Tennyson Creates an Atmosphere of Languor in The Lotos-Eaters

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      The atmosphere of languor looms large over Tennyson's The Lotos-Eaters. On the basis of the story of Ulysses in Odyssey by Homer, Tennyson intricately creates a strain of lazy music in The Lotos-Eaters, Ulysses accompanied by his mariners, on the way back to home, visited a remote island which was inhabited by the lotos-eaters.

      As in Oenone, Tennyson takes a classical story and adapts it to represent a mood of the modern mind-the tendency to lose in dreaming all touch with the actualities of life. Those who surrender themselves to this mood become callous, in the end, to the sufferings of humanity, like the Epicurean gods. The attitude of mind towards life here is the exact antithesis of that in Ulysses; it is the same as that in The Palace of Art, and the results it produces are seen in The Vision of Sin.

After describing, in the first part, how Ulysses and his sailors reached the land of the lotos-eaters, what the land looked like and how the sailors were offered the lotos fruit to eat and were overcome with a mood of inactivity, the poet gives us the choric song which forms the main part of the poem. In this song the sailors say that struggle is futile and they do not want to return to their native land. They say that the land of the lotos eaters holds for them an irresistible charm. Living on lotos and enjoying life here is the very opposite of ceaseless labour and wandering over the sea.
Languor in The Lotos-Eaters

Philosophy of Inaction and Escape from Life

      After describing, in the first part, how Ulysses and his sailors reached the land of the lotos-eaters, what the land looked like and how the sailors were offered the lotos fruit to eat and were overcome with a mood of inactivity, the poet gives us the choric song which forms the main part of the poem. In this song the sailors say that struggle is futile and they do not want to return to their native land. They say that the land of the lotos eaters holds for them an irresistible charm. Living on lotos and enjoying life here is the very opposite of ceaseless labour and wandering over the sea. The slow moving streams, the gentle breeze, the soft music of sea waves, the echoes of dripping caves and everything else belonging to this place has a lulling effect. They want to merge themselves into this dreamy atmosphere, lying half asleep on flower beds. The sailors say that everything in the world enjoys rest. Fruits and flowers grow and ripen effortlessly, free from worry and the necessity to work. Why should human beings then toil and undergo troubles — human beings who are the best creation of God? The sailors see no use in returning to their homes, though their memories of their past life are dear to them. Everything has changed, they say. They won't be recognised by their own wives and children and return home only as kill-joys. Their property has probably been inherited by their sons or grabbed by the princes, or possibly there is chaos in their native land. They do not deem themselves equal to the task of restoring order there, having grown too old and tired for such a task. The sailors, finally, give vent to their disgust for the world and for incessant hard work. They hate the ocean and think that it is futile to struggle against the forces of evil. They think that the gods are cruel to human beings and derive vicious pleasure out of their suffering. This philosophy leads the sailors to the conclusion that it is better to rest in peace than to continue their wanderings.

      Inaction, isolation and detachment from society, (not of useful labour and social services) forms the central idea of the poem. The poet makes the fellow sailors of Ulysses express a mood of weary disgust with the world. The sky and the sea fill them with a sense of hateful dullness. Under the influence of lotos they feel drowsy. Somnolence and indolence seize them. They criticise life and read its lessons from a new angle. What is Life? Is it not all futility and emptiness? What is virtue? It is not all empty struggle against evil, which can never be overcome? What is the good of life's toil, if at the end of all this, all our best achievements are but 'a handful of dust shut in an urn of brass'? It is not better far to be propped on beds of Amaranth and Moly and imitate the gods, in high heaven, who enjoy themselves and send on earth blight and famine, war and misery? The sailors want no more of toil and wandering. 'Let us alone' this is the key-note and master appeal of the poem.

Two Views

      Some critics suggest that the philosophy of life preached in this poem is merely the expression of the opinion of the tired mariners. Others hold the view that Tennyson wanted to expose the weakness of self-deception, because he makes the mariners of Ulysses indulge in passive inactivity from a sense of defeat and frustration, and that, under the depressing self-deception in which a man can keep his conscience clean and go on rusting in ease.

      It is entirely wrong to attribute any particular view to Tennyson. Tennyson's deal was more probably Ulysses. Tennyson was too much a utilitarian Puritan to believe in passive inactivity or romantic, but lazy, lotos-eating. He was a fighter who believed in 'shining in use' - who took for his life's motto -

To follow knowledge like the sinking star
Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.

Technical Excellence in tune with Languor

      Tennyson has made the poem rich with the descriptions of Nature. The colour and sounds of Nature are blended with vague undefined feelings of sweet repose and dreamy languor. Only a great artist could do this. The description of the island, where 'it always seemed afternoon,' with streams rolling a 'slumberous sheet of foam below,' of music falling gentler than 'tired eyelids upon tired eyes' are sensuous to a degree. The resonance and compound word-making (like up-clomb,' 'thick- twined vine' etc.) reminds us of Keats. Keats' technique was to use as many suggestive compound words as possible.

Mood and Atmosphere Artistically Created

      In this poem as in Oenone, Tennyson constructs an ideal landscape: it is a land infused with languor, for the dreaming lotos-eaters, though details of the scenery are taken from things seen in the Pyrenees. The sensuous images are deliberately chosen to subdue.

Our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy...

      Tennyson's chief poetic skill in this poem lies in the fact that he has marvellously conveyed the atmosphere of indolence. The description of the land of the lotos-eaters creates an effect of drowsiness, so that Nature throughout embodies the languid indolence of the lotos eater's ideal. The lotos-island is,

...a land
In which it seemed always afternoon,
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along, the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.

      The sunset here is under a spell of stillness, the poppy hags in sleep, the amber light seems to dream, and all things seem the same. Tennyson stresses everywhere the dreamy aspect of Nature to express the mood of drowsiness, to symbolise indolence and inactivity. The effect of drowsiness is enhanced by the occasional introduction of lines in a different key. While mosh of the lines in the poem are slow-moving, here and there a few lines burst into sharp cries and sudden energy. We have slow-moving lines in

Music that gentler on the spirit lies,
Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes;

      Or in

And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep

      But for the sake of contrast, to heighten the effect of the slow-moving lines, we occasionally come upon such lines as -

Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o'er the dark-blue sea.

      Or

Roll'd to starboard, roll'd to labour board, when the surge was seething free.

      Pictorial effect that emphasizes somnolence in the poem. The languid atmosphere is not produced by the details of description alone. Through-out, Tennyson uses the sound and melody of his verse to convey this atmosphere.

"...and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave
And deep-asleep he seem'd..."
or
"Most weary seem'd the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam."

      Tennyson is a master of effects devised to make the sound correspond with the sense of languid. He uses all possible devices-frequent use of sibilants and liquids, echoes, repetitions, assonance, alliteration, vowel music, similarity of sounds, change of rhythm, etc. — to get desired effect. The poem is full of examples illustrating the use of one or more of these devices. Here are a few, in addition to those given above. The sibilant I and liquid r has been used here:

And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

      Repetition is used in stanza IV of the choric song, or in -

Most weary seem'd the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.

      Assonance, vowel music and alliteration can be found in stanza V of the choric song:

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.

Conclusion

      The langour-ridden theme of the poem is nevertheless universal in nature. In the poem tired marines given vent to their tired emotion. Cut-off from the domestic life for a long period, the marines show a resentment to the idea of reverting back to their previous life. Even the thought of reconciliation with their families fail to charge up their spirit. Their weariness is human in nature. Their emotion is not isolated but pertaining to our everyday life. Even in our life we experience the same type of tiredness and weariness which make us to yearn for a refuge in a remote place. Thus this languidness never seems to be unnatural, never it ceases to appeal our heart.

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