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Archive for January, 2013

Tennyson’s “The Lotos Eaters” – A wonderful meditation on human predicament

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 6, 2013

LotoseatersMy real need for a deeper familiarization with Greek and Roman mythology hit me when I first encountered W.H.Auden’s brilliant poem “Under Which Lyre”. The poem’s attraction to me lay not only in Auden’s genius for painting a wonderful picture of the return of war veterans back to Harvard for furthering their education but also in juxtaposing their behaviour and psychological orientation with that of various Greek and Roman Gods. During my first reading of this poem, a large part of it was completely lost on me. Yet something kept telling me that there are aspects of this poem that are deeply attractive and inherently beautiful and the handicap of not knowing the context of mythology was coming between me and enjoying the poem in its entirety. By a happy accident a part of this knowledge gap got filled up after I attended a 10 week course on Greek and Roman Mythology on Coursera offered by that irrepressible and exuberant professor Peter Struck of Penn State University. The wholesome effect of my learning of the mythological context was deeply evident when I read Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lotos-Eaters”

In its popular usage today, “Lotus Eaters” has come to represent lazy and indolent people living a life which is care-free and devoid of work. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus and his band of tired, exhausted and home-sick mariners, after ten years of war and plunder of Troy, encounter the Lotus Eaters on an island on their way back to their homeland of Ithaca. Some of them succumb to the temptation of eating the stalk and fruits of Lotus plant and give up the desire to go home once for all in exchange for a life of languid, dreamy and painless existence.

Tennyson structures the poem into two parts. The first part quickly explains the story as it is and ends with the declaration of the desire of the newly proselytized Lotos-Eaters to stay back where they are:

They sat them down upon the yellow sand,
Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then someone said, “We will return no more;”
And all at once they sang, “Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.”

There is a touch of genius when Tennyson characterizes the ocean on which Odysseus and his band of brave men travel as “wandering fields of barren foam”

The second part of the poem is expressed as a choric song where the philosophical justification for their decision to stay put is outlined and Tennyson does it in a way that is deep, beautiful, moving and wonderfully memorable. The men arguing for staying back and not returning to Ithaca invoke the troubling sense of resignation, purposelessness and futility of human existence as justifications for their collective decision. In my view, there are three key aspects of human lives that Tennyson touches upon in his poem.

Firstly, it is the nature of work and the relation of human beings to it:

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown;
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!”—
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?

………………………………………

………………………………………
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labor be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence—ripen, fall, and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.

Secondly, the poem raises interesting questions around the impact of time on family relations and the need for asserting past order in a changed situation. It has been nearly ten years since these mariners have left their homes. They are not sure what is the order in their houses now and hence the questioning of the need to revisit something dear they left long ago:

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives,
And dear the last embraces of our wives
And their warm tears; but all hath suffer’d change;
For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us, our looks are strange,
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.
……………………………………
……………………………………
And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things.
Is there confusion in the little isle?
Let what is broken so remain.
The Gods are hard to reconcile;
’Tis hard to settle order once again.
There is confusion worse than death,
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
Long labor unto aged breath,
Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars
And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.

Thirdly, Tennyson also touches upon the indifference of Gods and the intransigence of human fate:

On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl’d
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl’d
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world;
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.
But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong,
Like a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong;
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil,
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil,
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil;
Till they perish and they suffer—some, ’tis whisper’d—down in hell
Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell,
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

 In response to each of these themes and questions the mariners raise, Tennyson offers the natural beauty, the state of utter restfulness and comfort of the land of Lotus Eaters as a countervailing consideration for justifying their decision. It is in this evocation of the natural beauty of the island that one gets to see the splendor and poetic excellence of Tennyson

If there is one thing this poem has done to me, it is that it has quietly but firmly, reasserted the utility of good poetry i.e. give a voice and words to questions that keep popping up in my mind – especially those questions which do not have the necessary and needed accuracy and comfort of words to express

On some twilight evenings, when I am alone, troubled and have the luxury of facing myself, something in me asks me these very same lines that Tennyson wrote:

What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past

..and in a very generous way the poem itself provides me with the needed answer:

All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence—ripen, fall, and cease

Need one look for more answers?

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