The Lotos-Eaters as a Victorian Poem
Tennyson is the most representative poet of the Victorian era. He stands in the same relation to his age as Chaucer does to the fourteenth century or Spenser to the Elizabethan period. He mirrors the various trends and tendencies of the period. The change which Tennyson’s thought underwent in regard to social and political questions itself reveals his curious sensitiveness to the tendencies of his time, for the sanguine temper of his early manhood, the doubts, misgivings and reactionary utterances of his middle age, and the chastened hopefulness of his last years, are alike reflections of successive moods which were widely characteristic of his generation.
The Victorian age was alive with new activities. There was a revolution in commercial enterprise, owing to the great increase of available markets, and as a result of this, an immense advance was made in the use of mechanical devices. The new commercial energy was reflected in the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was hailed as the inauguration of a new era of prosperity. But as commercialism tended to make men spiritually dead and morally bankrupt, and to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, a reaction against it was soon to follow. Men grew fed up with commercial activities and the physical comforts they brought them, and sought an escape from them. The Lotos-Eaters is a document of this reaction.
The sailors of Ulysses have wandered aimlessly across the sea. They have pulled hard at the cars in order to make the ship get atop the mountain-high waves and sail over them. They have passed sleepless nights in keeping watch over the pilot-stars in order to guide the ships in the right direction. They are completely exhausted by these troublesome voyages, and now they yearn for rest. In the lotos-land they find everything in a state of inactivity. They see an atmosphere of dreamy ease and indolence hang over the whole land. The calm and quiet of the place react on their mind. They see that it is only man
“the roof and crown of things who toils. So they ask why men should toil and suffer when all things have rest.”
They feel that death is the end of life, and as such there can be no meaning in life being an endless succession of toils and groans. Time moves very fast and in a little while man will sink into grave. Nothing lasts forever. All things he prizes most and even possesses will be snatched from him when he will die. When this is the fate of man there is no use for piling wealth through ceaseless activities
The sailors think that the joy of life consists in dreaming and idling away time. Work means enervation and pain, and as such one should give a wide berth to it. The best course of life for a man is to escape into some dreamland (like the land of the lotos-eaters) free from the weariness, the fever and the fret” of this world and to luxuriate in the beauties of nature:
“How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream With half-shut eyes ever to seem Falling asleep in a half-dream! To dream and dream, like yonder amber light, Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height,”
The sailors of Ulysses represent those Victorians who were disgusted with the commercialism of the day and sought refuge in a land where life is inaction or indolence. To conclude, the observation that the luxurious exhaustion of the sailors represents a reaction against the rampant commercialism of the Victorian era is true.
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