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.
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…
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.