The Lotos-Eaters. Alfred Lord Tennyson. Appreciation by P.S.Remesh Chandran.
Editor, Sahyadri Books & Bloom Books, Trivandrum.
The great veil of Victorian hypocrisy was lifted by Alfred Lord Tennyson and was shown to the world the lovely English mind behind it that was his. The Lotos-Eaters is the world’s greatest poetical experiment synchronizing sublime music with the changing moods and fancies of the exotic, psychedelic intoxication of a band of marine soldiers marooned on an island that nowhere existed.
Failure of musical geniuses in exactly imitating changing moods of the exotically intoxicated.
Alfred Lord Tennyson was a Nineteenth century English poet. He is considered the greatest poet and true representative of the Victorian Era. In Memoriam was his masterpiece. The Lotos-Eaters is a memorable poem in which he describes the arrival of Ulysses’ Greek soldiers on theislandofLotos Eaters. They are a lazy philosophic lot who do not like hard labour of any kind. Once the sailors in the ship are given the lotos fruit, leaf and stem and they have eaten them, they too are such transformed that they no more wish to sea-travel and see their homes. Sublime music and selected words create an atmosphere of languor, laziness and sleepiness in the poem which is Tennyson’s unique achievement and craftsmanship. This is the poem in which Tennyson experimented with music changing with the moods of each action, each bit of music perfectly reflecting the corresponding change in mood. Attempts to perfectly orchestrate this song have more or less failed through years due to failure of musical geniuses in exactly imitating the changing mind and moods of the exotically and psychedelically intoxicated.
A land of mountains, rivers, valleys, wind and waves, and Lotos plants.
Greek hero Ulysses and his band of soldiers had spent ten years in the Trojan War. Returning home they were lost in the sea and had to spend a few more years in roaming the sea. At last they sighted land. It was the land of Lotos Eaters. From the height of their anchored ship they could see far into the interior of the island. It was an island of mountains, rivers, valleys, wind and waves. Streams and falls were everywhere. Green woods and meadows ornamented plains and hills. It was a land where all things always seemed the same. No signs of cultivation or other human activities were to be seen anywhere there.
Lotos: Personification of exotic, psychedelic intoxication of human mind.
Then the mild and melancholy eyed island dwellers appeared and they silently approached the ship. They bore branches, leaves and stems of that enchanted plant of Lotos as presentations to visitors to their island from which they gave to each. Before Ulysses could prevent, his soldiers one and all had eaten them. Once they tasted this magical herb their attitudes and outlook dramatically changed. The once-courageous and strong mariners and soldiers all seemed tired suddenly. Those famous soldiers who fought bravely beside Ulysses in the fierce Trojan War now no more wish to bear the burden of sailing their ship through turbulent seas. Whoever tasted that magical herb given by those islanders became exactly like them. They seemed to be deep asleep yet all awake. The voices of nearby persons seemed to them thin voices from the depth of grave. Even their own heart beats resounded loudly and musically in their own ears. So now we see the Ulysses’ famous soldiers all sitting on the yellow sand, begin singing a chorus, the likeness of which has never ever been seen anywhere in English literature. All the efforts of their captain, the mighty Ulysses, could not move them an inch or release them from their hallucination and the spell of that magical plant.
Why sweetness of soul’s music and soothing pleasure of sleep are denied to man?
The mariners who tasted Lotos all became philosophers overnight who begin to worship idleness. Man is the roof and crown of things. He is the first and foremost of things but he alone is destined to toil. He makes perpetual moan in his life and is thrown from one sorrow to another perpetually. Enjoying leisurely the sweetness of his soul’s music and the soothing pleasures of sleep are forbidden to him. Weariness, heaviness and distress weigh him down. Hearing the excellent arguments of the mariners expressed in their chorus will make us wonder at the mathematical perfection of their logic and philosophy. We will be moved to stay with them and approbate their logic verbatim. That is the descriptive skill of Tennyson which made him the prominent poet of his era and after. There has never been a poem describing the attitude towards life and the philosophizing of a unique, exotically and psychedelically intoxicated band of humans more vividly.
The leaf and fruit and flower all have their sweet lives; man alone toils.
The mariners begin to compare the tediousness of their lives with the easiness and quietness of the lives of leaves, fruits and flowers. They complete the cycles of their simple lives without any toil. Leaves open, grow and fall gently. The ripe fruits drop silently in autumn nights. Whereas man is a traveller and roamer, flowers are fast-rooted in their fertile soil. Flowers enjoy their allotted length of days, bloom and fade and fall, without toil. But man is the only being that is seen to be toiling in one way or another, in the fields, forests or oceans. Time driveth onward fast and in little time man’s life period is expired. Whatever man achieves is taken from him to become portions and parcels of a dreadful past which we commonly call history. All things under the Sun have rest except man. Therefore the mariners are not going to mount the rolling waves and travel any more. They want to stay forever on the island. After listening to their arguments we will be tempted to do nothing but agree.
Why return after years like apparitions to their native island of chaos?
But Ulysses is a very persuasive person. He used every trick and argument in his quiver to tempt his mariners to return toIthaca. But they warn their captain that it would not be wise for them to return to their island home ofIthaca. Everything might have changed there. Their sons would have inherited them after all these years. The returning ancestors would only be viewed as ghosts and apparitions come to trouble their joy. Or else the over-bold island princes ofIthaca, fearing no return of the heroes might have married their wives and spent their fortunes. Their great deeds in wars would have been half-forgotten, sung only in songs. Even if they are lucky and oriented enough to return to their land, it would be harder still to please their gods after all these years and settle order once again in their island. So why not spend the rest of their lives in this quietislandofLotosand enjoy sleep and laziness to their fill? How can even a very persuasive person counter, in the face of this unbroken torrent of reasons?
Mariners declining to resume travel: the dread of all sea-going captains.
These instances were not uncommon in the days of the rowing sea ship travels. They were the dread of every captain. Crew may refuse to move on after months of tiresome travels and incline to stay for ever in a new found land. A sailor’s life is a life of action. The mariners here have had enough of action and of motion in their lives. They had been constantly rolling to the starboard and larboard sides of the ship as it swayed left and right on the surging waves. The deep sea where the wallowing monster that is the whale spouted his foam-fountain had been their home and playground for too long. Now that is past and enough. They are tired of the sea and now they are inclined only to live and lie reclined in the hollow Lotos Land forever.
Gods lying together happily on their hills, careless and fearless of mankind!
When man does not obey, the clever will threaten him with the consequences of antagonizing their gods. As a last resort Ulysses seems to have done this, because now begins their discourse which, if he had had an opportunity to listen to, might have converted even the most firm believer into an atheist. When sensations and feelings were divided between man and gods, miseries were reserved for man while pleasures went to gods. Man suffers much in this world. Blight, famine, fire and earthquake, ocean flood and desert heat are all his lot. Man sows the seed, reaps the harvest and toils endlessly till his death. He stores wheat and wine and oil for his future but he has no future as he is most often withdrawn silently without notice from this world. Even after death he is doomed to suffer in hell. Man’s sorrowful songs of lamentation steam up to gods’ abode in heaven, like tales of little meaning though the words are strong. But listening to them, gods find music in his woes and laugh. It is the gods who are responsible for man’s sorrow. But they act indifferent to man. They lie together happily on their hills, careless and fearless of mankind. They keep their divine food nectar always close to them; what else do they do except relishing and draining it? They hurl their thunder bolts at man far below craving in the valleys, that is a joke to them. They sit in their golden houses surrounded by clouds and smile at the misery of man far below. All arguments of their captain were blunted by the magnificent and sincere defense of the mariners. Tennyson in the poem does not tell us whether their captain was finally able and eloquent enough to persuade his soldiers to return to their home land, but history does.
Pictures Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.
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Alfred Lord Tennyson, Appreciations, British Poets, English Language And Literature, English Literature, English Poems, English Songs, Literary Criticism, P S Remesh Chandran, Poems, Poetry Reviews, Sahyadri Books And Bloom Books Trivandrum, Songs, The Lotos-Eaters, Victorian Poets
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Editor of Sahyadri Books & Bloom Books, Trivandrum. Author of several books in English and in Malayalam. And also author of Swan : The Intelligent Picture Book.
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