Odysseus tells his mariners to have courage, assuring them that they will soon reach the shore of their home. In the afternoon, they reach a land “in which it seemed always afternoon” because of the languid and peaceful atmosphere. The mariners sight this “land of streams” with its gleaming river flowing to the sea, its three snow-capped mountaintops, and its shadowy pine growing in the vale.
The mariners are greeted by the “mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters,” whose dark faces appear pale against the rosy sunset. These Lotos-eaters come bearing the flower and fruit of the lotos, which they offer to Odysseus’s mariners. Those who eat the lotos feel as if they have fallen into a deep sleep; they sit down upon the yellow sand of the island and can hardly perceive their fellow mariners speaking to them, hearing only the music of their heartbeat in their ears. Although it has been sweet to dream of their homes in Ithaca, the lotos makes them weary of wandering, preferring to linger here. One who has eaten of the lotos fruit proclaims that he will “return no more,” and all of the mariners begin to sing about this resolution to remain in the land of the Lotos-eaters.
The rest of the poem consists of the eight numbered stanzas of the mariners’ choric song, expressing their resolution to stay forever. First, they praise the sweet and soporific music of the land of the Lotos-eaters, comparing this music to petals, dew, granite, and tired eyelids. In the second stanza, they question why man is the only creature in nature who must toil. They argue that everything else in nature is able to rest and stay still, but man is tossed from one sorrow to another. Man’s inner spirit tells him that tranquility and calmness offer the only joy, and yet he is fated to toil and wander his whole life.
In the third stanza, the mariners declare that everything in nature is allotted a lifespan in which to bloom and fade. As examples of other living things that die, they cite the “folded leaf, which eventually turns yellow and drifts to the earth, as well as the “full-juiced apple,” which ultimately falls to the ground, and the flower, which ripens and fades. Next, in the fourth stanza, the mariners question the purpose of a life of labor, since nothing is cumulative and thus all our accomplishments lead nowhere. They question “what...will last,” proclaiming that everything in life is fleeting and therefore futile. The mariners also express their desire for “long rest or death,” either of which will free them from a life of endless labor.
The fifth stanza echoes the first stanza’s positive appeal to luxurious self-indulgence; the mariners declare how sweet it is to live a life of continuous dreaming. They paint a picture of what it might be like to do nothing all day except sleep, dream, eat lotos, and watch the waves on the beach. Such an existence would enable them peacefully to remember all those individuals they once knew who are now either buried (“heaped over with a mound of grass”) or cremated (“two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!”).
In the sixth stanza, the mariners reason that their families have probably forgotten them anyway, and their homes fallen apart, so they might as well stay in the land of the Lotos-eaters and “let what is broken so remain.” Although they have fond memories of their wives and sons, surely by now, after ten years of fighting in Troy, their sons have inherited their property; it will merely cause unnecessary confusion and disturbances for them to return now. Their hearts are worn out from fighting wars and navigating the seas by means of the constellations, and thus they prefer the relaxing death-like existence of the Land of the Lotos to the confusion that a return home would create.
In the seventh stanza, as in the first and fifth, the mariners bask in the pleasant sights and sounds of the island. They imagine how sweet it would be to lie on beds of flowers while watching the river flow and listening to the echoes in the caves. Finally, the poem closes with the mariners’ vow to spend the rest of their lives relaxing and reclining in the “hollow Lotos land.” They compare the life of abandon, which they will enjoy in Lotos land, to the carefree existence of the Gods, who could not care less about the famines, plagues, earthquakes, and other natural disasters that plague human beings on earth. These Gods simply smile upon men, who till the earth and harvest crops until they either suffer in hell or dwell in the “Elysian valleys” of heaven. Since they have concluded that “slumber is more sweet than toil,” the mariners resolve to stop wandering the seas and to settle instead in the land of the Lotos-eaters.
This poem is divided into two parts: the first is a descriptive narrative (lines 1–45), and the second is a song of eight numbered stanzas of varying length (lines 46–173). The first part of the poem is written in nine-line Spenserian stanzas, so called because they were employed by Spenser in The Faerie Queene . The rhyme scheme of the Spenserian stanza is a closely interlinked ABABBCBCC, with the first eight lines in iambic pentameter and the final line an Alexandrine (or line of six iambic feet). The choric song follows a far looser structure: both the line-length and the rhyme scheme vary widely among the eight stanzas.
This poem is based on the story of Odysseus’s mariners described in scroll IX of Homer’s Odyssey . Homer writes about a storm that blows the great hero’s mariners off course as they attempt to journey back from Troy to their homes in Ithaca. They come to a land where people do nothing but eat lotos (the Greek for our English “lotus”), a flower so delicious that some of his men, upon tasting it, lose all desire to return to Ithaca and long only to remain in the Land of the Lotos. Odysseus must drag his men away so that they can resume their journey home. In this poem, Tennyson powerfully evokes the mariners’ yearning to settle into a life of peacefulness, rest, and even death.
The poem draws not only on Homer’s Odyssey, but also on the biblical Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. In the Bible, a “life of toil” is Adam’s punishment for partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge: after succumbing to the temptation of the fruit, Adam is condemned to labor by the sweat of his brow. Yet in this poem, fruit (the lotos) provides a release from the life of labor, suggesting an inversion of the biblical story.
Tennyson provides a tempting and seductive vision of a life free from toil. His description of the Lotos Land rivals the images of pleasure in Milton’s “L’Allegro” and Marvell’s “The Garden.” Yet his lush descriptive passages are accompanied by persuasive rhetoric; nearly every stanza of the choric song presents a different argument to justify the mariners’ resolution to remain in the Lotos Land. For example, in the second stanza of the song the mariners express the irony of the fact that man, who is the pinnacle and apex of creation, is the only creature made to toil and labor all the days of his life. This stanza may also be read as a pointed inversion and overturning of Coleridge’s “Work without Hope,” in which the speaker laments that “all nature seems at work” while he alone remains unoccupied.
Although the taste of the lotos and the vision of life it offers is seductive, the poem suggests that the mariners may be deceiving themselves in succumbing to the hypnotic power of the flower. Partaking of the lotos involves abandoning external reality and living instead in a world of appearances, where everything “seems” to be but nothing actually is: the Lotos Land emerges as “a land where all things always seemed the same” (line 24). Indeed, the word “seems” recurs throughout the poem, and can be found in all but one of the opening five stanzas, suggesting that the Lotos Land is not so much a “land of streams” as a “land of seems.” In addition, in the final stanza of the choric song, the poem describes the Lotos Land as a “hollow” land with “hollow” caves, indicating that the vision of the sailors is somehow empty and insubstantial.
The reader, too, is left with ambivalent feelings about the mariners’ argument for lassitude. Although the thought of life without toil is certainly tempting, it is also deeply unsettling. The reader’s discomfort with this notion arises in part from the knowledge of the broader context of the poem: Odysseus will ultimately drag his men away from the Lotos Land disapprovingly; moreover, his injunction to have “courage” opens—and then overshadows—the whole poem with a sense of moral opprobrium. The sailors’ case for lassitude is further undermined morally by their complaint that it is unpleasant “to war with evil” (line 94); are they too lazy to do what is right? By choosing the Lotos Land, the mariners are abandoning the sources of substantive meaning in life and the potential for heroic accomplishment. Thus in this poem Tennyson forces us to consider the ambiguous appeal of a life without toil: although all of us share the longing for a carefree and relaxed existence, few people could truly be happy without any challenges to overcome, without the fire of aspiration and the struggle to make the world a better place.