stanza.

Section 2

.......The line and stanza length vary in "The Choric Song." The last stanza has the most and longest lines in the poem, perhaps suggesting that the drug in the Lotus flower is making the men more talkative about their view of life in the workaday world compared with life in Lotus land.
There is end rhyme in "The Choric Song," but it also varies. For example, the end rhyme in the first stanza is abab ccc eeee. In the second stanza, on the other hand, it is aaa bcb bcc dcd.

Internal Rhyme

.......The poem also contains internal rhyme. Here are examples:
Sun-steep'd at noon, and in the moon (line 74)

How sweetwhile warm airs lull us, blowing lowly—(line 134)

From cave to cave thro' the thick-twined vine—(line 140)

Roll'd to starboard, roll'd to larboard, when the surge was seething free (line 151)
Figures of Speech

.......Following are among the figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, click here.

Alliteration
Why are we weigh'd upon with heaviness (line 57)

Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil. (lines 82-83)

mild-minded melancholy (line 109)

For surely now our household hearths are cold (line 117)

The Lotos blooms below the barren peak
The Lotos blows by every winding creek (lines 145-146)

Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea (line 152)

In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined (line 154)

and the clouds are lightly curl’d   
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world (lines 157-158)
Anaphora
three mountain-tops,           
Three silent pinnacles of aged snow (lines 15-16)

Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,
Only to hear were sweet, stretch'd out beneath the pine. (lines 143-144)
Assonance
Give us long rest or death (line 98)
Metaphor
from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep. (line 56)
Comparison of the poppy to a sleeping creature

Nor ever fold our wings (line 64)
Comparison of the crewmen to birds
Metaphor, Simile
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream. (lines 5-6)
Metaphor: Comparison of the air to a creature that breathes
Simile: Comparison of the breathing to that of a person having a dream
Paradox
And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake (line 35)
Simile
There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls. . . . (lines 46-48)
Comparison of the lilt of a sound to the fall of rose petals and dew

we should come like ghosts to trouble joy (line 119)
Comparison of the crewmen to ghosts
Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Which of the following do you regard as lotus eaters? (1) A wealthy young heiress who spends her money on anything that gives her pleasure. She does not work. (2) People who prefer to live on welfare even though they can work. (They pretend to qualify for benefits.) (3) Saints in heaven. (4) People who use narcotics to escape from the pressures of life.
  • Write an essay arguing that Tennyson's poem was intended to condemn the way some people live.
  • Consumption of mind-altering substances can make people say foolish things. Is this the case with the men who consume the lotus flower?
  • Do you sometimes retreat to your own Lotus land to avoid problems? Does your withdrawal make things better or worse?
  • What is a lotus? Does it have narcotic properties?
  • The poem begins when Odysseus tells his men to have courage. Why must they have courage? What is the threat?
  • Write an essay answering the question raised under The Lotus Eaters and Christianity.