Lo! in the middle of the wood,
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
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
The flower ripens in its place,
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.
The poet describes how each thing grows and matures, then fades and dies; the bud becomes the leaf, it grows broad and green, then yellows and falls. So too the apple, which matures, then ages and drops from the tree. The flowers do the same — they mature (“ripen”), then fade and fall. All of these things pass through their course of life without effort or labor:
Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
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?
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?
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.
Using verse III as its base, the choric song now brings in humans. The singers think of the “hateful” blue sky arching (“vaulted”) over the sea like a roof, and they consider that life is all toil, all work. The plants grow and mature and die without work, so why should men not do the same? Life is short, and in a little while humans die and speak no more — their lips are dumb (“mute, silent”). Everything humans have is taken from them — beauty, youth, friends, family, possessions — and all become parts of the “dreadful” past. “Portions and Parcels of the dreadful Past” (alliteration in the repeated use of “P” in that great line). Note how the things of normal life have become hated and dreadful.
Why, the sailors ask, should they continue to sail on the sea (“climbing up the climbing wave”)? There is no peace or rest in that, nor is there pleasure in constantly fighting against evil. “All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave in silence,” they sing, and they want to be a part of that lack of strife and effort, so they ask, “Give us long rest or death, dark death, and dreamful ease.” They have fallen fully under the sleepy enchantment of the lotos.
How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream!
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
To hear each other’s whisper’d speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
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,
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!
The preceding verse is a description of someone in a drug-induced stupor. It reminds me of those old pictures of people lying on beds puffing on opium pipes in an opium den. The sailors want to live in this kind of semi-trance, half dreaming, half awake, partly aware of the sights and sounds about them while also aware of the inner images that arise in the mind of faces they had known long ago, faces now buried as dust in an urn beneath a grassy mound in some distant place.
Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
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
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?
Let what is broken so remain.
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,
Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.
The sailors think what returning home would be like. The fires on their hearths have long grown cold. They have been gone from home so long that their sons will have grown, and will be living their own lives. Life will have continued without the sailors for years, so why should they return, like strange ghosts, to trouble the lives of people who will hardly remember them? Or perhaps the princes of their homeland have taken what they left behind (“eaten their substance”), and remember them only as actors in a war long past. Have things gone wrong in their home in their absence? Well, they think, if so, let it be so. Why bother to try to mend what is broken? The quarrels of the gods reflected in the affairs of men are difficult to lay to rest, so why even try? There is only confusion and trouble and toil until one grows old and one’s eyes are worn out from gazing at the “pilot-stars” — the stars by which one sets and guides the course of a ship.
But, propped on beds of amaranth and moly,
How sweet—while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly—
With half-dropped eyelids still,
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—
To watch the emerald-color’d water falling
Thro’ many a woven acanthus-wreath divine!
Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,
Only to hear were sweet, stretch’d out beneath the pine.
The sailors, again, just want to give up on their former lives, want only to drowse with eyes half-closed on “beds of amaranth and moly,” to gaze half-awake at the waters, to listen to echoing, distant sounds, to hear the soft beating of the distant surf on the shore as they recline in a half-dream.
The Lotos blooms below the barren peak,
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,
Roll’d to starboard, roll’d to larboard, when the surge was seething free,
Where the wallowing monster 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.
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,
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 cleave the soil,
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.
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.
In this last portion, the sailors are given over completely to the enchantment of the Lotos-Land. The lotos blooms everywhere on the island; its yellow, soporific dust — pollen — blows about all over the island, and the whole place is lost in dreams. The sailors think of themselves as like the gods in Olympus who look down on the distant toils and troubles of the world from their comfortable, immortal heights; they watch from their far-off heights the humans who labor, suffer, age and die and then go to Hades or to the Elysian Fields, and all of it is to the gods like a distant dream. That is how the sailors feel themselves now to be — removed from it all, like the gods. Slumber, they declare, is more sweet than toil, so they will abandon themselves forever to the indolence of the Lotos-Land, will abandon their voyaging — which means abandoning real life — forever: “O rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more!”
The poem is filled with effective images and studded with fine and memorable lines, in spite of its length. If we summarize it, we might say that it is an expression of human weariness with the work and sorrow and the troubles of life, and of the urge to escape all of these things inherent in life — not by trying to resolve them or grow beyond them, but by running away from them into a land of drug trance and dreams. It is only those not under the influence of the drug who can see what is really happening to the sailors, how they have completely given up on life and reality and have committed a kind of spiritual suicide, wanting only to drowse on and on, eating more and more of the lotos in that land where time seems to have slowed to a near stop. One could hardly find a better “inside view” of drug addiction seen from the addict’s distorted point of view. But we may also view the poem simply as a pleasant, sleepy escapism, as long as we come back to the real world and do not linger too long in Tennyson’s Lotos-Land.
There is, of course, much more to say about this lengthy poem, and I have hardly done it justice here. But I hope this will be helpful to some as an overall description, or perhaps as a relaxant before an evening’s sleep.