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The Lotos-Eaters -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson

       
(Poem #989) The Lotos-Eaters
 "Courage!" he said, and pointed toward the land,
 "This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."
 In the afternoon they 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.
 Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
 And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
 Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.

 A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke,
 Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn, did go;
 And some thro' wavering lights and shadows broke,
 Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below.
 They saw the gleaming river seaward flow
 From the inner land: far off, three mountain-tops,
 Three silent pinnacles of aged snow,
 Stood sunset-flush'd: and, dew'd with showery drops,
 Up-clomb the shadowy pine above the woven copse.

 The charmed sunset linger'd low adown
 In the red West: thro' mountain clefts the dale
 Was seen far inland, and the yellow down
 Border'd with palm, and many a winding vale
 And meadow, set with slender galingale;
 A land where all things always seem'd the same!
 And round about the keel with faces pale,
 Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
 The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

 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 deep-asleep he seem'd, yet all awake,
 And music in his ears his beating heart did make.

 They sat them down upon the yellow sand,
 Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
 And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
 Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
 Most weary seem'd the sea, weary the oar,
 Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
 Then some one 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."

    Choric Song

         I

 There is sweet music here that softer falls
 Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
 Or night-dews on still waters between walls
 Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
 Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
 Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
 Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
 Here are cool mosses deep,
 And thro' the moss the ivies creep,
 And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
 And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

         II

 Why are we weigh'd upon with heaviness,
 And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
 While all things else have rest from weariness?
 All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
 We only toil, who are the first of things,
 And make perpetual moan,
 Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
 Nor ever fold our wings,
 And cease from wanderings,
 Nor steep our brows in slumber's holy balm;
 Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
 "There is no joy but calm!"
 Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?

         III

 Lo! in the middle of the wood,
 The folded leaf is woo'd from out the bud
 With winds upon the branch, and there
 Grows green and broad, and takes no care,
 Sun-steep'd at noon, and in the moon
 Nightly dew-fed; and turning yellow
 Falls, and floats adown the air.
 Lo! sweeten'd with the summer light,
 The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow,
 Drops in a silent autumn night.
 All its allotted length of days
 The flower ripens in its place,
 Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil,
 Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.

         IV

 Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
 Vaulted o'er the dark-blue sea.
 Death is the end of life; ah, why
 Should life all labour be?
 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?
 All things are taken from us, and become
 Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
 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.

         V

 How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream,
 With half-shut eyes ever to seem
 Falling asleep in a half-dream!
 To dream and dream, like yonder amber light,
 Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
 To hear each other's whisper'd speech;
 Eating the Lotos day by day,
 To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
 And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
 To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
 To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
 To muse and brood and live again in memory,
 With those old faces of our infancy
 Heap'd over with a mound of grass,
 Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!

         VI

 Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
 And dear the last embraces of our wives
 And their warm tears: but all hath suffer'd change:
 For surely now our household hearths are cold,
 Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
 And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
 Or else the island princes over-bold
 Have eat our substance, and the minstrel sings
 Before them of the ten years' war in Troy,
 And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things.
 Is there confusion in the little isle?
 Let what is broken so remain.
 The Gods are hard to reconcile:
 'Tis hard to settle order once again.
 There is confusion worse than death,
 Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
 Long labour unto aged breath,
 Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
 And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.

         VII

 But, propt on beds of amaranth and moly,
 How sweet (while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly)
 With half-dropt eyelid still,
 Beneath a heaven dark and holy,
 To watch the long bright river drawing slowly
 His waters from the purple hill--
 To hear the dewy echoes calling
 From cave to cave thro' the thick-twined vine--
 To watch the emerald-colour'd water falling
 Thro' many a wov'n acanthus-wreath divine!
 Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,
 Only to hear were sweet, stretch'd out beneath the pine.

         VIII

 The Lotos blooms below the barren peak:
 The Lotos blows by every winding creek:
 All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone:
 Thro' every hollow cave and alley lone
 Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.
 We have had enough of action, and of motion we,
 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.
 Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
 In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
 On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
 For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl'd
 Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl'd
 Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world:
 Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
 Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
 Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
 But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
 Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
 Like a tale of little meaning tho' the words are strong;
 Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
 Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
 Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
 Till they perish and they suffer--some, 'tis whisper'd--down in hell
 Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
 Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
 Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
 Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
 O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Thanks to Frank O'Shea for suggesting today's poem. Frank wrote

  Anyway, you wanted to follow the theme of looking at the sea. Keats's
  tribute to Chapman has been run already although it is good enough to bear
  repetition. But my nomination is my favourite Tennyson poem, The Choric
  Song of the Lotos-Eaters. Hard to credit that it hasn't been run already -
  we're not afraid that it is encouragement to the cultivation of leafy
  substances, are we [lest the list go to pot? - m.] . If you wanted to
  explain onomatopoeia to someone, you would advise them to read this poem.

I fully agree with him, both about Keat's immortal "On First Looking into
Chapman's Homer", and about today's marvellous dream sequence. On the poem
itself, the UToronto site has this to say by way of annotation:

  Based on an incident in the Odyssey, IX, 82 ff.
  moly: the herb with magic protective powers given by Hermes to
    Odysseus to protect him against Circe (Odyssey, X).

Like a lot of Tennyson's poetry (in particular, one of my favourites, 'The
Brook'), today's poem is both intensely musical and highly atmospheric.
Indeed, it approaches Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' in both respects, carrying the
reader along on a rippling stream of imagery and rhythm that is almost
hypnotic, especially when read aloud. I also admire the way that Tennyson has
varied the metre and line length - in places drastically - without disrupting
the poem's flow. The language is beautifully evocative throughout, both in
the exquisite use (and unobtrusive density) of adjectives, and the constant
appeal to the senses.

Notable, also, is the way the poem immerses us so thoroughly in the world of
the Lotos Eaters; even those unfamiliar with the story can see clearly that
the drug-induced dreams are a trap rather than a paradise, but nowhere is
that fact explicitly mentioned. Apart from the refreshing refusal to
patronise the reader, this mirrors the experience of the sailors themselves,
and thereby stays true to the voice and viewpoint of the poem (which may
sound too obvious to mention, but there is an ever-present temptation for an
author to break into omniscient mode and insert editorial comments, or even
indicate, by a subtle lapse in tone, that his view and that of the narrator
differ).

p.s. Surprisingly, this is not a poem I was too familiar with; indeed, I
hadn't reread it in years. I'd like to thank Frank for prompting me to
rectify this omission; I'd forgotten just how beautiful it was.

Links:

  Tennyson poems on Minstrels:
    Poem #15, 'The Eagle (a fragment)'
    Poem #31, 'Break, break, break'
    Poem #80, 'The Brook (excerpt)'
    Poem #121, 'Ulysses'
    Poem #355, 'Charge of the Light Brigade'
    Poem #653, 'Ring Out, Wild Bells'
    Poem #825, 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, Now the White'
    Poem #852, 'Mariana in the Moated Grange'
    Poem #896, 'The Kraken'

  Biography: Poem #15

  Some nice companion pieces to today's poem (by no means an exhaustive
  list):
    Poem #30,  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'Kubla Khan'
    Poem #518, James Elroy Flecker, 'The Gates of Damascus'
    Poem #182, John Keats, 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'
    Poem #616, James Wright, 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in
                Pine Island, Minnesota'

    (It would be interesting to have readers add to this list, with perhaps a
    line or two about the connection).

-martin

27 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

N.G.Chakrabarty said...

the choric commentary has alternatively reflective and descriptive passages.it also gives aheightened sense of beauty through intoxication like keats's nightingale ode

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