REVISING: TENNYSON

revising the poem: tennysonPoints Illustrated

1. Revision of The Lotus Eaters, from poetic trifle to masterwork.

The Lotus Eaters: 1833 Version

That masterpiece of Tennyson's art, The Lotus Eaters, began as a pleasing but slight piece in 1833 Poems not as negligible as Lockhart pretended in his Quarterly Review of April 1833, {1} but open to many objections:

We have had enough of motion,
Weariness and wild alarm,
Tossing on the tossing ocean,
Where the tusked sea-horse walloweth
In a stripe of grass-green calm,
At noon tide beneath the lee;
And the monstrous narwhale swalloweth
His foam mountains in the sea.
Long enough the wine-dark wave our weary bark did carry.
This is lovelier and sweeter,
Men of Ithaca, this is meeter,
In the hollow rosy vale to tarry,
like a dreamy Lotus-eater, a delirious Lotus-eater!
We will eat the Lotus, sweet
As the yellow honeycomb,
In the valley some, and some
On the ancient heights divine;
And no more roam
On the loud hoar foam,
To the melancholy home
At the limits of the brine,
The little isle of Ithaca, beneath the day's decline.
We'll lift no more the shattered oar,
Nor unfurl the straining sail;
With the blissful Lotus-eaters pale
We will abide in the golden vale
Of the lotus-land till the Lotus fail;
We will not wander more.
Hark! how sweet the horned ewes bleat
On the solitary steeps,
And the merry lizard leaps,
And the foam-white water pour;
And the dark pine weeps,
and the lithe vine creeps,
And the heavy melon sleeps
On the level of the shore:
Oh! islanders of Ithaca, we will not wander more.
Surely, surely slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
than labour in the ocean, and rowing with the oar,
Oh! islanders of Ithaca, we will return no more.

Lockhart enjoyed himself: "another and brighter star of that galaxy or milky way of poetry of which the lamented Keats was the harbinger . . . Our readers will, we think, agree that this is admirably characteristic, and that the singers of this song must have made pretty free with the intoxicating fruit. How they got home you must read in Homer: Mr Tennyson himself, we presume, a dreamy lotus-eater, a delicious lotus eater leaves them in full song." {2}

The Lotus Eaters: 1853 Version

It's difficult not to smile. Tennyson was sensitive to criticism, indeed morbidly introspective, but he had the good sense to learn from critics. The idiocies were crafted out, and the 1853 version reads: {3}

The Lotos blooms below the barren peak:
The Lotos blows by every winding creek:
All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone:
Thro' every hollow cave and alley lone
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.
We have had enough of action, and of motion we,
Roll'd to starboard, roll'd to larboard, when the surge was seething free,
Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea.
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
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 labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

Problems and Improvements

The idiocies? These were the initial shortcomings, and Tennyson's improvements.

1. Tennyson started thinking about what he'd written. We don't have rowing with the oar that has been shattered few lines earlier, or unfurl the straining sail (which only strains when unfurled, of course).

2. The focus shifts from the sea, which is often strikingly described In a stripe of grass-green calm to the land, which is where the mariners will stay.

3. Form. The final version is in couplets and quatrains, rhymed ababbcbcc etc. Rhyme in the earlier version is rather more ad hoc, starting as abadefdfghhg but concluding in xyyyxxxxx. Such repetions, used with short lines, places emphasis on the rhymes themselves, which need to be novel or interesting. They are not in the early version, and Tennyson has therefore lengthened the lines in the revised version.

4. Epithets. A few are striking the loud hoar foam which anticipates Pound's Seafarer but many are dull (yellow honeycomb: what else would it be?), nonsensical (solitary, with sheep), inappropriate (merry: do lizards leap?) or unintentionally comic (heavy melon sleeps). Epithets are still a problem in the final version, but Tennyson has settled for the safely conventional: barren peak, winding creek, hollow cave, sinking ships, praying hands, etc. Tennyson didn't read much Pope, but perhaps should have done.

5. Beauty of phrasing. Tennyson kept and extended the earlier successes. We have had enough of motion becomes

We have had enough of action, and of motion we,
Roll'd to starboard, roll'd to larboard, when the surge was seething free,

And the rather thickly clogged Oh! islanders of Ithaca, we will return no more is opened into

O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

6. The greatest improvement is in the rhythm. It lacks unity in the earlier version, and occasionally falters (We will abide in the golden vale) or attempts things that don't come off (Long enough the wine-dark wave our weary bark did carry.) In the revised version the rhythm is a muffled but varied 'alexandrine', i.e. balanced about a somewhat centrally-placed caesura: difficult but achieved superbly:

We have had enough of action | and of motion we ||
Roll'd to starboard | roll'd to larboard || when the surge was seething free ||
Where the wallowing monster spouted | his foam-fountains in the sea ||
Let us swear an oath | and keep it with an equal mind ||
In the hollow Lotos-land to live | and lie reclined ||
On the hills like Gods together | careless of mankind ||

The result is a substantial poem, not without its faults, but deservedly famous.

Notes and References

1. A. F. Scott, The Poet's Craft: A Course in the Critical Appreciation of Poetry (CUP, 1957), 72-75.
2. The poem is based on an incident in the Odyssey, Chapter 9.
3. Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) The Lotos-eaters. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.

 

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