‘The Lotos-Eaters’ is quite a long poem. Below, we offer some words of analysis. ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ was published in Tennyson’s 1832 collection, which appeared when he was still in his early twenties.
Wouldn’t it be nice to pass your life without having to toil and labour and work all the time? Or, indeed, any of the time? Instead, you could just relax and leisurely let life pass by in a dreamlike haze. This is what Tennyson’s ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ posits, using the episode from Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey as inspiration.
In Homer’s poem, Odysseus and his crew are given the fruit of the lotus on an island, and this drug-like fruit induces forgetfulness and lethargy in them, causing them to forget that they’re meant to be sailing home after the Trojan War. It’s only thanks to Odysseus’ strength of mind that they recall their mission and leave the island of the lotus-eaters behind.
In summary, then, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ describes the arrival of Odysseus and his crew on the island of the lotos-eaters, and their subsequent lethargy and state of drug-induced slumber once they have tasted of the fruit and determined never to leave the island and return to a life of work.
The poem’s account of the crew’s drugged state and their unwillingness to arise from their state of torpor is described with repeated use of words like seem, stream, and dream, which all rhyme together, their meanings flowing into one another (and, of course, seem paired with dream gives the sounds of s-dream – i.e. stream).
In his brilliant study of the poet, Tennyson, a book which manages to be one of the best biographies of Tennyson as well as one of the best works of critical analysis on the poetry, Christopher Ricks points out that Tennyson originally rhymed ‘land’ with ‘the strand’ in the opening lines of the poem, before deciding that ‘the no rhyme of “land” and “land” was lazier’ (Tennyson’s words).
It’s as if the poem itself is too languorous in its depiction of the lotos-eaters’ languor to bother to reach for a more workmanlike rhyme: ‘land’ and ‘land’ will do. Ricks also points out that, in these opening five stanzas of ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, Tennyson makes the best use of the Spenserian stanza (nine lines ending with an alexandrine, or twelve-syllable line) since Edmund Spenser himself, in The Faerie Queene (another poem characterised by romanticised use of myth). The extended length of the final line of each stanza reinforces the sense of languor and leisure in the poem. All of this, of course, comes after that resolute and active-sounding opening word: ‘Courage!’
Is ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ simply about the Odyssean episode from Greek myth, or is it about something more contemporary to Tennyson’s own time? How might we analyse the poem in its nineteenth-century context? Does the lotos plant represent something else? ‘Opium’ is one answer.
As Ricks points out, around the same time that he was working on ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, Tennyson wrote a letter to W. H. Brookfield warning of the dangers of the drug opium: ‘What are you about – musing, and brooding and dreaming and opium-eating yourself out of this life into the next?’
Not only is ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ a poem about a group of men who would rather join the next life than return to their journeying life of toil on the seas, but against Tennyson’s ‘musing, and brooding and dreaming’ we may set one line from his poem: ‘To muse and brood and live again in memory’.
But perhaps against this line, in turn, we might set the triumphant and decisive final line from Tennyson’s other Odysseus-inspired poem from around this time, ‘Ulysses’: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’. Those infinitives are very different: to muse is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a poet, but it’s far less animated and industrious than to strive.
Not that we should reduce an analysis of ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ to an anti-drugs poem, as if the whole thing were merely warning against the evils of laudanum. For one thing, the poem is out to depict the appealing aspects of a life of leisure alongside its drawbacks. There is something very alluring about leaving everything behind and just idling.
And it’s worth noting, as a final point of analysis, that Tennyson ends ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ with the same collective ‘we’ which resoundingly concludes ‘Ulysses’: ‘O rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.’ That other poem, ‘Ulysses’, had ended with Ulysses/Odysseus calling for his crew to join him in wandering some more; ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ is the flipside to this vision of exploration and daring-to-dream. In ‘The Lotos-Eaters’, to dream is enough.