Desire and rest are dominant themes in Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lotos-Eaters," with the lotos flowers enhancing the mariners' desire to return home while simultaneously inducing an overpowering lethargy, compelling them to stay on the island, ultimately only ever dreaming of home. Upon first glance the poem appears to be an indictment of self-indulgence and excessive sensual pleasure, but a closer reading reveals that the mariners' impulse to stay is in fact a reasonable one, because the island and the lotos flowers serve as a kind of treatment for soldiers suffering from the trauma of war. Thus, rather than a moralistic reproach of laziness (as suggested by numerous scholars), the poem becomes a meditation on the lasting effects of war on the human psyche, and presents the mariners in a noble light, choosing to be forever removed from the homes they miss so much instead of returning and bringing their attendant trauma and psychoses with them.
Previous scholarly approaches to the poem have focused on Tennyson's view of morality, aiming to determine whether or not the poet intended to vilify or praise the mariners' desire to stay on the island, with the consequence that the mariners' desire to return home and their need for rest become mutually exclusive. The mariners obviously cannot travel home if they are too tired to do so, but this in this strictly binary reading they must make a choice to overcome one impulse in order to act on the other. This interpretation, however, largely misses the point of the mariners' position, because the real conflict is not between the desire for home and the need for rest, but rather whether the mariners can overcome the psychological damage of war in order to return home and successfully reintegrate into their society. However, before engaging in this more accurate analysis, it will be useful to examine two examples of this moralistic reading, in order to better demonstrate its inaccuracy. In fact, it will be possible to show how even specific lines are interpreted in almost precisely the opposite way in which they were intended.
Malcolm MacLaren, in his essay "Tennyson's Epicurean Lotos-Eaters," attempts to decipher Tennyson's ostensibly ambivalent attitude toward the mariners' morality by arguing that the poem has characterized the mariners as Epicureans, or those who value unhindered tranquility, pleasure, and the absence of pain above all else. MacLaren argues that their status as Epicureans is evidenced by their refusal to leave the island. According to him, "nothing could be more characteristically Epicurean" than an aversion to participation in society, expressed in verse four as the mariners sing "What pleasure can we have/To war with evil?" (Tennyson lines, 94-95, MacLaren 264). He goes on to argue that, "convinced they would become involved in struggles with evil if they should depart and seek to re-enter the familiar world, the sailors reject this course of action because it would give them no pleasure" (Maclaren 262). From here, MacLaren concludes that Tennyson was morally opposed to this notion, and thus he must have been casting a negative judgment on the mariners, as he argues that "Tennyson's own religious beliefs, embracing such doctrines as Divine Providence and the immortality of the soul would tend to make him regard Epicureanism with disapproval" (MacLaren 264). MacLaren does not bother to suggest how a ship full of hardened warriors might turn into Epicureans, even with the powerful effects of the lotos flower.
A related misinterpretation of the poem is found in Alan Grob's essay "Tennyson's 'The Lotos-Eaters': Two Versions of Art," which argues that the poet's overt judgment of the mariners decision to stay on the island is illustrated by poem's many allusions to the wives, homes, and children the mariners have left behind. Grob states that the poem "presents an image of home and family that greatly increase the pressure upon the mariners to reaffirm their obligations to society by renewing their journey and returning to Ithica" (Grob 119). In his view Tennyson moralizes the mariners' abandonment of their families, which in a broader context could be understood as a criticism of aestheticism and the desire of the artist to produce the pure expression of sensuality in art; in other words, the practice of form without meaning. However, both MacLaren and Grob's readings present a somewhat contradictory interpretation of the text, because they both assert that Tennyson is criticizing exactly the kind of works he creates: highly sensual and aesthetic art. With this in mind, one may propose an alternate interpretation of the poem, which does not concern itself so much with Tennyson's moral judgment of the mariners but rather with the reasons for the mariners' intensely conflicted feelings of desire for home and the need for rest, which will in turn suggest that Tennyson is actually arguing in favor of the mariners' decision to stay.
At the very beginning of the poem, important details are revealed about the moral values and environment in which the mariners' live. "Courage!" exclaims Odysseus as their ship inches closer to land (Tennyson line 1). Courage is the first word of the poem, placed there deliberately to represent the first obligation of soldierly duty. However, the word is shouted, as if to awaken the mariners from despair or exhaustion. It is a shock, and this shock concisely sums up the lives of the men who are constantly pressured to embody the ultimate value of courage. The problem of the poem, then, is that men cannot always be courageous, and especially so for these men, upon whom ten years of war has weighed heavily. It becomes clear that they are in need of merciful and forgiving rest, and this is evidenced when the mariners, under the calming influence of the lotos flower, question the stress and burden of war and lengthy travel while singing "Why are we weigh'd upon with heaviness/And utterly consumed with sharp distress/While all things else have rest from weariness?" (Tennyson lines 57-59) The mariners' express the anxiety of the soldier under the pressing moral and social obligations incumbent on them. They only want their rest, but "courage" dictates they are never allowed to have it.
Although they greatly desire to return home, the mariners also lament the changes that have taken place in their long absence and wonder how they will fit into a society that has essentially gone on without them, making no arrangements for their return. While one could argue that this is in fact a self-deception, invented by the mariners to make it easier to justify staying on the island, a more extensive view of the life of the mariner finds that they are in fact expressing reasonable concerns about their ability to reintegrate into society.
This return-anxiety is evidenced most clearly when the mariners sing "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./Or else the island princes over-bold/Have eat our substance," worrying that the only memory of them will be when "the minstrel sings/Before them of the ten-years' war in Troy,/And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things (Tennyson 117-123). The worry that they have no place in society continually motivates their desire, because as "half-forgotten things," they are well within their rights to continue their rest. Although this desire to stay is complicated by their reminiscences of family, they continue to remark that the island is the only place for them now, as it offers relief from horrible memories of war: "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?" (Tennyson lines 91-94) This is a dramatically different interpretation of these lines than MacLaren, because as the mariners are on a voyage returning from war, it seems reasonable to interpret "to war with evil" as directly referencing their time in battle, rather than a more general notion of the struggle against evil. Thus, they are literally singing about the psychological scars of war and the longing they feel to escape those memories, rather than an aversion to the difficulties of life. At this point the fallacy of both MacLaren and Grob's arguments should be apparent, but the poem offers further evidence as to the fact that not only should the mariners be excused for their desire to remain with the lotos-eaters, but that they are in fact making the wisest choice, as the island is the most appropriate place for them following a decade of war.
As if the fear of a society which has moved on without them was not enough, the mariners reveal another severe anxiety foisted upon them by many years of fighting: an intense fixation on death, and the apparent meaningless of human endeavors in the face of nature's endless cycle of death and rebirth. War has fundamentally changed the mariners' psychologically, propelling them into a kind of existential crisis in which they cannot…