DROWSING IN LOTOS-LAND: TENNYSON’S THE LOTOS-EATERS

The poem discussed today is by the British poet Alfred Tennyson.  It is based upon a short incident in the ancient Greek Odyssey by Homer, which tells of the years-long attempt of Odysseus and his sailors to return to their island home of Ithaca.  Here is the incident upon which the poem is based:

I was driven from there by foul winds for a length of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotos-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take on fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk, I sent two of my crew to see what kind of men the people of that place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotos-eaters, who did them no harm, but gave them the lotos to eat, which was so delicious that those who ate of it stopped caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and chewing lotus with the Lotos-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly, I forced them back to the ships and tied them firmly under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotos and stop wanting to get home, so they took their places and struck the grey sea with their oars.”

I will discuss Tennyson’s poem on this subject — The Lotos-Eaters– part by part.  It is a longer poem than usual, but perhaps a good antidote to those among us brought up on the quick edits of television that create a ceaseless, jittery leap from one image to another.  If we give it our attention — which we must to appreciate and understand it — it will cause us to slow down, and will lull us into a not-unpleasant state of drowsiness.  The key to understanding The Lotos-Eaters is to realize that it is a kind of enchantment of words and phrases that weave a sleepy spell.  It would make an excellent bedtime poem because of this relaxing effect.

It begins when the sailors come upon the Lotos-Land:

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


Odysseus, on board ship with his crew, tells them to have courage; he points out that they are near land, which is visible in the distance.  He tells them that a rising wave will soon carry the ship toward that shore.

It is afternoon as they reach the beach of that land, a place where, strangely, it always seems to be afternoon.  All around the shore on which the waves beat, the languid (relaxed, at ease, without energy) air swoons (seems as though falling into a state of relaxation like that of fainting), and the soft air is very gentle and slow, breathing like a person in a weary dream.  Above the valley that extends inland from the shore, the moon is full in the sky even though it is day.   A stream falls from a cliff in the distance,  but in a most unusual way; it seems like a slender wisp of smoke that wafts slowly downward, hesitates, then continues its descent.  We can see that already we are under the spell of the place, because even the fall of water happens in a drowsy slow motion.  This is not the ordinary world.

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

The Lotos-Land is a land of streams.  Some of them fall, as we have seen, like drowsy smoke, like slowly-dropping veils made of the thinnest “lawn,” a kind of gauzy, semi-transparent white cloth.  Some streams are seen through wavering lights and shadows in the distance, creating a sleep-slow foam as they flow downward.  A river winds languidly from inland toward the sea.  Far off are three mountain peaks covered with snow that has been there a long, long time (note how Tennyson constantly emphasizes slowness, drowsiness, a sense of time moving barely if at all).  The late afternoon sun turns the snow reddish, like a “flush” or blush on a person’s face.  The shadowy pines (one pine stands for many here) rise up (“up-clomb”) here and there from the intertwined (“woven”) branches of the copse (a thicket of small trees and shrubs); drops of moisture as though from a shower are on the boughs of these high pines that rise above the lower foliage.

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

Notice that Tennyson repeats the feeling that it is always afternoon here.  The sun seems always to be in that late, sleepy time of day, as though enchanted (charmed), under a magic spell.  The western sky, like the snowy peaks on which it reflects, is red.  Through gaps (clefts) in the mountains of the island, we can see farther inland to a valley (dale), and we see a yellow down (smooth, higher meadow-like slope) bordered with palm trees; and we see other winding valleys and meadows where grows (“set with”) a  sedge-like plant with aromatic roots that is called galingale.  Tennyson probably had in mind the kind of galingale he had seen in Spain, which is Cyperus esculentus.

This is, he reiterates, a land where nothing seems to change, — where time does not exist — at least not in the ordinary way.  And then Tennyson has Odysseus look downward to see people approaching the keel — the  base of his ship.  Their faces are dark against the rosy flame of the western late afternoon sky, and they appear mild-eyed and gentle, yet he feels a melancholy in them.  His description of them is likely to call drug addicts to mind:

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

The inhabitants of Lotos-Land carry branches of the lotos — “that enchanted stem,” branches loaded with flowers and fruit, and they give some to each sailor.  But a very strange thing happens:  whoever eats the lotos is quickly affected.  The sound of the ocean waves suddenly seems very far-off and muted, as though it were breaking on some other shore of some other land.  Note how in that distance, the waves seem to “mourn and rave,” unhappy and troubled in the ears of the hearer; we feel already in that an aversion to sailing upon them.  And the voices of the other sailors seem very thin and without strength, like a voice of a ghost (“from the grave.”).  Whoever eats the lotos falls into a kind of waking sleep; even the beating of the heart changes into a kind of soft, strange music in their ears.

This is very important to understanding the poem.  The Lotos-Land is a land where time as we know it does not exist, and the lotos itself is a plant that induces a kind of trance condition, a dream-like state very much like that, we may suppose, of an opium addict.  And that is why the Lotos-eaters seem melancholy to Odysseus; they are caught by the drug.

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
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.” 

The sailors, having eaten of the lotos, sit down on the sand of the shore, with both the sun and moon in the sky above them.  And even though their dreams of returning to their homeland and children and wives had seemed sweet to them, now they are under the spell of the Lotus-Land; they have growing ever greater in them the conviction that it is tiresome to be sailing on the restless sea, tiresome to be pulling on the oars of the ship, and this growing feeling makes the endless, empty waters on which they must sail to reach home seem wearisome and travel on it pointless.   At last one of the sailors speaks what is in all their minds:  “We will return no more.”  And enchanted all together by the Lotus-Land and its fruits, they break into a remarkable chorus of sleepy song, the first words of which are,

“Our island home
Is far beyond the wave;
We will no longer roam.”

And now that we and the sailors have been lulled into this drowsy, dream-state that is neither sleep nor waking, the sailors take up their choric song, their chorus, and this is the most affecting part of the whole poem, and it is full of meaning:

CHORIC SONG

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,
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, 
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

This island, like the island of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is an enchanted place with strange music.  Perhaps Tennyson was thinking of Caliban’s speech:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

In Lotos-Land there is a strange, sweet music that is softer than rose petals falling from mature rose flowers (“blown roses”) onto grass — softer than night dew on still water pools lying in mountain passes of dark granite stone, passes through which light gleams.  Music that is gentler on the human spirit than the welcome weight of eyelids on tired eyes.  It is faint music that seems to be everywhere, that seems to bring down pleasant sleep from the bliss-filled skies.

The lines I repeat now, with their continuous sameness of end-rhyme, only increase the sense of drowsiness and sleep by mentioning the poppy — which puts us in mind of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum – literally “the poppy that carries sleep”:

Here are cool mosses deep,
And through the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
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,
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,
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?

That gives us the sleepy reasoning behind the determination of the sailors to cease their wanderings and drowse in the slumbrous scents and music and air of the Lotus-Land.  They ask why they should feel the heaviness of life’s troubles, why they should be always distressed, why they, who are humans, the foremost among created things, should not be able to rest, when around them all other things rest.  Why should they again take up their toilsome sea journey, thrown from one trouble to another, never being able, like birds, to “fold their wings” and rest, nor to go deeply into peaceful sleep.  They listen to what their inner spirit is telling them — enhanced, of course by the effects of the Lotos-Land and its lotos fruit — that the greatest joy is not in labor and strife, but in calm and quiet and and an end of striving.  Why should they, the highest (“roof”) of created beings, the “crown” of creation, be the only ones to toil?

Already we see that the lotus has distorted their thinking.  They are not the only beings that toil, but surrounded by the drug-like pleasantness of the Lotus-Land, they begin to think they are, and they are tired of laboring, tired of the troubles of life.  They  begin to sink into the drowsy,  worryless peace that surrounds them.

And today we shall leave them there, because this is a long poem, and I do not want to weary you with too much explanation at one time.  I will continue the rest another day.

What we can see from what has been covered so far is that Tennyson was not at all an “impressionistic” poet like the later Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Instead, he was a consummate craftsmen of words and memorable phrases.  Where the impressionists used words and sounds like dabs of color to evoke impressions, Tennyson reminds me of a sculptor carefully carving a bas-relief — everything clear and sharp.

I should add, before we finish today, that we should not confuse the “lotos” of the poem with the lotus flower that grows out of water.  But what, then, was it?  To answer that, we would have to know precisely what Homer meant by the term, and we do not.  There are several possible “real” candidates, but none of them do what Homer says the plant did to the sailors.  I think it best to consider the lotos a mythical plant, though it may have been a real plant given mythical attributes.  Certainly Tennyson’s description of its effects must have been heavily influenced by the prevalence of opium used as a drug in his time, both medically to induce sleep and for its ultimately very dangerous and harmful use as a “recreational” drug.  We can keep in mind that morphine, an alkaloid derived from opium, derives its name from Morfeos, the Greek god of dreams.

David


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