Critical Appreciation of Alfred Tennyson’s "The Lotos-Eaters"


A Forbidden Land of Spiritual Barrenness:

There are some parallels between Alfred Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Lotosland offers not abundant life but spiritual death; it is no Garden of the Hesperides but a magnificently ironic variation upon a wasteland.  In both poems the past has become a bucket of ashes, a heap of broken images; fragmented and dimly remembered; it also is incapable of giving a sustenance which is not wanted anyway: ‘Let what is broken so remain.’..Lotosland has yellow down and sleeping poppies, thick twined vine and weeping long- leaved flowers, not Eliot’s dull roots, city streets and endless plains, but it is, as surely as Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’, a spiritual desert.

Pettigrew has pointed out: ‘In both the poems enervation and desiccation of spirit is refracted through symbolic landscape: The waters of the ‘hateful sea’ of troubles and life are as resented as the spring rains; of The Waste Land stirring memory and desire.’

Hedonistic Philosophy of the Sailors:

 The mariners’ yearning for a life of ease and inactivity an echo of the every man's own yearning for such a life; Again, their final decision to settle in the Lotosland like the gods ‘careless of mankind’ and their conclusion that ‘slumber is more sweet than toil’ are shown to represent the poet’s own attitude to life. We, however, do not believe that Tennyson, a faithful representative of the thoughts and morals of the Victorian age. Supported the hedonistic philosophy of the sailors or agreed with their policy of reclining with half-shut eyes and ‘to dream and dream’ forever. Arthur Carr has finely explained below why Tennyson’s sympathy could go far to the escapist contemplations of the mariners Exactly because it (i. e., the poem) is managed as an episode in the return of Ulysses to the responsibilities of Ithaca, Tennyson could follow very far the impulses to ‘slothful ease’ and vague erotic happiness. Yet in escaping so far, upon that island, the frustrations of conscience and the censures of the gods (who do not care), the poet risks the denial of transcendental reality, which was supported in Tennyson’s experience by subjective revelations that lay deeper than fantasies of dream and vision. Because the poem is an episode of the wider legendry Tennyson does not have to make amends, the argument for responsibility was implied in the outer reaches of the story.

Productive Ambiguity:

Those who wish to be acquainted with Tennyson’s attitude to life should read his Ulysses where it is represented in a clear and unambiguous manner. But it is not impossible to find a few traces of it even in this poem. As Ebbatson reminds us, ‘the morality is cunningly embedded in the text. There is here a degree of productive ambiguity for the readerly mind to tease away at’. There are lines in the poem where the viewpoint of the poet is implied. For example, in stanza II we have the line: ‘Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?’ If taken in its face value there is sound logic in the sailors’ argument that since much lower things of nature enjoy rest, they, the highest and noblest of all creatures, have every right arid claim to it, and hard work on their part is therefore unnecessary and unwanted. But if taken in its deeper sense the above line may be interpreted in a different way—a way that agrees with the usual viewpoint of the poet. We may think that since men are ‘the first of things’ they must act in a way that will justify this claim. This can be done not by taking rest like all other things of nature as it will merely ruin away their energy and spirit but by action and achievement, by travel and exploration, by doing duties and responsibilities. In stanza VI, again, the sailors become aware of their responsibility towards their wives and homes and of their duty towards their homeland.

Moral of the Poem:

Despite their eating of the lotos they are Conscious that ‘there-is confusion’ in their homeland. This awareness automatically kindles up their sense of responsibility and they have to invent excuse after excuse to lull their conscience. To be aware of one’s duty and responsibility and to discharge them without any pretext are two separate things. The poet was with the sailors so long they were conscious of their moral sense but obviously withdrew his support when they surrendered themselves to lethargy and inactivity pronouncing the words: ‘Let what I broken so remain.’ Finally, in stanza VIII Tennyson’s viewpoint as well as the moral of the poem is subtly implied when the mariners resolve at last
‘in the hollow Lotós-land to live and lie reclined
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind’:
Let us initially clarify that the expression ‘careless of mankind’ is applicable as much to the gods as to the sailors themselves... Such being the case, this announcement clearly shows the sarlors’ selfishness and callousness, their hardheartedness and love for evil’ or peace ‘in ever climbing up the climbing wave’ and that surely now their ‘household hearths are cold’. Such being the case they wish to lend their ‘hearts and spirits wholly to the influence of the mild-minded melancholy’ and crave: ‘Give us long rest or death, dark death or dreamful ease’. To their melancholy selves even ‘dark death’ is preferable to active life since it can bring them at least eternal sleep or rest.

Human Life and the God:

In stanza VIII of the poem Tennyson has introduced a picture of the gods who are ‘careless of mankind’. This picture largely follows that described in Lucretius’s famous book Nature of Things. The Roman poet said: ‘The course of the world can be explained without resorting to divine ‘interference. The gods are only a superior kind of creation who have nothing to do with human affairs; human weal and woe do not proceed from the will of the gods nor can they be modified by their will. In his depiction of the gods Tennyson more or less followed in the footsteps of Lucretius. The heartless gods ‘smile’ and ‘find’ 'music centred in a doleful song’ made up of human misery. One thing comes out clearly from such a picture of the Gods. If they are so selfish and remain so unconcerned, it makes human life and exertion doubly meaningless. It is to be noted again that the picture of the gods is pagan (and not Christian) and is in keeping with the sentiments of the Greeks.

Concluding Remarks:

The sailors are terribly weary. Even the call of the homeland cannot prepare them to set sail for home. They cry: ‘All things have rest; why should we toll alone?’ They argue: ‘is there any peace / In ever climbing up the climbing wave?’ They finally crave. ‘Give us long rest or death, dark death or dreamful ease.’ Now the weariness of the sailors and their longing for rest has led certain critics to find a topical allusion in them. They are of the view that exhaustion of the sailors represents a reaction against the rampant commercialism of the Victorian era. Roger Ebbatson, echoing the same, remarks:
The island is envisaged as a place outside the reach of European merchant capital, and the attitude into which the mariners fall is plainly antithetical to the Silesian doctrine of self-help which had fuelled the industrial revolution.

Critics like Sinfield have found in The Lotos-Eaters the poet’s preoccupation with an issue whether art has any place in a society dominated by the doctrine of utilitarianism. Roger Ebbatson explains the point finely in the following lines:
If we follow Alan Sinfield’s suggestion, The Lotos-Eaters can also be read as a meditation upon the marginality of poetry itself within the utilitarian hegemony or materialistic dominance of the period.


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