What does it mean to live? Mankind has been asking this very question since the dawn of time, and it is a recurring theme through many of the poems of Lord Alfred Tennyson. Whether the poem is “The Lady of Shalott,” ”Marianne,” or one of his other works, the theme of “living” flows throughout much of his poetry. However, a pair of poems that discuss contrasting views on life are “Ulysses” and “The Lotos Eaters”. “Ulysses” looks at living as a grand adventure and considers inactivity and lethargy as the opposite of true living. In contrast “The Lotos Eaters” depicts men who find solace in a mind numbing drug and sitting on a beach doing nothing. Both of the poems contain some similar components, but Tennyson uses structural elements, poetical imagery, and historical references to create images that describe two very different ways of “living” life, and studying the poems in reference to one another helps the reader better understand each.
Structure is important in poetry, and Tennyson uses it with full effect to communicate his ideas and views in the two poems. “Ulysses” is written in blank verse, and this gives the poem a solemn, speech-like, and less soothing sound. Blank verse consists of no rhyme scheme, but each line contains ten syllables. Blank verse is characterized by iambic pentameter which determines the pattern of stresses on the words. The combination of blank verse with iambic pentameter can be clearly seen in the following lines from the poem:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. (66-70)
The poetic structure of blank verse gives the poem a certain rhythm, but the absence of rhyming, married with the very common speech sound of the lines, combines to create a realistic image and somewhat melancholy feeling in the reader. The feeling of realism and somberness that the blank verse creates helps convey the sense of entrapment in old age, and longing for the sea and good old days, that Ulysses expresses throughout the poem. In contrast, “The Lotos Eaters” creates a calm and bewitching atmosphere to accentuate the mind-numbing effects of the lotos plants that the sailors eat. To accomplish this through the structure of the poem, Tennyson uses what is called a Spenserian stanza. This style of stanza uses a rhyme scheme of ababbcbcc, and each stanza contains nine iambic lines (New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics). According to one writer, “The rhythm and rhyme scheme accentuate the “languid” (5) quality of the landscape and the people that Odysseus and his men meet there […] Its [Spenserian stanza’s] repetitions enhance the slow advance of the ideas of the poem” (Dooley). Unlike “Ulysses” which does not have any kind of rhyme scheme, the rhyming in “The Lotos Eaters” also makes the poem sound more fanciful than its counterpart, which furthers the ideas and feelings that Tennyson is trying to convey to the reader. Tennyson enlists distinct structural elements to convey the different moods and ideas in his two poems “Ulysses” and “The Lotos Eaters”.
While Tennyson does utilize structure to establish moods and support ideas, he also makes use of other poetical devices to further reinforce the themes of “Ulysses” and “The Lotos Eaters”. The poem “Ulysses” consists mainly of straight monologue from Ulysses’ mouth, but also holds imagery that provides key insights into Tennyson’s intended meaning for the poem. For example, at one point in the poem Ulysses says, “Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades / Forever and forever when I move” (19-21). Concerning these lines Paul Dean says, “”Gleams” is a favorite Tennyson word; the lines mock the human quest for finality, truth, or certainty. All we can do is voyage on” (21-22). Tennyson employs this word to describe how Ulysses is longing for the next adventure –either a literal one, or the adventure of death –and every new experience has left him hungering after new glimpses of discovery. Also, Tennyson uses descriptions of the sea and land to create moods in the poem. Findlay says, “References to earth, air, fire, and water convey mood and express judgment. The expansive ocean is firmly established as Ulysses’ element, in contrast to the confining crags of Ithaca. Ulysses sees his life in terms of drinking “delight of battle,” and the ocean as a possible final resting place” (140). In direct contrast with this longing for action and work to give meaning to life, “The Lotos Eaters” contains poetic imagery that creates the exact opposite feeling in the reader’s mind. Tennyson uses words that convey a passive and dreamy feeling to the reader to communicate the apathy for life in the sailors after they have partaken of the lotos. Tennyson takes advantage of words like “downward smoke,” “veils,”“wavering,” and “slumbrous” to communicate a lethargy in the energy of the poem. This is clearly visible in the following lines:
A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke,
Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn, did go;
And some through wavering lights and shadows broke,
Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below (10-13)
The poem contains such imagery throughout, communicating how the sailors who arrived on the island’s shores decide to think no more of home, but instead to dwell on the island, being dulled to all other cares or desires. Through the previous examples, Tennyson’s uses of imagery can be seen to clearly support the themes of each of the two poems –reinforcing and accentuating their messages.
Finally, while the two poems differ greatly in their message, structural style, and imagery, they both contain a large number of similarities when considering their mythological and historical context and roots. Both “Ulysses” and “The Lotos Eaters” are set within the context of Homer’s work The Odyssey. However, the poems also share a strong influence from Virgil’s The Aeneid. According to Adam Roberts, some of the references to The Aeneid in “Ulysses” can lend insight into what Tennyson meant in the poem. Roberts says in reference to the passage which discusses the “gleams” of an untraveled world mentioned earlier, “Ulysses describes his endless onward questing […] This ever-receding goal seems to owe something to the […] Trojan’s sea quest: ‘dum per mare magnum/Italiam sequimur fugietem’(Aeneid V.628-9) [‘whilst over the great sea we chase after an ever-fleeing Italy’]” (60). In light of this passage, the poem seems to be discussing the adventure and life that Ulysses, probably old and seeing the end of his days approaching, is longing after. However, “Ulysses” is not the only poem that has strong ties to The Aeneid. Concerning the hypnotizing drug of the lotos plant on the ship’s crew, Roberts says, “…the deadly appeal of the sleepy Lotos lifestyle involves some sense of the fate of Palinurus, the watchman on Aeneas’ ship, who is beguiled by the god Sleep to shut his weary eyes” (61). In The Aeneid, after Palinurus drifts into sleep, he falls overboard and drowns. Reading the poem in context of this reference shows that Tennyson is not extolling living in a mind-numbing state, but is actually subtly cueing the reader to realize the danger of living in such a manner.
Tennyson, like mankind before and since, seeks to understand what “to live” really means, and his poems “Ulysses” and “The Lotos Eaters” each discuss a very different approach to this conundrum. “Ulysses” uses blank verse and monologue, combined with bleak descriptions of sea and land, to create a sense of melancholy and longing for the activity, adventure, and comradeship that gives meaning to life. In stark contrast, “The Lotos Eaters” contains Spenserian stanzas that read rhythmically and have a regular rhyme scheme, combined with dreamy imagery and references to beguilements in The Aeneid, to warn the reader that living lethargically and passively is no life at all. Through these two very different poems Tennyson encourages the reader to live actively, and studying them together enables the meaning of each poem to be better understood.
A.P., and T.V.F.B. “Spenserian Stanza.” New Princeton Encyclopedia Of Poetry & Poetics (1993): 1205-1206. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
Dean, Paul. “Many Voices.” New Criterion 28.8 (2010): 20-23. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
Dooley, Deborah A. “Literary Contexts In Poetry: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lotos Eaters.” Literary Contexts In Poetry: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ (2006): 1. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
Findlay, L. M. “Sensation And Memory In Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’.” Victorian Poetry 19.2 (1981): 139-149. JSTOR. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
Roberts, A. “Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ And ‘Lotos Eaters’: Sources In Virgil’s Aeneid V.” Notes And Queries 46.1 (1999): 60-62. Scopus®. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.
Tennyson, Alfred. “The Lotos Eaters.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 2031-032. Print.
Tennyson, Alfred. “Ulysses.” The Norton Anthology English Literature. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 2032-033. Print.