Shifting Realities in The Lotos-Eaters
In Alfred Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters”, he brings into question the differing perspectives that each individual possesses. By describing the reality of the sailors before the consumption of the Lotos flower and after the ingestion of the enchanted Lotos, he brings attention to the idea that there exists various versions of reality and the ways that mind-altering substances can produce alternate or imaginary versions of reality. Through careful perusal of the poem and the comparison of the mindset of the sailors in the opening stanzas to the choric song, the reader can come to understand how Tennyson considers a flexible reality.
In the opening stanza to “The Lotos-Eaters”, Tennyson sets the scene and inserts the reader into the poem by describing the strange land that the sailors happen upon. He states: In the afternoon thy came unto a land / In which it seemed always afternoon. / All round the coast the languid air did swoon, / Breathing like one that hath a weary dream. (3-6) Immediately Tennyson invokes images of tiredness and dreamlike exhaustion, setting the atmosphere for the land that the sailor come across. Tennyson continues to elevate the land to a dreamlike, slumberous image. He utilizes language to allow the reader to understand the languidness of the land, using expressions such as “a land of streams” (10) and “slow-dropping veils of the thinnest lawn” (11) and “rolling a slumberous sheet of foam” (13) and “the charmed sunset lingered low” (19). Tennyson’s word choice in describing the land allows the reader to invoke an image of a lethargic, peaceful land, almost untouched by the destructive, busy, and complex natures of humankind. Indeed, the land seems to be almost untouched by even time; a land of eternal afternoons, “a land where all things always seem’d the same!” (24). The land seems eternal and unblemished to the sailors, a stark image contrasting the experiences that they have previously endured. After describing the etherealness of the land, Tennyson introduces the natives of the land, a people called the Lotos-eaters. He describes the Lotos-eaters as dark-skinned, but paled against the rosiness of the setting sun. He indicates that they are “mild-eyed” and “melancholy”, referring to their calm and languid nature. The introduction of the Lotos-eaters are in fact an allusion to Homer’s Odyssey, in which the epic hero Odysseus happens upon the land of the Lotos-eaters and struggles to retain his crew from the captivating flower.
Following the introduction of the natives and the description of their lethargic state, Tennyson tells of the flower that alters their nature in such as way: Branches they bore of that enchanted stem, / Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave To each, but whoso did receive of them, / And taste, to him the gushing of the wave Far far away did seem to mourn and rave / On alien shores; and if his fellow spake, His voice was thin, as voices from the grave; / And music in his ears his beating heart did make. (28-36) The Lotos-eaters provide the sailors with the Lotos fruit and flower, causing the sailors to be in an altered state. The sailor’s reality is changed; the sound of the waves is now humanized, mourning and raving; their voices become deathly and thin, concurrently slumbering and wide awake. The sailors even listen to their beating hearts as they would to music. The Lotos flower alters their state of mind, providing a hallucinogenic effect that changes their perception of reality.
After the sailors indulge in the Lotos flowers and their perception of reality is sufficiently altered, they reminisce about their homeland. However, while they long for their home, children, wives, and slaves, the inhibited sailors have no desire to return to the sea and make the journey to their island home. The shift in the poem, and the transition to the choric song occurs in the following lines: Then someone said, “We will return no more; / And all at once they sang, “Our island home Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam. (43-45) As soon as the sailors tasted the Lotos flower, any desire to return home vanished. Their home is simply too far away, and the languid state that the Lotos flower presses upon them has dissipated any interest in the journey. At the conclusion of the opening stanzas, the sailors begin to sing, transitioning into the choric song that remainder of the poem dissolves into.
The choric song institutes a shift in voice. While the opening stanzas are written in third-person, the choric song is written in first-person, as the sailors are singing as a whole. It begins with the sailors describing the marvelousness of the land. They describe the land as musical, soft, and blissful. Tennyson also includes an allusion to further mind-altering drugs: Here the cool mosses deep, / And through the moss the ivies creep, / And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep, And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep. (53-56) Poppy is known for being the source of opium, a hallucinogenic drug that has side-effects such as lethargy, which the sailors are currently suffering from. Tennyson’s inclusion of the poppy alludes to the sailors’ altered state caused by the Lotos flowers, and calls into question their ability to interpret their own reality.
Under the influence of the Lotos flower, the sailors continue on the question the difficulty of their own lives. They consider their own melancholy and weariness, and the distress of all mankind. They ponder the fact that although humankind is supreme over all other animals and living things, they are the only creatures that continuously have to toil while other beings rest. The sailors continue on to immerse themselves into a plant in the forest and ponder its existence from its blooming to its withering, including that the plant “hath no toil” (82). The stability and restfulness of the plant’s existence compared to the sailors’ own lives illustrates the complexity of humankind and shifted perspective that the sailors have on the nature of the world. After considering the plant’s existence, the sailors continue on to question their own. They ponder why, if they have to die eventually, their lives should be laborious. War and effort seem pointless now; only peace and rest appeal to the inhibited sailors. They sing: 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. (93-98) Death even sounds appealing to the sailors over any sort of labor. The sailors are only interested in peaceful, unbothered rest, which they may find on the island of the Lotos-eaters. They wish to stay in this “half-dream”, the state produced by the Lotos flower that allows them to linger between sleep and wakefulness. Their single desire, repeated consistently throughout the poem, is to stay on this island and eat the Lotos flowers, thus adopting the lives of the natives: To lend our hearts and spirits wholly / To the influence of mild-minded melancholy; (108-109) As the sailors originally described the Lotos-eaters as “mild-eyed melancholy”, they too wish to be after allowing their minds to be numbed by the Lotos flower.
Although the sailors have no desire to return home, they still remember their families that they left behind. They understand that their families’ lives at home have changed without them, and use this to excuse their own abandonment. Tennyson includes another allusion to Homer’s Odyssey in the mentioning of the war in Troy, thus insinuating that the sailors are indeed Greeks returning home from the long war in Troy. They plan to abandon their weary journey and spend the rest of their days on the island of the Lotus-eaters.
In the final stanza of the poem, the sailors pay homage to the Lotos flower and swear an oath that they will never leave this resting place. They will never again anguish in the turmoil of the rest of mankind: Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore / Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar; Oh rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more. (171-173) The sailors conclude the poem with a final assertion that their journey is over; they have found peace on the island of the Lotos-eaters.
The comparison of the sailors in the opening stanzas and in the choric song is dramatic. In the beginning, the sailors were on a journey homewards; they have just finished fighting in a long ten-year war in Troy and are now returning to their families. However, once they arrive in the land of the Lotos-eaters and consume the flower, all perseverance vanishes. While the soldiers are rightly weary from their travels, the desire to finally return home is shockingly gone. Instead, the sailors appear enchanted with the land and the Lotos flower; they only wish for peace and restfulness, numbed by the mind-altering effects of the Lotos flower. By comparing to two states of the sailors before the consumption of the Lotos flower and after, Tennyson alludes to the idea of a flexible reality. Reality is not a fixed state; it is all dependent on one’s state of mind. When one’s mind is altered in any way, the perception of an idea, landscape, environment, scene, or feeling is changed. There is in fact no possible way to compare one’s own reality to another, or any reality at one moment to a different moment, for reality is influenced by the person experiencing it and his or her state of mind at the time. Reality is not stable, fixed, or reliable; and the ingestion of mind-altering substances alter one’s perception even more. The proof is in the sailors: men who should desire to return home more than anything only desire rest and the consumption of the mild-altering Lotos. Tennyson’s idea that reality is always fluctuating impacts the way one views the world. If reality is indeed unstable, every human experience is perceived by the subject in a unique way that cannot possible be truly understood by an outside mind. The influence of outside factors has too much sway in our understanding of reality. The sailors’ revolutionary choice to remain on the island indicate that our choices are not always truly our own; humans are too easily influenced by outside factors working on the mind. Humankind can only attempt to understand the shifting realities in order to maintain a firm grasp on what is truly knowable.
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