Term Paper: Lord Alfred Tennyson's the Lotos Eaters and Ulysses

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Two poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson were derived from Homer, concerning different periods in the life of Ulysses (or Odysseus, in the Greek). "The Lotos-Eaters" refers to a land where this people lived and where Ulysses spent a decade or more idling away his time when he was on his way home from the Trojan War. "Ulysses" considers how the great warrior might have responded to the time of peace following his return from that war and coming after he ejected the suitors and reclaimed his throne.

Homer depicts Ulysses as a man punished for insulting one of the gods. His hero possesses certain civilized qualities that give him a strong aura of humanity in spite of his more violent nature. Ulysses is clearly a hero who overcomes great odds to return home and free his wife and son from the thrall of the suitors. Ulysses is a deserving hero who achieves what he sets out to achieve.

Heroism is something attributed to compatriots, not to the enemy. Heroism in Homer is more of a test, and Ulysses is tested again and again as he makes his way home. Heroism in Homer is also equated with other virtues, such as faith, truth, understanding, and recognition of the power of the gods.

At the beginning of the Odyssey, Ulysses is found imprisoned on Calypso's island ten years after the end of the Trojan War. When we meet him in this epic poem, he is a man in such despair at his fate that he has given up even trying to get home. He is resigned to his fate until Athena comes to him and gives him back his courage, after which he is able to sail for home once more. Ulysses will be the last of the Greeks to reach home. He tells his story to the Phaiakians, and that story provides the background and the story of his travails leading to Kalypso's island, where he is found in Book V. His failure to reach home earlier is attributable in part to his offending of Poseidon, the god of the sea, which occurs when he and his men are trapped in a cave by the Cyclops, Polyphemos, also the son of Poseidon.

Ulysses tells his story to the Phaiakians, and that story provides the background and the story of his travails leading to Kalypso's island, where he is found in Book V. His failure to reach home earlier is attributable in part to his offending of Poseidon, the god of the sea, which occurs when he and his men are trapped in a cave by the Cyclops, Polyphemos, also the son of Poseidon. Ulysses blinds the Cyclops, and as a consequence Poseidon prevents his ships from completing their journey.

There is other evidence that Ulysses has been abandoned by the gods, and this is found in the story of his stay on the Aiolian island. Aiolos gives the warrior a bag containing all the winds except the beneficent west wind, the intention being to help the Greeks reach home:

But when I asked him about the way back and requested conveyance, again he did not refuse, but granted me passage.

He gave me a bag made of the skin taken off a nine-year ox, stuffed full inside with the courses of all the blowing winds, for the son of Kronos had set him in charge over the winds... (Lattimore 152)

All they have to do is keep the bag closed. For ten days they do just that, and they then near their homeland, close enough to "see people tending fires, we were very close to them" (Lattimore 153). However, before Ulysses's ships can reach land, the bag is opened and the ships are blown back where they started. Aiolos casts them out this time:

least of living creatures, out of this island! Hurry!

I have no right to see on his way, none to give passage to any man whom the blessed gods hate with such bitterness.

Out. This arrival means you are hateful to the Immortals. (Lattimore 154)

The reason for this turn of events is that Ulysses and his men do not trust one another. Ulysses is exhausted because he has been handling the sail by himself and does not trust his men to do it: "I would not give it / to any other companion, so we could come home quicker" (Lattimore 153). While Ulysses sleeps, his companions talk about him, and they believe he has been given treasures which he is keeping from them and hiding in the bag given him by Aiolos. The companions state that they have been through all the same troubles as Ulysses, and yet they are not sharing in the treasure they believe he has. They therefore open the bag and let out the winds.

This is a pattern that is repeated in different ways throughout, for Ulysses and his men are often at odds. Ulysses is not an entirely admirable character. He is opportunistic and self-serving when necessary, willing to abandon his men to the Laistrygonians because he is convinced he cannot help them anyway. These are the people Ulysses and his men meet next in their travels, after they have been cast out by Aiolos, and their leader, Antiphates, tries to kill and eat them all. Ulysses leaves many of his men behind:

But while they were destroying them in the deep-water harbor meanwhile I, drawing from beside my thigh the sharp sword chopped away the cable that tied the ship with the dark prow... / Gladly my ship, and only mine, fled out from the overhanging cliffs to the open water, but the others were all destroyed there. (Lattimore 155)

This is another example of how Ulysses thinks of himself first and keeps all power in his own hands as he makes his way home, with his companions serving as fodder for the various enemies they meet.

The visit to the land of the lotus eaters is also included in the trials of Ulysses, and Tennyson takes this story and offers his vision of its meaning in "The Lotos-Eaters." Tennyson writes this poem in modified iambic pentameter, the meter of the original Homeric epic. He does so in a way that does not strictly adhere to the meter, however, creating a more conversational effect as the meter is changed in keeping with the way English is spoken. Alan Grob refers to the "narcotic qualities of its meter, sound, and sensuous detail" (118) and sees this as an expression by Tennyson of his view of pure poetry. For this reason, Grob also notes that in terms of the theme, "its most important links are not with its Homeric counterpart, Ulysses, but with the aesthetically oriented work of the volume in which it initially appeared, Poems of 1832" (118). Grob also notes that Tennyson often drew on "the domain of public myth... In order to give form to the creative experience and to find some symbolic equivalent for the relationship of the artist to his environment" (118). In this sense, "The Lotos-Eaters" exists in two worlds, starting in the symbolically organized poetry of 1832, then being revised for later publication in another decade, at which time "Tennyson adopts the public manner of his later poetry and indicates his increasing alignment with the sensibility of his age" (118).

In the Homeric story, Ulysses and his mean arrive at the island of the lotus eaters, and the people of this land eat the flower and have no cares of any kind, living in a state of euphoria that includes the sapping of the will to do anything else. The Greeks from the ship fall prey to this same force and want to stay on the island, but Ulysses drags them back and ties them up so they will not try to get back to land. He then orders the remainder of the crew to set sail once more and to do so quietly, fearful that the people of the land will offer others in the crew the lotus and so deter them from returning home, which is all that consumes Ulysses at this point.

Malcolm MacLaren points out that the narrative as told by Homer is bare and compressed and also much shorter than the version offered by Tennyson. The Homeric version does not describe the land at all, and the lotus eaters are only described in temrs of their hospitality. Even the effects that the lotus may have had on them over time is not described. In Homer, the story covers 23 lines, while in Tennyson, the story is expanded and takes up five Spenserian stanzas, beginning with the arrival of the Greeks in Lotos-land and ending with a Choric Song "sung by those who had eaten of the lotos" so they could "describe the charms of Lotos-land" and "express their determination never to depart" (MacLaren 259). MacLaren states that in the longer version, Tennyson creates a mood and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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