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The Music of Echo in Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters”

1901 illustration to the poem by W. E. F. Britten

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lotos-Eaters” responds to the following section from Homer’s The Odyssey:

“I was driven from there by foul winds for a length of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotos-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take on fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk, I sent two of my crew to see what kind of men the people of that place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotos-eaters, who did them no harm, but gave them the lotos to eat, which was so delicious that those who ate of it stopped caring about home…”

In Tennyson’s poem “The Lotos-Eaters,” the section before the Choric Song foregrounds water and sight, while the section after the Song (which functions as the portal into the land of the Lotos-Eaters) emphasizes music and hearing. The water world represents the turbulent, toilsome life the sailors seek to leave behind, while the Lotos land offers the sleepy, dream state wherein they hope to evade death and become like Gods: “Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore / Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar.”

The poem emphasizes sound throughout, but hearing becomes more central as the mariners draw closer to the Lotos way of life, where echo and, even more nuanced, almost-echo fill the air. This focus on some sounds that mirror each other and others that resemble one another but are actually slightly different is crucial in “The Lotos-Eaters” because it reflects the contrast between the two worlds the sailors straddle.

As the mariners approach the Lotos encampment, their sense of sight becomes central, as in the case where, “They saw the gleaming river seaward flow,” and later, “In the red West; thro’ mountain clefts the dale / Was seen far inland.” Yet when they arrive and integrate into the world of the Lotos-Eaters, all of a sudden the environment from which they recently came (symbolized by the emphasis on sight and the ocean they sailed upon) becomes foreign to them: “The gushing of the wave / Far far away did seem to mourn and rave / On alien shores.”

The person who tastes the Lotos experiences a waining of voice but a growing ability to hear—“His voice was thin, as voices from the grave”—but also a sudden capacity to decipher the “music” of his own “beating heart.” The poem also starts repeating words more frequently to approximate the echoes that abound in the Lotos land.

This Lotos place may resemble the world to which these voyagers are accustomed, but it’s only a land of “seems” (as evidenced by the prevalence of that word throughout the poem). In this way, the echoes are inserted into the poem verbally, as the men “hear the dewy echoes calling,” but also thematically.

The place of the Lotos-Eaters is a middle land both geographically and psychologically in which it’s neither morning nor evening, but “always afternoon.” The men hover between “what the inner spirit sings” and an external world, between life and death, home and away, being “deep-asleep” “yet all awake.”

They are located “between sun and moon upon the shore,” which places them on some strange sky beach, another odd halfway point. They are also described as having “half-dropt eyelids,” which indicates they are simultaneously looking at the outside world and at their own inner land that lies behind that half-shut lid, half-dreaming and half-awake. Replete with echoes, which are the reflection of sound, the poem’s form reflects this duality.

The echoes gather and increase until they live on top of one another by the final two stanzas in which “Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine” sits atop “Only to hear were sweet, stretch’d out beneath the pine,” such that the “Only to hear” pair is visibly twinned, sonically reflected in the sound of the echo, but also visually reflected, as though one “Only to hear” looks upon itself in a mirror. The same phenomenon occurs in the subsequent two lines that open the next and final stanza of the poem: “The Lotos blooms below the barren peak” lives over “The Lotos blows by every winding creek.” This has the effect of a doubling with some difference or a mise an abyme with certain moments of imperfect reflection or variation.

Let’s anatomize this section. When we look at these four lines all together, including the Roman numeral that signals the final section, they look like this:

Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine,

Only to hear were sweet, stretch’d out beneath the pine.

VIII

The Lotos blooms below the barren peak:

The Lotos blows by every winding creek.

In this formulation, there’s a reflection, but only to a point. All four lines are linked by exact echoes and even almost echoes, such as “The Lotos blooms” and “The Lotos blows,” which replicate each other right up until they part paths when one goes the way of the “oo” and the other the way of the “ow.”Similarly, the “Only to hear” pair remain identical until they break off over “and” and “were.” Their sounds even start to resemble one another again a little further along in “see” and “sweet” and in the “s” of “sparkling” and “strech’d,” and then in the “b” of “brine and “beneath.”

These sound similarities stretch over the Roman numeral to interlace all four lines together in a sort of harmony that mimics the music foregrounded in the poem, most overtly in the Choric Song with its “sweet music,” but also in the “music that gentlier on the spirit lies, / Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes,” and elsewhere.

Even though they do not always rhyme or fall at the end of the line, the words in this four line stretch (that closely resemble each other in a way that emphasizes both correspondence and variance) function in much the same way as Anne Ferry’s conception of end rhyme. Ferry calls it a “specialized form of repetition since the linked words are not identical…Rhyme works rhetorically like a simile because both kinds of verbal patterning make a comparison in which perceived likeness at the same time calls attention to difference.”

This counterintuitive harmony is achieved by pairing the “brine” that ends the first “Only to hear” line and the “barren” that lies almost at the end of the first “The Lotos” line, just as “pine” and “peak” convene at “p.” The reason pairings like this work is that “brine” and “barren,” for example, sound alike but are different in their significance, yet just similar enough to form a cognitively satisfying pairing.

In this four-line structure, there’s the same fight between the privileging of sight and sound that we have seen throughout the poem, such that the first “only to hear” is followed by “and see,” and then the sense of sight takes over in the second pair when we witness the Lotos blooming and blowing around—although sound is still privileged in the echo built into that final pair.

Later in the poem, when the men speak of themselves as being like Gods, sight still figures into the equation in lines such as “Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,” but then the sound/music creeps in again right near the end, and wins out: “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 though the words are strong.” Here, sound has taken over to the extent that it doesn’t even make a difference that the story has little significance because its sound has become its essential identity.

This keen focus on hearing points to a deeper aspect of the Lotos spell: its tendency to make the men turn inward and “harken what the inner spirit sings.” This image resembles the earlier one in which this new land allows the men to hear the tune of their own hearts. This indicates that in “The Lotos-Eaters” listening and music operate not only on a sonic level, but also on a spiritual register. Ultimately, eating the Lotos is so much more than merely epicurean; it allows a man to listen to the melody of his own soul.