Study Guide

The Lotos-Eaters Analysis

By Alfred Lord Tennyson

  • Sound Check

    There's a mood that runs through the whole poem, and a particular sound that we hear over and over. It's a kind of gentle, rhythmic, drowsy sound, like a calm wind breathing through the poem. Actually, maybe Tennyson says it best: "All round the coast the languid air did swoon, / Breathing like one that hath a weary dream." (5-6). He really follows through on this idea on a sonic level, too, keeping up a gentle, quiet sound that almost puts us in a trance. Listen to a line like this: "Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below" (13). Can you hear the repeated long O sound in "Rolling," "foam," and "below"? That's assonance for you. And how about the soft, slithery, sleepy S sounds of the "slumberous sheet"? Say hello to our little friend alliteration. So what's the effect of these sound techniques? Well, we get a line that's super-relaxing and kind of hypnotic.

    This is just one line of many in which Tennyson uses sound to mimic or highlight the content of the poem itself. Even if it's not all beach hammocks and chillaxing under a palm tree, the poem's use of sound follows the action of the content. Just check out the consonance of the repeated R, L, and D sounds here: "Roll'd to starboard, roll'd to larboard, when the surge was seething free" (151). The sounds here bump into each other like so many sailors tossed about in a storm. Just as he paints a picture through narrative and description, Tennyson is making those images pop in our minds with a ton of clever sound accentuation here. The dude is like a verbal Bob Ross.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of this poem gives us a hint about the main subject of this poem—the Lotos-eaters. But who exactly are those Lotos-eaters? Well, it could refer to the sailors, who arrive on the island and make the mistake of chomping on some Lotos. Or Tennyson might be talking about the people who the sailors meet, those mysterious "dark," "pale" natives who give them the Lotos in the first place. In a way, as the sailors transform in the poem after munching the Lotos, the title can be understood as describing both the natives and the sailors.

    The title also tips us off to the poem's connection to an even more famous piece of literature—Homer's Odyssey. This whole poem was inspired by an episode in Book 9 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus and his crew, trying to get home to Ithaca, wind up in the land of the Lotos-eaters instead. Using a title to allude to another work is actually a pretty common literary trick. It's a pretty easy way to class things up a little, to latch onto the prestige of the famous literature that came before you.

    So actually, this title does a lot. It tips us off about the plot of the poem, describes all the main characters, and lets us know something about where it's coming from. That's a lot of work for one title to take one. We wonder if it might want a nap…

  • Setting

    Over the 13 stanzas of this poem, we learn a lot about the setting. The opening narrator and the sailors both talk a lot about the land of the Lotos-eaters—how it looks and sounds and feels and smells. We get a pretty good sense of the geography, for starters. It's a "land of streams" (10), full of rivers and creeks and waterfalls. The sailors arrive on the shore, but they never make it past the "yellow sand" (37). However, "far inland" (20) they can see valleys and meadows and "three mountain-tops" (15).

    We also hear a lot about the plants that grow here. Some of them are familiar, like moss and ivy and pine trees. Others are way more exotic, like the "slender galingale" (23), and that helps to set the tropical mood for this poem. There even seems to be some kind of music playing. It's a little hard to tell whether that's really happening, or if it's a metaphor, or a hallucination. That's the thing about this setting. It's realistic in some ways, but it also shades off into fantasy and imagination and dreams. We seem to be in a physical place, but we're also in the minds of the sailors, and as we know, they're not quite in their right minds themselves…

  • Speaker

    This poem actually has a bunch of speakers. Maybe the best way to sort them out is to divide the poem into its two major parts. Ready? Okay, then…

    Speaker 1

    The first part is a kind of introduction—five stanzas that set the scene, and tell us where we are and who we're dealing with. The speaker for this first part is an anonymous, third-person narrator type. We don't learn much about who he is, or what his perspective on this whole crazy business is. At the same time, because of what comes after, his lack of personality really stands out. In a way, his calm, objective look at things makes the Lotos-eating sailors seem even loopier.

    Speakers 2-???

    After the first five stanzas, the sailors take over. They are the speakers for the rest of the poem, as they sing their "Choric Song." We don't hear much about how many of them there are, or how old they are, or what they look like, but they do tell us a bunch about their feelings and desires. We hear all about how tired they are, about how they don't want to go back to the hard work, the rowing and the struggling of their life on the sea. We even get to hear a little about their past. They fought in the war in Troy, they've been travelling ever since, and they have wives, children, even slaves waiting for them back in Ithaca, their home island. 

    We think having all these speakers makes "The Lotos-Eaters" feel more like a play than a poem. In fact, the fact that Tennyson talks about a "Choric Song" is probably an allusion to ancient Greek theater, where a group of actors (the chorus) would have explained the moral of the play.

    This poem, at the end of the day, is a study in contrasts, and the speaker situation is no exception. We have both a calm, collected, and mildly-detached narrative speaker, as well as a more forthcoming (if totally blissed out) collective speaker. Each represents a different perspective of reality, and it's up to the reader to determine who's sane and who's gone totally round the bend.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    It might take a minute to figure out where you are when you start this poem, but once you're over that first hump, this should be a fun and easy climb.

  • Calling Card

    Rhythmic, Traditional Poetry… With a Twisted Edge

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a major public figure, a huge success, and a favorite of Queen Victoria. So, it's probably not surprising that his poems aren't too far "out there." His rhyme and meter tends to be fairly traditional, and his subjects (like in this case) are often pulled from history or literature. (For another example of that trend, see his beautiful poem about the days of King Arthur, "The Lady of Shalott.")

    He also had a millionth-degree black belt in sound and rhythm, and his ability to manipulate and craft the sounds of words stands out across his poetry. His poem "Break, Break, Break," for example, uses sonic effects in a way that reminds us a lot of "The Lotos-Eaters."

    At the same time, for all the beauty and tradition, there's something a little dark running through these poems too. Maybe it has to do with his famously awful childhood, but in poems like this one and "The Charge of the Light Brigade," you see a lot of the sad and horrifying side of life, all mixed in among the lovely images and happy sounds.

  • Form and Meter

    Iambic Meter and Regular Rhyme (Well, Kinda…)

    Tony Stanzas

    This is a pretty long poem, so maybe it makes sense to start out by looking at how it's broken up. Are you with us? Good. There are two major sections of this poem. The first part is narrated by an unnamed speaker. It's made up of five sections (or stanzas) that are each nine lines long.

    After that, the rest of the poem is taken up by the song the sailors sing (which Tennyson calls the "Choric Song"). There are eight stanzas in the Choric Song (some handy Roman numerals are included to help you keep count). Unlike in the opening section, these stanzas are all different lengths, and they generally get longer as the poem goes on. The first stanza of the song is 11 lines long, and the last one is 29.

    The change in the form of stanzas helps to drive home the difference between the narrating speaker and the sailors. The narrator of the first stanzas seems calm, cool, collected, and, well, totally sober. The sailors… eh, maybe not so much. So it makes sense that the stanzas where they speak are a little more irregular, a little looser in their length and structure.

    Bust a Rhyme

    Now let's tackle the rhyme. Again, there's a big difference between the regular, tidy opening stanzas and the looser, more free-form Choric Song.

    Each of the first five stanzas of the opening has the same rhyme pattern. Here's an example:

    Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
    A
    Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave B
    To each, but whoso did receive of them, A
    And taste, to him the gushing of the wave B
    Far far away did seem to mourn and rave B
    On alien shores; and if his fellow spake, C
    His voice was thin, as voices from the grave; B
    And deep-asleep he seem'd, yet all awake, C
    And music in his ears his beating heart did make. C(28-36)

    See how that goes? If we wrote out all those capital letters the pattern of end rhymes (called the rhyme scheme) would look like this: ABABBCBCC.

    In the Choric Song, there's a ton of rhymes, but, well, they don't follow a steady pattern. Sometimes three lines in a row will rhyme (50-52), and sometimes there will be a line that doesn't rhyme with anything (71). We think Tennyson is using this kind of messy (but still pretty) rhyme pattern to give us a sense of the weird state of mind the sailors are in. They've entered a world that looks a lot bit like ours, just… you know, twisted a little bit. 

    So Tennyson gives us plenty of rhymes, but he also doesn't let us get too comfortable with them. By constantly switching the rhyme patterns, he always keeps us a little off balance.

    Feed the Meter

    The basic rhythm of this poem is iambic (that means that the syllables come in pairs, with the emphasis on the second syllable). Lines 16-17 are a good example of that rhythm:

    Three silent pinacles of aged snow,
    Stood sunset-flush'd: and, dew'd with showery drops,

    Hear that? It should sound like daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. That's the sound of five iambs hanging out together in a line of poetry. More commonly, this is known as iambic pentameter. In essence, this just means that a line has five iambs ("penta-" = five), but it's also probably the most popular meter in English poetry. (Can someone say Shakespeare?) For telling this classic tale, Tennyson chooses a very classic meter to hold his lines together.

    At least, he does so for the most part. Sometimes, though, Tennyson mixes it up a little and does the opposite of an iamb, opening a line with a trochee (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable: DUMda). In line 28, for example, the word "branches" is trochaic, but the rest of the line is in iambs. Here, we'll show you what that looks like with the syllables all split up and the stresses marked:

    Branches they bore of that enchanted stem, 

    See how that goes? You should hear DUMda, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM. You get the very same thing in the opening word of the first line: "Courage"—DUMda. These little tweaks keep the poem's meter from becoming boring and predictable, and they let Tennyson create different effects. In the line that begins with "Courage," he's pulling us right into the world of the poem—he wants to surprise us, to excite us, so it makes sense that he starts with a stressed syllable that, on a rhythmic level, grabs us by the collar and shouts "Heads up!"

    As with the rhyme, Tennyson wants us to feel pretty much at home in this world, but also to feel a little strangeness, a little edge that keeps us guessing. For that reason, he sets up regular patterns, and then abruptly alters them without warning. In doing so, he never quite lets us relax into that comfy iambic groove—the occasional trochaic curveball makes sure of that.

    So what do all these patterns and disruptions add up to? If you think about it, the form and meter of this poem do a great job of mimicking the content of the story itself. The regular patterns start to lull us into a dreamy comfort. We're almost in singsong-y mode when—blammo, random variations start to trouble our lullaby. Technically, then, the poem is suggesting that perhaps a nice, smooth descent into Lotus land is not the best course of action. There's something troubling about that blissful state, as this poem reminds us on many levels.

  • The Waves

    This poem is all about a group of guys who've been living on the water, rowing on a long journey. So they talk about water a lot, and especially about the ocean waves. In fact, the imagery, the sound, and the idea of waves runs all through this poem. Sometimes they seem beautiful and rhythmic, but a lot of times they represent the pain and hard work of life—basically everything that these tired sailors want to get away from.

    • Line 2: The first time we hear about a wave, it's in the exciting opening lines of the poem. A big wave is building that's finally going to push the tired sailors onto the beach. The description of a "mounting" wave is a nifty way to call up the image of a powerful, turbulent ocean. In general, the ocean seems like a scary and dangerous place in this poem.
    • Lines 31-2: In these lines, the "wave" isn't a single, literal wave. It's a more general reference to the ocean. The sound of that ocean sounds to the stoned sailors like someone who is either sad or crazy. When a poet gives human characteristics (like sadness) to a thing like the ocean, we call that personification.
    • Line 45: When the sailors say that their home is "beyond the wave," they are using the word wave to refer to the entire ocean. In other words, they are using a part of something to refer to the whole. The fancy name for that is synecdoche. (Store that up for your next Trivial Pursuit match.)
    • Line 151: In this case, the sailors use the word "surge" to refer to ocean waves. We love this line for the image it gives us of the raw power of the ocean. Plus there's some pretty great alliteration in there, too ("surge seething").
  • The Stream

    Early on, the narrating speaker tells us that this strange new place is a "[l]and of streams" (10). So, it's probably not that surprising that streams come up over and over again. The speakers in this poem seem kind of in awe of the landscape they are describing, and they take special care to give us a sense of the beauty of the streams in the land of the Lotos-eaters.

    • Line 8: In this line, the narrator compares the "slender stream" (alliteration alert!) to a "downward smoke." That kind of comparison, where you use the word "like" is called a simile. The phrase "downward smoke" is also an oxymoron, since smoke floats up, not down. It's just a little hint that things aren't quite how they should be in this new land.
    • Lines 10-13: This is a long description of the beautiful streams and waterfalls in the land of the Lotos-eaters. Tennyson uses similes to compare the stream to smoke or thin fabric ("lawn"). He also throws in some S word alliteration ("slumberous sheet").
    • Line 55: We circle back to the streams again here—they're clearly a really important part of this strange new landscape. In this case we hear a little more about the flowers that "weep" into the stream. That's another great example of personification, and it adds to the sense that everything in this place is filled with thoughts and feelings.
    • Lines 99-100: Here the sailors dream about lying around and listening to the stream all the time. Notice how Tennyson breaks that thought up over two lines? We call that little poetic trick enjambment.
  • The Lotos

    There are a ton of plants in the poem, but this is obviously the most important. After all, it's the thing that drives the entire plot. This plant—with its strange, almost magical effects—is a source of conflict, but also of all the odd, beautiful, and surprising things that the sailors have to say. It's dangerous, for sure, but also kind of tempting, and it's that contradiction that makes this poem exciting and interesting.

    • Lines 28-29: This is the first description of the Lotos itself. And actually we don't hear that much about it. What we do hear is tantalizing, though, including the magical, mysterious reference to it being "enchanted." Notice how Tennyson amps up that magical feeling with alliteration: "branches they bore" and "flowers and fruit." 
    • Line 105: The little repetition in this line is subtle, but also important. By repeating the word "day" the sailors hint at the endless, unchanging future they are dreaming about. They are sick of excitement, and the Lotos is a gateway to a world that never changes.
    • Lines 145-146: Okay, humor us here: just say these lines out loud a couple of times. Can you hear how rich and beautiful the sounds are? Tennyson is the king of this stuff. The Lotos is magical, so he describes it with magical sounding words that float and dance off your tongue. That effect comes partly from alliteration (listen to all the B sounds in these lines). It also comes from assonance, the repetition of the O sounds in "bloom," "below," and "blow."
  • Flowers

    The land of the Lotos-eaters is a lush, tropical kind of spot, and we hear a lot about the kinds of plants that grow there. That's partly just a way of setting the mood. At the same time, a lot of these flowers are also symbols for much bigger ideas, like time and eternity. Yup, we get all that pontificating in a bunch of little flowers!

    • Line 47: Here the falling of a rose petal is used as a metaphor for quiet, gentle music. This music is so quiet and calm that it's like a petal hitting the ground. It sounds like they might need to turn it up a little, actually.
    • Line 56: The connection between poppies and sleep is ancient. As you might know, the drug opium comes from the juice of the poppy, and it's been used as medicine for thousands of years. One of the things the drug does is make you very sleepy. So the poppy has become a symbol of sleep, and Tennyson picks up on that association in this line.
    • Lines 81-83: Here the life-cycle of a flower is used as a fancy metaphor for the kind of life the sailors would like to live. They want to be like plants—rooted in one spot, growing, blooming, and then dying with no pain or fuss. It sounds a little boring to us, but hey—different strokes for different drug-addled, hypnotized folks, right?
  • Eyes

    If you were to pick an all-star line-up of poetic images, eyes would be right at the top of the list. We can't think of much of anything that poets like to talk about more. There's all that stuff about how they're a window to the soul, and they come up a bunch in love poems, too. Here, though, they're associated a lot with sleep, with tiredness, and with death. Yipe.

    • Line 51: The repetition in this line is key to its effect. The sailors are in a kind of drowsy trance, and we think that repeating the words "tir'd" and "eye" (or "eyelids") helps the reader to feel that same sleepy, hypnotized feeling. It's also worth pointing out that these tired eyes are the second half of a metaphor, used as a comparison, to describe the gentle music that the sailors are hearing
    • Line 100: We think the image of "half-shut eyes" is the perfect way to describe what these sailors want to feel. They don't want to be completely asleep, nor completely awake. They just want to drift and drowse, the way you do in those moments before you fall asleep.
    • Line 132: Here the "dim" eyes of the sailors are used as an image to drive home how hard their normal lives are. They spend so much time peering at the stars and trying to navigate that their eyes are all worn out. Bad times, indeed.
  • Steaminess Rating

    G

    No sex at all in this poem. There's lots of lying around under the trees on tropical beaches, but everyone seems too sleepy to have any kind of sex at all.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References:

    • The Odyssey (whole poem): As far as source material goes, it's pretty tough to get much older, more famous, or more important than Homer's Odyssey. This epic poem, written more than 2000 years ago, has had a major impact on Western literature. In "The Lotos-Eaters" Tennyson is riffing on a particular moment in Book 9 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus and his men get blown off course and find themselves in the land of the Lotos-eaters. Several of the guys fall under the spell of the place, and refuse to leave. Finally, Odysseus has to tie them up and drag them back to the ship in order to get things moving again.
    • The Trojan War (whole poem): Odysseus' famous voyage takes place on the way home from the Trojan war, so it makes sense that the war comes up in this poem, too. You can read up on the legend of that big ruckus here. Basically, like a lot of episodes in Greek mythology, it started with a fight between the gods that whipped up the mortals, too. Whether or not it was an actual historical event is still up for debate, but it certainly gave us some great stories.