Study Guide

The Lotos-Eaters Themes

By Alfred Lord Tennyson

  • Man and the Natural World

    "The Lotus-eaters" is all about a place. Sure, it deals with feelings and legends and wacky plants, but it spends a lot of time just describing the enchanted land of the Lotos-eaters. We hear all about the valleys and streams and waterfalls, as well as the calm, dreamy, tropical mood of the place, setting the stage for the song of the sailors. We don't really meet any individual characters in this poem, so in a way, the place itself becomes a kind of character. And Lotus land is one strange character…

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Does the land of the Lotos-eaters sound like somewhere you'd want to go? Are there particular descriptions of the landscape that sound really tempting? If so, what?
    2. Does the natural world seem like a character in this poem? If so, is it good or evil, a hero or a villain? How can you tell?
    3. What is it about the landscape the appeals to the sailors? What parts of the poems support your ideas?
    4. Why do you think we get so many specific (sometimes even repetitive) details about the land of the Lotos-eaters? What do all those details do for the poem?

    Chew on This

    The repetition of basic details about the natural world helps to lull the reader into a kind of trance, giving us a feel for the strange and magical place the sailors have wandered into. We're… getting… sleepy…

    The apparent beauty of nature in this poem just covers up a seething evil. The natural world of this poem is set up to entrap and destroy the men who come into contact with it. Now who's relaxed?

  • Time

    Time is really screwy in "The Lotus-Eaters." The land of the Lotos-eaters seems to be stuck in some kind of endless afternoon, and the speakers of the poem are obsessed with eternity, death, and endless sleep. It sounds like a hoot. Over the course of the poem, we lose track of when and where we are. Tennyson takes us out of the everyday world of appointments and schedules and minutes and hours. He immerses us in a place where reality is subtly altered, and the strangeness of time is one of the big clues to that difference.

    Questions About Time

    1. Do you get the feeling that time really works differently in this poem, or have the sailors just been tricked into thinking that it does?
    2. How does the sense of time's flow change between the intro and the sailors' song? 
    3. Why is eternity such an important concept in "The Lotos-Eaters"? Why do you think the sailors keep bringing up endless time?
    4. Do the sailors seem more excited or scared about eternity? Are they looking forward to endless sleep? What parts of the poem support your answer?

    Chew on This

    Time, in this poem, represents all of the misery and torment of being human. The sailors imagine that if they can get rid of time, they will be free from the pain of existence. Um, good luck with that.

    The sleepy feeling that the Lotos plant gives the soldiers is a little taste of heaven, a hint of eternal happiness outside of time. Hooray?

  • Versions of Reality

    The world looks different to each one of us. That might seem obvious, but it's a pretty big deal for literature. If we all have our own private reality, one of the ways we can talk about that reality is to write about it. In "The Lotus-Eaters," the sailors spend a long time telling us about their particular version of reality. And boy, is it out there. It's no surprise, really. That reality was created, at least in part, by the drug they've taken, the Lotos, which changes the way you feel, the way you see the world. So, in a way, this poem is a long description of the new, slightly twisted reality that the Lotos produces.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. How much does the sailor's dissatisfaction with their previous reality (toil, war, etc.) color their impressions of their current reality in Lotus land? What parts of the poem give you your ideas?
    2. Does the opening and the "Choric Song" of the poem feel like two different realities to you? Why or why not?
    3. Why do you think we don't learn more about the natives' version of reality?

    Chew on This

    The separation between the neutral narration of the opening stanzas and the lazy sailors' "Choric Song" helps to emphasize how strange the sailors' perspective on the world has become. (Hint: it's way strange.)

    The idea of the enchanted Lotos gives Tennyson a chance to show his readers that reality is a flexible, even imaginary idea, totally dependent on the individual's perspective. Woah.

  • Death

    There's a lot of death imagery in "The Lotus-Eaters." Maybe it doesn't jump out at you at first, but as you comb back through, you notice that the sailors seem a little bit obsessed with death. Sometimes their sleepy, dreamy mood slips over into wanting to sleep forever, or in other words: D to the I to the E. At other times, the image of death comes from nature, from the endless cycle of birth, growth, and death. Whatever the reason for it, it seems like these guys are in kind of a bad place.

    Questions About Death

    1. In what ways might the Lotos-eaters (sailors included) be running away from death? 
    2. If Lotus land is like heaven to the sailors, do you blame them for wanting to die? What parts of the poem support your answer?
    3. Is death a violent and scary force in this poem, or something more relaxing and peaceful?

    Chew on This

    Eating the Lotos plant allows the sailors to think about death in a new way—not as something scary, but as an inevitable, calm, even comfortable part of life. Far out.

    While the sleepy mood of the sailors seems peaceful, or maybe even kind of goofy-funny, the constant talk about death reveals that there is something much more sinister going on underneath. (Cue the spooky music…)

  • The Home

    "The Lotus-Eaters" takes place in a strange and exotic spot, but there's also a lot of talk about home. The big problem in this poem is that the sailors don't want to sail anymore, and they would have to sail (or maybe just row) in order to get back to their wives and kids. So they make up excuses and tell themselves it isn't really worth going home after all. (Fathers of the year, they ain't.) In that way, this poem kind of flips the standard idea of homesick travelers on its head. These are travelers who don't want to go home. Still, given how much they talk about it, you can still tell that the idea of home has a pretty strong influence on their thinking (even if they're thinking under the influence of the Lotos).

    Questions About The Home

    1. Does the idea of home seem like a positive thing in this poem, or does it seem sort of faraway and sad? How can you tell?
    2. Are any of the sailors' excuses for not going home convincing to you? If so, which?
    3. How do memory and home relate to each other in this poem?
    4. If the soldiers are so into Lotus land, why do they even bring up the idea of home at all?

    Chew on This

    The vision of home in "The Lotos-Eaters" is both sweet and terrifying, heartwarming and haunting (like a three-year-old dressed as Freddy Kruger). This combination of feelings reflects the contradictory emotions of the sailors, who seem to be both relaxed and scared.

    The sailors twist their vision of home and turn it into an imaginary, lost place in order to give themselves an excuse to not to lift a pinky finger to go back.