Ulysses tells his men to have courage, for they will get to land soon. It seems like it is always afternoon there, and the languid air breathes like a dream. A “slender stream” trickles off a cliff. Other streams (this is a land of streams) roll throughout the land. Three snow-topped peaks gleam in the sunset, covered with pine trees topped with dew. As the sun sets, they see a dale and meadow far inland.
Here everything seems always to be the same. Dark but pale faces are set against a backdrop of “rosy flame”; they possess melancholy smiles and mild eyes. They are the Lotos-Eaters. They carry branches heavy with flower and stem and give them to the men. When the men taste these flowers and fruits they hear a rushing of waves, and if their companion speaks, their voice sounds far away, as if from the grave.
The men sit on the sand “between the sun and moon.” It is pleasant to think of one’s home and one’s family, but every one of them is weary of the sea and the oar and the fields of foam. One of them says that they will never return, and all of them sing together, “our island home / Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.”
In the “Choric Song,” sweet music falls, softer than petals dropping or night dew resting on walls of granite. It is gentle on the sprit and brings gentle sleep. In this place are soft beds of mosses and flowers floating on streams.
A speaker asks why they are weighed upon with a feeling of heaviness and why they must be consumed with distress when it is natural for all things to have rest. He wonders why they should “toil alone” when they are the “first of things.” They go from one sorrow to another and wander ceaselessly, without listening to their inner spirit that tells them, “There is no joy but calm!”
In the middle of the wood a folded leaf is coaxed out from a bud by the wind; it grows green in the sun and is moistened by the night dew before it turns yellow and falls to the ground. An apple is “sweeten’d in the summer light” and drops to the ground. When its time is up, a flower ripens and falls. It never experiences toil.
The dark blue sky is “hateful.” Death is the end of a life, but why should life be only labor? Time will continue on, but they want to be left alone. They want to have peace and do as other things do, to ripen and go to the grave. They want “long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.”
It is sweet to dream on and on, listening to the whispers of others and eating the Lotos every day. They watch the rippling sea and let their minds wholly turn to “mild-mannered melancholy.” The faces of their past are buried as in urns. Memories of their wedded lives are dear to them, but by now changes must have occurred. The hearths are cold, and their sons are now the masters. They would look strange and come “like ghosts to trouble joy.” Other island princes may have taken their places while minstrels sing of the great deeds of those at Troy. If things are broken, they should remain that way. It is more difficult to bring order back and impart confusion, which is worse than death. Their hearts are weary, and their eyes grow dim.
Here, however, they are lying on soft earthen beds with sweet warm air blowing on them; they watch rivers moving slowly and hear echoes from cave to cave. The Lotos blooms by the peak and blows by the creek, and their spicy dust blows about. The men have had enough action and enough motion. They want to swear an oath to live forever in the Lotos-land and recline like Gods together, “careless of mankind.”
Like Gods they can look over wasted lands and see the trials and travails of men: ”blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery / sands,” but here they smile and listen to the music of lamentation from the “ill-used race of men” who labor and suffer and die. The men in the Lotos-land rest their tired limbs and find sleep more pleasant than work or toil at sea or the wind and waves. The speaker tells his fellow mariners to rest because they will “wander no more.”
Published in 1832, “The Lotos-Eaters” with its “Choric Song” is one of Tennyson’s most popular poems. It derives from a 15-line episode in Homer’s Odyssey that depicts Odysseus (Ulysses) and his men journeying to the land of the lotos-eaters on their way home from the Trojan War. Homer does not spend too much time describing the location, and he has Odysseus forcing his men back to the boat although they do so with bitter tears and lamentation. In Tennyson’s version, the men come to this land and fall under the spell of the languid and sensuous land due to its powerful flowers and fruits that they consume. Tennyson, in contrast to Homer, spends almost the entire poem dwelling on the languorous effects of the lotus flower and the magnificent, beguiling beauty of the isle. Whereas Homer’s Ulysses is aware of the disadvantages of such a life void of adventure, Tennyson creates a lush mood and sets up a harmonious and complementary relationship between the natural landscape and the inertia brought on by the flower.
Critics believe that the poem was inspired by a trip to Spain taken by Tennyson and his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam (the friend whose death inspired the poem “In Memoriam”). The scenery likely inspired this poem as well as “Oenone” and “Mariana in the South.” Critics also note allusions to and inspiration drawn from the biblical Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit, Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden,” and John Milton’s “L’Allegro.” James Joyce would later devote an entire chapter of his magnum opus Ulysses (1922) to this Homer/Tennyson creation.
The first part of the poem consists of five stanzas of nine lines each in an ababbcbcc rhyme scheme; these are called Spensarian stanzas, after the writer of [The Faerie Queen], Edmund Spenser. This scheme lends itself to a slow and dreamy sensation. This is furthered by the Alexandrine 12-syllable line, which contains an extra poetic foot (poems often use 10 syllables or five feet), which slows down the lines even more. The “Choric Song” is longer than the first part of the poem and is irregular in its rhyme scheme and structure, suggesting a greater level of disorder to reflect the unfocused lives of the men.
In the poem the mariners are pleased to alight at a place where they can forget their toil and weariness, and they set their minds at ease about their creeping old age and irrelevance (embodied by the line stating that their sons are taking over their rule). They are tired of the endless waves of the ocean and the hard labor they have performed; they believe that they are due a period of rest and dreaming. It is natural for men to ripen and fall like leaves and apples, and they only want to rest as they near their end. This is an understandable position for the mariners to take, although it differs greatly from that of the Ulysses we meet in Tennyson’s poem about him. Desired or not, this feeling comes from the rich and stupefying lotos flower. It lulls them into a somnolent, dreamy state as they spend their days lying idly and comfortably on beds of moss.
Since Tennyson does not include Ulysses’s forcible tearing of his men away from the island as in Homer, the reader is left to see judgment of this lifestyle through Tennyson’s portrayal of it. While the men’s desire for rest may be legitimate, their complete and utter escape from the realities of life seems disturbing. Critics from the 19th century tended to regard the poem, as critic Malcolm MacLaren writes, “as primarily artistic rather than didactic” and “find in it an implied criticism of idleness and indifference,” while more recent critics see the poem as “a defense of the life of the detached, self-sufficient artist; these critics suppose that Tennyson means to commend the decision of the mariners to abandon the outside world.” Note that the poem begins with “Courage!” and adventuring on the land, and it is not until they taste the lotos that they choose to stay and loaf—the question is whether the lotos clouds their judgment or clears it up.
More broadly, Tennyson’s poetry often comments on the nature of poetry itself, dwelling on the mind’s experience and understanding of the world. The poem is about more than the idleness and dreaminess of the men on the island. Note that the poem is structured, especially in the song, with a similarly lazy and torpid structure. The rhyme scheme and the sensuous, descriptive language create an environment for the reader that expresses a pleasure of reading poetry, that of escaping into another world where one can reflect on the real world and, perhaps, prefer the alternative one. One recent critic, William Flesch, writes, “It is not necessary to derive a moral from ‘The Lotos-Eaters,’ which seems more about the fact that poetry attempts to offer some consolation for the difficulties and essential painfulness of human life.” Yet, such a decision—not to judge—seems to side with the men rather than with the adventurous Odysseus, who thrives on such difficulties and pains as a key to making the most of his life.