Passing Time and Poetic Technique in Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters”
In the opening line of Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” Odysseus issues the rallying call of “Courage!” to his men as they head forward in their trajectory towards a strange and unnamed “land.” For these weary wanderers, this place is clearly another inevitable detour and not their ultimate destination of home; even so, its exact nature and significance remain ambiguous throughout the first three stanzas. Deploying various poetic techniques, Tennyson skillfully depicts the land as one that not only presents images of otherworldly beauty to the viewer but also holds inherent danger to the undiscerning visitor. Through the use of inventive diction and variations in rhyme scheme and prosody, Tennyson’s scenic descriptions work twofold: he unveils the true identity of the land by paralleling and mimicking its interesting effects and qualities in the poetic language itself. Ultimately, it is the poet and not the hero who first unravels the mystery of the land of the titular lotos-eaters, revealing it not as the sublimely serene sanctuary it might initially appear to be, but as a diversive trap that threatens to stall Odysseus and his crew forever in the amnesia and melancholia of unmoving time.
The opening descriptor of the land immediately draws attention to its oddness and sense of detachment from reality: “In the afternoon they came unto a land/ In which it seemed always afternoon.” This enjambed line reinforces the same quality of constancy and recurrence with which it endows the land, as each of the two lines begins with the same word “In” and reiterates the same keyword “afternoon.” With this repetitive diction, there is a shift in the poem from the forceful drive and direct linearity of the opening two lines, “toward” and “shoreward” to a certain defined point (emphasized by the anapestic foot in the first line, whose last stressed syllable reveals a forward thrust); instead, the reader is lulled into a sort of cyclical loop.
It is at this moment in the first stanza that the movement of the lines becomes slower and less teleological, a change reflected by the substitution of words of action like “mounting” and “pointed” with those of inaction and sleep. Appropriately, it is here that Tennyson transitions to describing natural rather than human activity; the landscape is personified so that it, rather the humans, becomes the main actor in the first three stanzas of the poem.Throughout the first and second stanzas, words like “languid,” “swoon,” “breathing,” “full-faced” and “moon” as well as phrases like “weary dream” and “slumbrous sheet” effectively convey the drowsy, lazy mood of the eternal afternoon. Even images that would normally convey frenzied and energetic motion are imbued with a peculiar stillness and lethargy: “And like a downward smoke, the slender stream / Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.” Defying the ordinary flow of water, the waterfalls in this mysterious land seem to meander and float about in space and time. This is also reflected in the oddly inverted and enjambed construction of the line itself (which breaks with the conventions of English grammar) and the expression “fall and pause and fall,” both being interesting choices that reinforce the temporal nonlinearity in the land of the Lotos-eaters.
Tennyson adopts the Spenserian stanza rhyme scheme for “The Lotos-Eaters,” which allows for three different rhymes to alternately appear within the nine long lines of a single stanza. There is a regularity and consistency to this particular choice which parallels the peaceful, still aura of the realm he is describing. Each stanza semantically connects to the next: the streams described in the first stanza flow down to the second, where they become the first line and focus of the second descriptor (“A land of streams!”) while the “sunset” in the first line of the third stanza follows behind the initial description of mountains “sunset-flush’d” in the stanza preceding it. The stanzas themselves are fluidly interconnected through the use of enjambment – one sentence continues for five lines in the second stanza and another for six lines in the last. Within the lines themselves, the same phrases and words also appear and reappear: notably, the simile “like a downward smoke” and the motifs of “three” and “faces pale.” Time moves slowly both in the land itself and in the context of the poem; the narrator’s observation and description of the land is shown to be just as continuous and lengthy a process.
While both the abundance of rhyme patterns and this repetition seem to suggest the predictability of a lullaby, Tennyson creates moments of unexpected tension which break the flow through the use of caesuras, incomplete rhymes, and trochaic feet. Exclamation marks punctuate the two main descriptors of the land (“A land of streams!” and “A land where all things always seem’d the same!”) while colons and commas separate descriptions later on in the poem, similarly forcing pauses into the otherwise regular lines of iambic pentameter. Furthermore, while the poem mostly contains perfect rhymes, there are some examples that depart from this pattern: pairings of the same or nearly identical words (“land” and “land” in the first stanza, “adown” and “down” in the last stanza). These variations in rhyme scheme create an uneasy effect for the reader, hindering the rhyme from reaching full closure or completion and obstructing any expectations of faultless fulfillment.
Humans fade into the background as mere observers until they reemerge (in the form of the apathetic Lotos-eaters) in the last line of the poem. Instead, Tennyson’s opening stanzas are a lengthy description of the land itself. There is something at once sinister and seductive about the landscape that Tennyson delineates, his painterly strokes offering images of sinuous temptation both in the form of “slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn” and “charmed” mystification. Its complexities reflected in the very poetic language that creates it, this colorful land of perennial snow and sunset proves to be just as much of a linguistic and psychological obstacle as it is an image of paradoxical paradise.
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In the opening line of Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” Odysseus issues the rallying call of “Courage!” to his men as they head forward in their trajectory towards a strange and […]