The Lotos Eaters Summary & Analysis
As the poem opens, we’re thrown right into the action. A crew of sailors is close to arriving during a new and strange country. once they get there, they find a lazy, tropical place, filled with streams and mountains and waterfalls. Pretty soon, they meet the natives, called the “Lotos-eaters,” who are a mysterious bunch with “dark faces” (line 26) who look both gentle and sad. Even more importantly, they’re carrying a number of their favorite food, an “enchanted” plant called the Lotos.
Some of the sailors try the Lotos, and it’s a weird effect on them. It makes them incredibly sleepy and lazy. They just plop down on the beach and refuse to maneuver, insisting that they’re uninterested in working all the time and need to remain during this new spot and just chill.
The rest of the poem is haunted by the sailors talking about how tired they’re , and how, albeit they miss their families and their home, it might just be an excessive amount of work to urge back there. Finally they plan to stay forever, relaxing ode-intimations-immortality-summary/ and dreaming and eating Lotos until the day they die. Far out.
- Stanza 1
“Courage!” he said, and pointed toward the land,
“This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.”
- This first line dumps us right into the middle of things. We don’t get any preparation here—Tennyson doesn’t set the scene or introduce the characters. Someone is just suddenly talking, and telling someone else to have “Courage!”
- More specifically, the speaker lets us know that this guy is pointing at the land. Then the speaker promises that the wave that’s rising (“mounting”) is going to push them toward the shore soon. So we can guess that this speaker, and the person (people?) he’s talking to are on or in the water (maybe swimming, maybe in a boat) and that they hope to get to the land… somehow.
- Starting right in the middle of things is what’s known in the biz as in medias res, and it makes for an exciting opening (sort of like the first scene of Saving Private Ryan, for example). All of a sudden we’re just thrown into the action.
- One other note here: check out all the S sounds going on in “us shoreward soon.” That’s some consonance for you, and we’re going to bet that there’s a ton more where that came from. (Check out “Sound Check” for a run-down.)
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
- Now the first talker goes away, and the poem’s narrating speaker takes over full time. We zoom out a little bit, and the action-packed mood of the first two lines relaxes a little.
- The speaker tells us that the guys we heard about in the first lines have arrived in a place where it always feels like afternoon.
- That sets up a pretty chilled-out vibe. We can imagine ourselves on a beach, maybe drinking something out of a coconut…
- At the same time, we think there’s something a little weird about these lines, too. It’s pretty subtle, but the repetition of “afternoon” threw us off a little bit. It contributes to the dream-like feeling, but also makes us feel like we’re stuck in a little bit of a loop. Eternal afternoon is a relaxing idea, but maybe a little unsettling, too. Let’s read on…
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
- The speaker keeps playing up the relaxed feeling of the setting. The lazy (“languid”) air around the shore of this place doesn’t even blow around—all it does is “swoon” (that means to faint, to collapse, to fall asleep). In other words, this place is so relaxed that even the breeze is falling asleep, just like a person would. (When a poet imagines a thing like air doing something a human would usually do, we call that personification.)
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
- Now the speaker extends his comparison between the air and a sleeping person by using a simile. He says the air is “[b]reathing like” (that “like” is the key to the simile) a person having a tiring dream. The speaker is working really hard to emphasize the images of tiredness, relaxation, and sleep. Even the dreams are “weary”—yawn.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
In this line we get a little bit more info about the setting. Apparently these guys have wound up in a valley, with a full moon above them. The image of the moon being “full-faced” is another subtle personification that makes us think of the man in the moon.
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.
- Now the speaker describes the little waterfall that is running down the side of the valley. In this place, apparently, even waterfalls take their sweet time. The water doesn’t even fall straight down. It almost seems to stop while it’s ambling down the side of the cliff.
- To drive that point home, the speaker uses a simile to compare the water to smoke drifting “downward.” This image of a lazy, smoky spray of water is just one more way of letting us know this place is sleepy, slow, and relaxing. Naptime, anyone?
- Stanza 2
A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke,
Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn did go
- We start out this new stanza with a little exclamation, just like the word “Courage” in the first line. There’s a little burst of excitement (marked by an exclamation point) to let us know the speaker is jazzed about all the streams in this place.
- Also, can you see how that exclamation point makes a little break in the flow of the line? In poetry terms, we call that a caesura.
- To describe the streams, the speaker repeats his simile about “downward smoke” and then adds another metaphor, comparing the falling streams to a thin veil of fabric (“lawn” is a name for a type of fabric).
And some thro’ wavering lights and shadows broke,
Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below.
- Some of the other streams of water in the valley are a little more powerful. They break out of light and shadow, and then fall down into a sheet of foam.
- This image seems a little mysterious to us, a little hard to visualize. We think Tennyson does that on purpose, to increase the dream-like feel of this landscape.
- The speaker also sneaks in a little more sleep language, describing the sheet of foam as “slumberous” (that just means sleepy).
- We get some nice alliteration there too in “slumbrous sheet.” That perks our ears up, even if the rest of us wants to go lie down somewhere and snooze.
They saw the gleaming river seaward flow
From the inner land: far off, three mountain-tops,
- Now we get back to the people we met in the first three lines of the poem. These guys, who have just showed up in this new landscape, can see a river flowing from the inside of the land toward the ocean (“seaward”).
- Then there’s a little pause (or caesura) in line 15 and our focus shifts from the river to “three mountain-tops” far in the distance.
- Clearly, it’s important to the speaker that we really be able to visualize this place… so focus, people.
Three silent pinnacles of aged snow,
Stood sunset-flush’d: and, dew’d with showery drops,
- In these lines, the speaker keeps describing the mountains we first heard about in line 15. He describes them standing “silent,” covered in snow that never melts (that’s why it’s “aged” or old). At the moment he catches them, they’re lit up and colored (“flush’d”) by the setting sun. They’re also surrounded by a kind of mist made up of “showery drops.”
- Honestly, this image gives us little chills. It’s such a great combination of eternal stillness and beautiful freshness. The mountains and their snow are forever, but the dew and the sunset only last for a lovely instant—good stuff, if we do say so ourselves.
Up-clomb the shadowy pine above the woven copse.
- One last nature image rounds out this stanza. The speaker imagines dark pine trees climbing up above the trees below them. A “copse” is a little grove of trees, and “woven” refers to the way the trees in the grove seem to grow together like woven fabric.
- So this image is a contrast between the single dark pine tree that grows high up the mountain slopes and the trees that grow together farther down in the valley.
- Stanza 3
The charmed sunset linger’d low adown
In the red West: thro’ mountain clefts the dale
- In this new stanza, we get a little more detail about that setting sun. It’s sinking down—sort of like most suns do in the evening.
- Except here, it’s a little different. It seems to “linger” a little as if it was enchanted (“charmed”). This new land is beautiful, but also a little spooky.
- In the second half of line 20, Tennyson leaves the sun behind and starts off on a new description. He mentions a valley (“dale”) that we can see through breaks (“clefts”) in the mountains. Then the description breaks off at the end of the line. That technique, where a sentence carries across multiple lines, is called enjambment. Keep an eye out for it, because Tennyson uses it a bunch in this poem. You could even say it’s his enjambment. Get it? His jam? Anyone?
Was seen far inland, and the yellow down
Border’d with palm and many a winding vale
And meadow, set with slender galingale;
- In these lines, we get a few more images of the landscape in this beautiful new place. The guys can see yellow fields (“down” is another term for a field) with palm trees around them. They also see lots of winding valleys and meadows, with ginger (“galingale”) plants around them.
- The whole look of this place reminds us of a tropical paradise. We’re seeing something like Kauai. Exotic plants, the waterfalls, the palm trees—we’re not in Kansas anymore, gang.
A land where all things always seem’d the same!
- This is a key line, which really helps to establish the mood of this beautiful landscape. It describes it as a place where nothing seems to change. That’s an echo of line 4, where this spot was described as a land of endless afternoons.
- Again, this seems both tempting and a little spooky to us—a beautiful land outside of time.
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
- Now, all of a sudden, some new folks show up. At first, we just see them as faces, gathering around the “keel” (that’s the bottom part of the boat our friends the sailors arrived in).
- The image of these new faces is mysterious. At first, they are described as “pale” then as “Dark.” Put together, these “Dark faces pale” seem like a kind of contradiction in terms—an oxymoron. Then we learn that it’s the sunset, the “rosy flame” that is making them seem pale.
- Whatever the explanation, this is turning out to be a place where nothing is clear and simple, and things may not be quite as they seem. (Cue spooky music.)
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.
- Who are these new arrivals, with their pale-dark faces? Well, it turns out they are the famous “Lotos-eaters” of the title of this poem. They seem calm and friendly (“mild-eyed”), but also bummed-out (“melancholy”).
- So, who are these guys? Well, they’re the folks who live in this enchanted land Tennyson pulled this story out of ancient legends of an island where the inhabitants ate a plant called the Lotos. That plant made them sleepy, lazy, and unable to leave the island.
- The most famous version of this story, and the most important source for Tennyson, was Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus visits the island of the Lotos-eaters and nearly loses his crew to them (see our “Allusions” section for the full scoop on that).
- Stanza 4
- Stanza 5
They sat them down upon the yellow sand,
Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
- These stoned sailors just plop down on the sand of the beach. As the speaker oh-so-poetically puts it, they sit down “[b]etween the sun and moon.” That’s a reference to the sunset we heard so much about in previous stanzas and the “full-faced […] moon” from line 7.
- Our speaker is weaving together the drama of the sailors and the Lotos with the natural landscape he laid out so carefully for us.
And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
- While these sailors are sitting on the beach, they have happy dreams of their home (“Fatherland”) and the children and wives, and slaves they left behind. Hmm… one of those things isn’t quite like the others, is it? If you were stranded on an island, would you miss your slaves? We thought not. The thing is, these guys are ancient Greeks, so slaves were part of their households.
- That’s more of an explanation than an excuse, of course—slavery still doesn’t seem really cool to us, even if you are an ancient Greek.
- Be sure to notice the word “dream” in line 39. Images of sleeping and dreaming are absolutely everywhere in this poem.
Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
- Even though they like thinking about home, everything about getting back there just seems exhausting to these Lotos-eating sailors. The idea of the sea makes them tired. Ditto rowing (“the oar”) and the open ocean (poetically described as “fields of barren foam”).
- We can kind of see where these guys are coming from. If we were on a tropical beach with magical fruit to eat, we might not be that psyched about getting up and doing a bunch of rowing either.
Then someone said, “We will return no more”;
- This line marks a big shift in the poem. It’s the moment where someone finally says what the Lotos-eating sailors have been thinking: now that they’ve tasted the Lotos, they don’t feel like going home. They’re putting up decorations and settling in for the long haul. This is the idea that drives the rest of the poem, and it’s at the heart of the myth of the Lotos-eaters.
And all at once, they sang, “Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.”
- Now the sailors start singing together, joining their voices to let everyone know they plan to stay put, to stop the roaming that brought them here in the first place. They are never going to see the “island home” they came from again. It’s just too darn far away. Basically, a few bites of Lotos have turned these guys into an epic bunch of couch potatoes—albeit singing couch potatoes.
- Stanza 6
There is sweet music here that softer falls
Then petals from blown roses on the grass,
- These lines open up a new stanza and a whole new section of the poem. This stanza is the first part of what Tennyson calls the “Choric Song.” That basically just means that all the sailors who ate the Lotos have gotten together in a chorus and are singing about why they don’t want to go home.
- In this new section, the speaker of the poem has shifted from the narrator we met in the first five stanzas. Now there are many speakers (all the sailors who ate the Lotos plant) speaking at the same time.
- They start out by telling us what seems so great about this new place. For starters, they say, there is “sweet music” in the land of the Lotos-eaters. In order to describe it, they use an analogy, saying that this music is “softer” than a petal falling from a fully bloomed (“blown”) rose. So it’s really, really, soft, basically—like clouds of cottony bunny tails soft.
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
- The singing sailors use another little metaphor here, comparing the softness of the music in their new home to the softness of the dew that falls on the water in a high mountain pass.
- Tennyson weaves in nice little echoes throughout “The Lotos-eaters,” repeating images in different parts of the poem. Here the “night dews” might remind you of the evening dew that fell on the three mountains in the second stanza (17).
Music that gentler on the spirit lies,
Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes;
- These sailors really want you to know how soft and gentle this music they hear is. It’s even gentler, apparently, that “tir’d eyelids upon tired eyes.” Be sure to notice that repetition of “tir’d” (that’s just an old-fashioned spelling of “tired” by the way).
- As he does in other places (see lines 41-42), Tennyson uses this repetition to emphasize the importance of sleep imagery in this poem. It’s almost like the sailors are trying to hypnotize us. Sleepy… you’re getting sleepy…
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
- Just to review: the Lotos plant makes you sleepy. Did everybody get it? You probably figured that out by now, right? Still, Tennyson wants to make sure you’re extra focused on that idea.
- The music these sailors hear is like a lullaby, and it makes them happy. It makes them look forward to “sweet sleep” (alliteration alert!). Even the skies seem “blissful” in this musical spot. Or maybe that’s just the Lotos talking…
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro’ the moss the ivies creep,
- We get just a little more natural detail here. The sailors give us a soothing image of “cool mosses deep”—just the kind of place where you’d want to take a nap. Yawn…
- We’re not sure exactly why we need to know about the ivy that creeps through the moss, but it sure sounds pretty. This is probably a good place to point out that, even though we’re in a new section of the poem, the rhythm is pretty much the same—still mostly iambic. Line 54, in fact, is perfect iambic tetrameter—four pairs of syllables with the second syllable stressed: And thro’ the moss the ivies creep. Try saying it out loud—hear how even and calming it is? We think it’s just another way for Tennyson to emphasize the soothing, soporific (sleep-inducing) mood of the poem.
And in the stream, the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge, the poppy hangs in sleep.”
- Here’s a little more info on the plants. In this case, both the “flowers” and “the poppy” are personified. The flowers droop into the water of the stream as if they were weeping (kind of like when we talk about a “weeping willow”). The poppy hangs off the edge of the cliff as if it were asleep.
- (Fun fact—the association of the poppy with sleep is an allusion to the fact that opium is extracted from poppies. Opium has been used for centuries to ease pain and bring on sleep. Heck, the connection between poppies and sleep even shows up in The Wizard of Oz.)
- Stanza 7
Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
- Now the sailors start a new stanza (labeled part “II” in the “Choric Song”). Right away they switch from talking about their beautiful new home to complaining about how hard life is.
- Basically, their problem is that they feel bummed out all the time—not just sad (“weighed down with heaviness”), but also upset and stressed out (“utterly consumed with sharp distress”).
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
- Apparently, these (slightly whiny) sailors feel like everything else in the world gets to rest, while they are the only ones who have to labor and work (“toil”).
- This is just another effect of the Lotos. It makes rest look great, and any kind of work looks awful. Again, be sure to notice the focus on words relating to tiredness and sleep here (e.g., “rest” and “weariness”).
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
- In these lines, we start to see that these sailors aren’t just feeling sorry for themselves. They’re actually complaining about how hard life is for all of mankind.
- They think of mankind as the “first of things” (meaning the best, the first in line, the most important). Ironically, though (given that we’re the first among all living things), we’re also the only things on earth that have to work (“toil”). They also think that we’re the only living things that experience sadness and express our sorrow (“make perpetual moan”).
- We could probably have an interesting talk about whether any of this is true: are humans first? Are we the only animals that feel sorrow? But you get the point, though. These guys are straight-up hating life.
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
- A lot of the imagery in this poem is about wandering versus being at home (check outlines 44-45, for example). These sailors are tired of wandering and want to rest, the way other things in this world do.
- To get that idea across, they use a metaphor, imagining that they are birds that can fold up their wings and sleep.
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
- In this line, the tired sailors fantasize about being asleep. They imagine that sleep would be a cure for all their misery.
- They use a metaphor to compare sleep to a “balm” (a healing cream or ointment) that they could soak (“steep”) their foreheads (“brow”) in. Yuck. When you break that one down it doesn’t sound do great, does it? Sleep is wonderful… like soaking your forehead in the ointment? Count us out.
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!”
- These poor guys just can’t get any rest. They imagine that their souls are telling them to be calm, to rest, to relax. They think that’s the only way to be happy, to feel joy. But they can’t do it—as humans, they feel condemned to work and suffer instead of resting.
- This obsession with resting and sleep is, from the outside, a little weird. There’s lots of joy in life that isn’t calm: playing with your kids, climbing a mountain, running a marathon (okay maybe that’s a little too much work, even for us). The point is that these guys are under the influence. The Lotos has skewed their reality and made them hate movement and love rest.
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?
- Now the boys on the beach finish off the second stanza of the choric song. They end their rant about how cranky and tired they are by asking why the best creatures in the world should be the only ones who have to work. The “roof and crown” are two metaphors for mankind’s position at the top of creation (and the food chain).
- Stanza 8
Lo! in the middle of the wood,
The folded leaf is wood from out the bud
- With the opening of this new stanza (part III of the song), the sailors switch gears. Before, they were talking about how tiring it is to be a human. Now they imagine how relaxing it would be to be a plant. It’s weird, we know, but maybe that’s just what Lotos does to you.
- They start out by imagining a new leaf unfurling out of a bud. But this leaf doesn’t just pop out—no sir. This leaf is “woo’d” (that means “courted,” like when you start to date, someone). This little personification turns a pretty basic natural event into a little love story. The leaf isn’t just growing, it’s stepping out on a date. This helps to underline the feeling of carefree happiness that the sailors are obsessed with.
With winds upon the branch, and there
Grows green and broad, and takes no care,
- The leaf is “woo’d” out of its bud by the wind, and when it’s out, it grows big and green and strong. Most importantly, though, it doesn’t have any worries (“takes no care”). Remember, the singing sailors are obsessed with how much more relaxed everything else in the world is. Even the leaves have it easier—luckies.
Sun-steep’d at noon, and in the moon
Nightly dew-fed, and turning yellow
Falls, and floats adown the air.
- These three little lines tell the rest of the story of the life of a leaf. It drinks up the sunshine and the dew. Then, when it finally turns yellow and dies, it’s no big deal—it just floats down gently to the ground. That sounds like a pretty happy little leaf if you ask us.
- Be sure to notice all the little poetic tricks that Tennyson lays in here. There’s some nice alliteration (“sun-steeped” and “falls and floats”), as well as some cool internal rhyme in line 74 (“noon” and “moon”). For more on this poem’s sounds, check out “Sound Check.”
Lo! sweetened with the summer light,
The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
Drops in a silent autumn night.
- Now the sailors tell basically the same story with another plant. This time it’s an apple (mmm, apple) that gets big and fat in the summer, and then falls down in the autumn when it gets too ripe (“over-mellow”).
- Just like with the leaf, this is a gentle metaphor for a peaceful death. The sailors are fantasizing about slipping off to eternal sleep. In a way, this poem is a dream about death without fear. Notice how words like “silent” and “mellow” help to reinforce that feeling of calm and ease.
All its allotted length of days
The flower ripens in its place,
- One of the things that bug these sailors is that they have to move all over the place. They’re travelers by profession, and they have to roam and row all over the ocean (with no frequent sailing miles or anything).
- A flower, on the other hand, spends all its time “in its place.” Now that they’ve had some Lotos to eat, they want to do the same thing—just “ripen” in one spot.
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.
- The guys finish their weird little plant fantasy by imagining the end of the flower’s life (just like they did with the leaf and the apple before). The two really important things about the flower are that it stays put (“fast-rooted” just means solidly anchored, stable) and it doesn’t have to work (“hath no toil”).
- While we’re here, at the end of another stanza, let’s take a quick look at the form of this chunk of the poem (the “Choric Song”). There are eight numbered stanzas in this section. In the first part of the poem (stanzas 1-5), all the stanzas were the same length (nine lines) now they are all different lengths. There’s still plenty of rhyming too, but now it doesn’t follow a set pattern from one stanza to the next. So what’s up with all that? Well, be sure to check out our “Form and Meter” section for a full breakdown.
- Stanza 9
Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
- At the start of this new stanza, the sailors get back into griping about their lives. Honestly, we don’t know if it’s just the Lotos talking, but this is a pretty whiny bunch, huh?
- Anyway, their whole thing is that they don’t want to go back out on the ocean. They just want to hang out in their magical new home and eat Lotos. So they sing about how much they hate the “dark-blue” sky, which arches over the “dark-blue” sea. That repetition of “dark-blue” does a pretty good job of making the ocean sound boring and maybe a little weirdly claustrophobic—not the place you’d want to be, especially if you have a full day of just chilling out and staring into space planned.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?
- Now the boys really get down to it. “If we’re all going to die, what’s the point of working?” they ask.
- In our opinion, they sound a little depressed. Maybe they caught that from the locals, with their “mild-eyed melancholy” (27).
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little, while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
- Finally, all these guys want is to be left alone. Time is moving fast, they know they’re going to die, so why not just hang out and do nothing on the beach? Nothing’s forever anyway, so why worry about it?
- It’s not quite clear from the poem who it is that won’t leave them alone. Maybe the other sailors? In The Odyssey, Odysseus finally had to tie his Lotos-eating sailors up to get them off the enchanted island. So maybe this is an allusion to that version of the story.
All things are taken from us and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
- Okay, now this just sounds like flat-out depression. When someone just can’t ever see the good side of things, when everything in life just seems “dreadful” and when it seems like only bad things can happen, that’s when you start to worry. The effects of the Lotos seem more and more sinister to us. This stuff doesn’t just make you sleepy—it makes life look horrible.
- The poem’s still pretty, though—check out the alliteration of “portions and parcels.”
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
- Life just seems like an endless fight to these guys. It’s no fun to fight evil. It’s not relaxing to climb up waves forever like they did when they were sailors. They just want to be left alone. These rhetorical questions are just another way of letting us know that they are sick of having to do anything active.
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
- Basically, these guys would like to turn into plants. Really, we don’t blame ’em. They want to rest and get old (“ripen” is an echo of the plant metaphors from stanza III, lines 70-83).
- On top of that, they’d really like things to be quiet. That’s really all they want. Perfect rest and perfect silence until they die. These guys would be a real drag at a party—take it from us.
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
- This line, at the end of the stanza, takes us straight to the disturbing conclusion we’ve been heading towards. These guys don’t really care if they rest, sleep, or die. In any of those states, they’d at least be at peace. That’s all they want.
- So… let’s recap: what started out sounding like a fun weekend on the beach has turned into a creepy fantasy about death. The death obsession of the Lotos-eating sailors is driven home by the repetitive alliteration (“death, dark death”) in this line. It almost sounds like a creepy prayer.
- Stanza 10
How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream!
- The fifth stanza of the “Choric Song” shifts the mood again. As it opens, the sailors have stopped talking about death (at least directly). Now they’re dreaming about their new sleepy life on the island of the Lotos-eaters. They imagine how sweet it’s going to be to listen to the sound of the stream, and to “half-shut” their eyes in a “half-dream.” Party on, fellas.
- That “half” thing seems pretty key to us. It’s not that the guys dream about being fully asleep. What they want is to be stuck forever in the sleepy world between being asleep and being awake. Actually, we can kind of see what they mean. We like that moment as we’re drifting off, where everything seems peaceful and calm. We’re not sure we’d want to be like that all the time, though.
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
- Life in this new land will be an endless, sleepy dream. The sailors will be frozen in one place and time, like the sunset—which is still lighting up a bush on the mountains above them (“the height”).
- This idea of frozen sunset echoes what we heard earlier about the endless afternoon (4). There’s something different about this place. Time just doesn’t seem to work the same way on the enchanted island of the Lotos-eaters.
To hear each other’s whisper’d speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
- Okay, in case you hadn’t gotten the message, the guys run it down for you one more time. Is everybody ready? Good. Now: all the sailors want to do is lie around, talk softly, and eat Lotos. They’re really hooked now. We can imagine Tennyson thinking of opium addicts when he wrote these lines. Actually, it’s all a little sad, in the end.
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
- At the same time as the sailors seem kind of sad and drug-addled, there’s still a ton of beauty in their vision of the world. We think these lines are just gorgeous. They do a great job of calling up an image of waves on the beach, and how nice it can be to sit quietly and watch the water spray in the air. It kind of makes us want to lie down with them—No! Must… not… eat… Lotos.
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
- The boys are throwing in the towel. They want to live the life of the Lotos-eaters. They’re not going to fight it anymore. They want to give their “hearts and spirits” to the “mild-minded melancholy” of the natives. (We get some killer alliteration there, by the way.)
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
- One thing that this sleepy Lotos-eating life will let the sailors do is spend more time with their memories. Instead of running around on the ocean or trying to get home, they can just “muse and brood” on the past.
- They can think back on the people they used to know, the faces they saw when they were infants. That “old faces of infancy” line is kind of great, isn’t it? On the one hand, it sounds a little like an oxymoron, with the way it mixes old and young. At the same time, though, it’s open to multiple interpretations. Maybe they are talking about old faces, like their parents or grandparents. Could also just be people they used to know. In any case, the sailors are happy to think about them in their Lotos-stupors.
Heap’d over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!
- Sadly, it sounds like these folks they used to see when they were infants are dead now. They are under the grass, and their bodies have been cremated. They’re just a little bit of dust in a brass pot now.
- This striking image of death picks up on the sailors’ obsession with death and dying, and all the death language we heard in the last stanza.
- Stanza 11
Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
- Another stanza brings another little shift. It turns out that these sailors aren’t totally spaced out. They still remember their lives at home, where they have wives waiting for them. They still have fond memories of the last time they hugged those wives, too, back when they were leaving on the ship.
And their warm tears: but all hath suffer’d change:
For surely now our household hearths are cold,
- At the beginning of line 116, we get the last snippet of the thought the sailors started in the previous lines. They remember the “warm tears” that their wives cried when they were heading out. This poetic strategy of spreading a sentence out over multiple lines is called enjambment, and Tennyson is clearly a fan.
- After a little pause (called a caesura) in the middle of line 116, the singing sailors shift their mood a little. Sure, they miss their wives, but they think that things have probably changed at home. They imagine that the fires have gone out at home (“our household hearths are cold”). That last bit is a metaphor for their families forgetting about them. That coldness is emotional as well as physical—basically, they worry that their families don’t love them anymore. Sniff.
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
- They worry that their sons have taken over their inheritance, and wouldn’t even recognize them if they came home. In fact, they think they’d seem like ghosts, more upsetting than comforting for their families, now that they’ve been gone so long.
- Now, this is probably something every soldier or sailor worries about when he’s away (and these guys happen to be both soldiers and sailors). But it’s pretty clear that these guys are also looking for reasons not to go home, which of course by now they’re too lazy to do. Good try, though, guys.
Or else the island princes over-bold
Have eaten our substance, and the minstrel sings
- Here they keep up their justifications for not going home to their families. They think maybe the rulers back where they live have taken their land (“eat our substance”). So there wouldn’t be any point in going back.
- That last little bit (“the minstrel sings”) is another good example of hard enjambment. We’ll just have to wait until the next line to find out what the minstrel (that’s a guy who would sing and dance to entertain a king) is singing about…
Before them of the ten years’ war in Troy,
And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things.
- Aha—it turns out that the minstrel is singing about the long war in Troy. This is another allusion to The Odyssey, which is the source for this poem. In that story, the sailors were Greeks returning from fighting in the war in Troy, traveling on a wandering quest with Odysseus, when they came to the land of the Lotos-eaters.
- So these Greeks have been away from their home island for a long time, and they imagine that, if folks think of the war at all, it’s just as a half-memory, an old song the minstrel sings to pass the time.
Is there confusion in the little aisle?
Let what is broken so remain.
- Heck, maybe things have fallen apart in their home island (which was called Ithaca) while they are gone. Maybe there’s “confusion” and struggle and strife. Meh—the sailors aren’t going to worry about it. It’s not their job. They’re willing to let things stay broken.
The Gods are hard to reconcile:
‘Tis hard to settle order once again.
- In these lines, the guys tell us, again, that they wouldn’t go back home even if they thought there was trouble. Wars between the gods (which the Greeks thought were responsible for human problems) are tough to fix. It’s hard to calm things down once they’ve gotten mixed up.
- Basically, as we knew already, these fellows are feeling pretty lazy, and so they’re making up excuses why they don’t need to go home. Maybe they feel just a little bad about it, though. Let’s keep reading to find out.
There is confusion worse than death,
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
- Well, just like that, the sailors slip back into their depressed theme about how terrible life can be. They don’t mind the thought of dying. What they really want to avoid is suffering. They are afraid of “confusion” and “trouble” and “pain”—so afraid, in fact, that they repeat the words, piling “trouble” on top of “trouble” in the line. Jeepers, these guys really don’t want to get back on the water.
Long labour unto aged breath,
The sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
- Their bottom line is: “We’re old and tired.” They don’t want to have to work (“labor”) or do a hard job (“sore task”).
- They’ve been worn out by “many wars.” That’s part of why chilling out and eating Lotos sounds so good to them. (We have to admit, it sounds like a sweet retirement plan.)
And eyes grew dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.
- We get kind of a lovely image to finish out the stanza. This was a long time before GPS, so these guys would have navigated by using the stars. Certain stars would point you in the right direction if you followed them. Those were called the pilot-stars. These old sailors can’t see so well from staring at those stars so long, though.
- Stanza 12
But, prompt on beds of amaranth and moly,
How sweet (while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly)
- As this stanza opens, the lazy sailors are dreaming about their new life on the island of the Lotos-eaters. They imagine themselves reclining on beds of plants, with warm sweet air blowing all around them. That sounds pretty good, huh?
- The two plants they mention are significant, too. Amaranth was a legendary flower that never wilted, so it’s a great symbol of the freedom from pain and suffering that these guys are looking for.
- Moly is mentioned in Homer as a medicinal herb that counteracted the poison of the evil witch Circe. (It rhymes with “holy,” FYI—as we’ll see below.)
With half-drop eyelid still,
Beneath heaven dark and holy,
- Here’s a little more of one of the sailors’ favorite themes—being half-asleep (see lines 100-101). Here they imagine their eyes being half-closed under a dark sky. That’s another image that’s both quiet and calm and (we think) a little spooky and death-like, too.
To watch the long bright river drawing slowly
His waters from the purple hill—
- These guys will be so chilled out in their Lotos haze that they won’t need any more entertainment than watching the river fill up with water. Wow—sounds like fun, huh?
- This second-to-last stanza is full of images that echo the beginning of the poem. Remember we last heard about this river in the second stanza (14). It’s a subtle touch, but it helps to make the poem feel symmetrical, orderly, and calm. Check out “Form and Meter” for more on how this is put together.
To hear the dewy echoes calling
From cave to cave thro’ the thick-twined vine—
- Here’s a little more about the sailors’ idea of a good time. No video games for them. Nope, they’d rather sit and listen to sounds echoing in caves. Those caves are covered in thick vines, which adds to the tropical, lush, exotic feel of the landscape.
- Tennyson is really emphasizing the sailor’s lazy, stoned mind-state. They don’t want anything but to enjoy the beauty of their new home. Far out, man.
To watch the emerald-colored water falling
Thro’ many a woven acanthus-wreath divine!
- Water and plants are the dominant images in this stanza. It’s all sort of beautifully simple, a completely calm and uncomplicated life.
- The acanthus was another plant that the ancient Greeks loved. Its shape is even incorporated into the tops of Corinthian columns. Like the moly and the amaranth mentioned in line 133, this plant is associated in this poem with a kind of hold power (the sailors call it “divine”).
Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,
Only to hear were sweet, stretch’d out beneath the pine.
- It turns out these guys will be happy just looking at and listening to the far-away, glimmering sea. In earlier stanzas, the sea is scary, dangerous, and threatening. Now it’s just decoration.
- In fact, these guys don’t even need to see the beautiful sea as they lie around. All they need to do is hear it. They think it would be “sweet” to just lie under a pine tree and listen to the waves. Okay, they got us there—that does sound pretty sweet.
- Stanza 13
The Lotos blooms below the barren peak:
The Lotos blows by every winding creek:
- This is the start of the poem’s last stanza, the final chunk of the sailors’ song. It’s also (at 29 lines) by far the longest stanza in the poem.
- The Lotos-eating sailors go out on a high note. They start the last stanza by singing for, to, and about the Lotos, which is, after all, the reason for this whole poem. Apparently, the plant grows everywhere on this island, both up in the mountains and down by the creeks.
- Oh, and check out the great alliteration in line 145 (“bloom below the barren”). The sounds here match the sailors’ bouncy enthusiasm for the Lotos. (Check out “Sound Check” for more on the poem’s sound.)
All-day the wind breathes low with mellower tone:
Thro’ every hollow cave and alley lone
- The sailors just love to sing about the sights and sounds of their new home. They are (maybe literally) enchanted with this place, and they never get tired of telling us about the wind and the caves.
- Notice how there’s always a balance in this poem between a feeling of calm and relaxation (the wind is “low” and “mellower”) and spooky loneliness (the caves are “hollow” and the alleys are “lone”—”alley” here just means a narrow passageway). Even though the sailors tell us everything is great, Tennyson’s word choice lets us know that something about this “paradise” isn’t quite right.
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.
We have had enough of action and of motion we,
- Even as the sailors slump deeper into their Lotos coma, their song picks up speed. Can you hear the rushing sound, the frantic activity in line 149? As the pollen from the Lotos (“the yellow Lotos-dust”) gets picked up by the wind, it starts to race around the island, covering everything, including the fragrant hills (“spicy downs”).
- Part of the fun of that line is the repeated vowel sounds (we call that assonance in the biz): “round” and “down.” The “ow” sound echoes through the line, and flirts with the word “blown,” which looks like it should rhyme with “downs” but doesn’t.
- We call that an eye rhyme, FYI.
- The sailors want us to know that, even if the Lotos pollen is rushing around, they’re staying put. No more “action” or “motion” for them.
Roll’d to starboard, roll’d to larboard when the surge was seething free,
Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea.
- All of a sudden, we’re back on the rolling ocean. The guys are remembering their dizzy, sea-sick days on the water when they were rolled to “starboard” and “larboard” (that’s just a nautical way of saying left and right) by the waves.
- They also remember the sight of whales (“wallowing monster”) blowing jets of water (“foam fountains”) in the air. It sounds cool to us…
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
- Now the sailors decide to make a promise and to keep it steadily (“with an equal mind”). They are never going to leave the land of the Lotos. They are going to live and lie back (“reclined”) in their new home.
- But wait, there’s that word “hollow” again. That could just mean “low down,” because they’re in a valley. Most of our associations with that word aren’t so positive though. We also connect it with emptiness, falseness, superficiality. Maybe Lotos-land ain’t so great after all.
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
- The sailors want to live like the Greek Gods. They want to sit up in the hills together like the gods sit on Mt. Olympus. They will be “careless” (not worried) about what happens to other people. They imagine they will have finally escaped from all the hard work of life.
For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl’d
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curled
- These lines are describing the lifestyle of the Greek Gods. They drink nectar (the legendary drink of the God), and every now and then throw lightning bold down into the valleys below them for good measure.
- This whole image is about height, about getting away from trouble and pain, with a birds-eye view of humanity. The sailors think they’ve won the jackpot. In their new home, life won’t bother them anymore.
- There’s another good example of enjambment at the end of this line—we don’t know what those clouds are “curl’d” around, and we won’t find out until the next line. Off we go…
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world:
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
- Got it. So, the clouds of the last line are wrapping around the golden houses of the gods up on Mt. Olympus. The world lies around these beautiful houses like a shining belt (“girdled with the gleaming world”).
- Then, suddenly, things start to seem a little more sinister. These gods don’t just have nice digs. They also “smile” while they look out over the destroyed (“wasted”) lands of humanity. It’s not just that they don’t have to worry about human problems—they also cause them and then laugh at them. Yeah—it was kind of complicated between the Greeks and their gods. The word “frenemies” comes to mind.
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
- This is basically a list of all the horrible things that humans have to deal with—the catastrophes of all kinds that make them pray for mercy.
- The sailors are really emphasizing the contrast between the human world and the world of the gods. This is of course symbolic of the difference between the outside world and Lotos-land.
But they smile, they find music centered in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
- The gods smile while they listen to the sad (“doleful”) songs of the humans down below. The noises of grief (“lamentations”) come rising up to the mountain like steam. This song of human misery is old and familiar, though the gods hear a kind of music in it.
Like a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
- When the gods hear the song, it’s not really the specific complaints that interest them. They hear strong words, but it doesn’t mean much to them. They hear a kind of pleasant drone from the abused, beat-up (“ill-used”) folks down below.
- These people down below work in the fields, and have to plow the earth (“cleave the soil”) to survive. This image of cutting into the ground makes even working for a living seem hard and violent. The takeaway message from the sailors is basically that it stinks to be human.
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
- Human life goes on and on in a boring, painful routing. You plow, sow, harvest—on and on. Every year, you get a few crops to store up, but even that doesn’t seem so great (at least to the sailors). What’s important is that the “toil” never ends.
- “Toil” is a big word for the sailors—it pretty much sums up their attitude toward a normal life, and they’ve had enough of it.
- Eating Lotos and lying around is way more fun.
Till they perish and they suffer—some, ’tis whisper’d—down in hell
Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
- Finally, these poor worn out folks die. Some of them go down to hell, and there suffering goes right on. Bad times.
- There is an alternative, though. Some people get to go to Elysium (a version of heaven in ancient Greek religion). In these “Elysian valleys,” the afterlife was pretty sweet. We wonder: did they have Lotos?
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
- Finally, after all that digging and plowing and sweating and dying, worn out humans could relax in an Elysian valley. They could lie down on the flowers of paradise (asphodel is a mythical flower that’s was supposed to grow in Elysium).
- This sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it? Lying around? Resting on mythical plants? Seems like these sailors have found a shortcut to Elysium (which was reserved for great heroes).
- They’re pretty pleased with themselves, and you can hear that happiness in the gentle alliteration of line 171. Those soft, murmuring S sounds (“Surely, surely, slumber”) work like a lullaby, urging us to forget about the toil and trouble of the world.
- It’s nappy time in Lotos-land.
Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.
- It’s way better to rest and sleep on the shore than to be out fighting on the ocean. So, one last time, the sailors (“mariners”) promise each other that they will never leave the beautiful enchanted land of the Lotos-eaters. Their feet are coming down, and the tents are going up.
The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters - The Lotos Eaters -- The Lotos Eaters