Music and Meaning (6): ‘The Lotus-Eaters’ as ‘A Tale of Little Meaning’

You can see a painting of the mythical land of the Lotus-eaters here:

The artist, Robert Duncanson (1821-1872), was American - the son of a Canadian father and an African-American mother. During the Civil War he went to Canada, and then to England, where he exhibited this painting to much acclaim.

Tennyson's poem 'The Lotus-Eaters' is split into two parts: five initial stanzas which tell the story of some mariners that battle against the sea, then arrive on an island which turns out to be inhabited by many 'mild-eyed melancholy Lotus-eaters'; then the mariners themselves sing eight further stanzas of ' song', having contemplated returning to their Fatherland and decided to 'no longer roam'

As the enchanted mariners begin to taste the fruits of the Lotus-island, the omniscient narrator of the opening stanzas remarks that 'the gushing of the wave' begins to seem like it is 'mourn[ing]' and raving 'on alien shores' and the voices of their fellow mariners begin to sound 'thin, like voices from the grave'; finally, 'music in his ears his beating heart did make'. Remembering the importance for Tennyson of sociability, of avoiding stasis, and of the human voice, think about what he might be suggesting about both mankind and music in this opening stanza of the sailors' song:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro' the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

These eleven lines present a sustained attempt to express the nature of 'sweet music': its fall is 'softer' than a petal's; it lies 'gentlier on the spirit' than tired eyelids on tired eyes; 'sweet sleep [is brought] down from blissful skies' when one listens to 'sweet music'. The last four lines have both similarities and differences with one another.

They are similar because they all rhyme: the final words in each line are 'deep', 'creep', 'weep' and 'sleep'. Given that music has already been said to be sleep-inducing in the earlier lines, perhaps we already start to think about the word 'sleep' as soon as we encounter the word 'deep'; if so, perhaps expectation that we will encounter this word increases as we first go on to encounter further words that rhyme with it, 'creep' and 'weep', at the ends of the next two lines. Maybe then when we do at last arrive at the word we have been thinking about and expecting to arrive at, this too - like falling music - lies gentler on the spirit 'than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes'? We are expecting the word sleep to come and so it soothes us when it does arrive. However, each line is longer than the previous one: the first line has five stresses, the second seven stresses, the third nine, and the fourth has eleven. Here each line is two stresses longer than the last, whereas each of the lines that precede them have, uniformly, nine stresses. What do you think is happening here? What do you think Tennyson is attempting to achieve through the form of this poem?

Perhaps after describing the condition of music in the opening lines of this poem, Tennyson attempts to dramatise this condition in the final four? As soon as we read the word 'here', it is as if we are there (in the land of the Lotus-eaters) ourselves, and we are immediately disoriented by the fact that this line is so much shorter than we are expecting (five stresses in stead of nine). In much the same way as we saw might be the case regarding our anticipation of the word 'sleep', here we might start anticipating a return to the nine-stress line, especially after the encounter of a seven-stress after the short, five-stress line points us in this direction. What actually happens, of course, is that we are given the nine-stress line we've been expecting but then also a further eleven-stress line, which ends in the soothing word 'sleep', on top of this.

Remembering how the music described in the earlier lines lay gentler 'on the spirit... than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes', maybe Tennyson intends to create the impression that the four last lines are soothingly giving us even more than what we'd expected or anticipated. Both the music and the poetry show off their ; moreover, by the time we arrive at the end of the eleven-stress line we are glad to have come to the end and be awarded a break, just as the singers in the poem are encouraging the sailors to feel. The effect of Tennyson's lines on the reader parallels the effect of the song on the sailors. But what do you think Tennyson's meaning is here, regarding both music and poetry? Is it good, do you think, that music and poetry can soothe and subdue us in this manner? Should the sailors be listening to sweet, soothing music or should they be getting back to their work and trying to return to their families by setting out to sea? Should we be doing something more active than reading poetry?

'Surely, surely', the singers eventually conclude, 'slumber is more sweet than toil'. 'Surely, surely, slumber...' Here the word repetition and alliteration (repetition of the soothing 's' sound) create the impression that we, like the sailors, are being forcefully, persuasively hypnotised: the singers 'surely' want us to believe them, that 'slumber is more sweet than toil'. Eventually the mariners are persuaded, and they do decide to remain in the 'hollow Lotus-land', living there 'like Gods together, careless of mankind'. What do you think about the fact that Tennyson refers to this place as the 'hollow' Lotus-land? Is it 'careless' to swap 'toil' for 'slumber'?

Near the end of the final stanza, Tennyson's narrator describes the original Lotus-eaters one last time. Despite 'blight', 'famine', 'plague', 'earthquake' and all kinds of disaster, they are smiling:

But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning tho' the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil.

Such 'music' as the lotus-eaters find and sing is 'like a tale of little meaning': its power is 'strong', like the words and effect of a meaningless tale might be, but the power of such music would appear to be, at best, amoral or ethically neutral. At worst, as we have seen this poem appears to imply, the aesthetic power of words and music may in fact distract us from what is humanly meaningful (the real task of the mariners, to get back to work, sea and family).

[Go on to Music and Meaning (7): 'Set the wild echoes flying' in The Princess (1847)]

I.e., 'like [the song of] a chorus'.
The noun from 'superfluous', which means unnecessary and excessive

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