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In Tennyson's famous poem "The Lotos-eaters", a group of mariners find themselves on an island inhabited by "Lotos-eaters", and themselves decide to stay after eating lotos has had its effect on them. One passage is:

And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.     (ll. 25–27)

Why are the Lotos-eaters described as "mild-eyed" and "melancholy"? What does this alliterative description suggest about their characters, and how does it fit in with the general way they're portrayed in the poem? I'm not even sure exactly what mild-eyed means, and aren't they contented, rather than melancholy, in their drug-induced state?

2
  • Is this not answered later on in the poem? Stanza V: How sweet it were, ... // To lend our hearts and spirits wholly // To the influence of mild-minded melancholy; // To muse and brood and live again in memory, // With those old faces of our infancy // Heap'd over with a mound of grass, // Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 25 at 15:52
  • 1
    By way of comparison, The Odyssey’s description of the Lotus-Eaters doesn’t say anything about their look or mood: perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/…
    – Gaurav
    Feb 26 at 16:09
5

tl;dr

  • Tennyson depicts the Lotos-Eaters as having the melancholic personality type described in the four-humor theory of ancient Greek and Persian medicine
  • They are mild-eyed because they are passive introverts bearing no ill will toward the visitors to their island
  • Their "mild-eyed melancholy" infects the visitors as well, so that the latter fall into "mild-minded melancholy"
  • This identification between native inhabitants and adventurous visitors allows the poem to be read as a critique of Victorian imperialism.

Deets

Tennyson's "The Lotos-Eaters" expands upon a brief episode from the Odyssey. In Homer, the passage describing Odysseus' adventures upon the island of the Λωτοφάγοι / lotophagoi is very brief, fewer than 25 lines. Here is the entire episode with interlinear translation, from the Chicago Homer website:

ἔνθεν δ' ἐννῆμαρ φερόμην ὀλοοῖς ἀνέμοισι
Nine days I was carried by baneful winds

πόντον ἐπ' ἰχθυόεντα: ἀτὰρ δεκάτῃ ἐπέβημεν
over the fishy sea, but on the tenth we landed

γαίης Λωτοφάγων, οἵ τ' ἄνθινον εἶδαρ ἔδουσιν.
in the land of the Lotus Eaters, who eat a flowery food.

ἔνθα δ' ἐπ' ἠπείρου βῆμεν καὶ ἀφυσσάμεθ' ὕδωρ,
We went ashore there and drew water,

αἶψα δὲ δεῖπνον ἕλοντο θοῇς παρὰ νηυσὶν ἑταῖροι.
and my comrades soon took dinner beside our swift ships.

αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ σίτοιό τ' ἐπασσάμεθ' ἠδὲ ποτῆτος,
Then after they partook of food and drink,

δὴ τοτ' ἐγὼν ἑτάρους προΐειν πεύθεσθαι ἰόντας,
I then sent comrades to go and find out

οἵ τινες ἀνέρες εἶεν ἐπὶ χθονὶ σῖτον ἔδοντες
who the men were who ate bread upon the earth.

ἄνδρε δύω κρίνας, τρίτατον κήρυχ' ἅμ' ὀπάσσας.
I chose two men, and sent a third with them as a herald,

οἱ δ' αἶψ' οἰχόμενοι μίγεν ἀνδράσι Λωτοφάγοισιν:
who went and soon mingled with the Lotus Eater men,

οὐδ' ἄρα Λωτοφάγοι μήδονθ' ἑτάροισιν ὄλεθρον
and the Lotus Eaters did not intend destruction

ἡμετέροις, ἀλλά σφι δόσαν λωτοῖο πάσασθαι.
for our comrades, but gave them lotus to partake of.

τῶν δ' ὅς τις λωτοῖο φάγοι μελιηδέα καρπόν,
Whoever of them ate the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus

οὐκέτ' ἀπαγγεῖλαι πάλιν ἤθελεν οὐδὲ νέεσθαι,
no longer wished to report or come back,

ἀλλ' αὐτοῦ βούλοντο μετ' ἀνδράσι Λωτοφάγοισι
but wanted to stay there among the Lotus Eater men

λωτὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι μενέμεν νόστου τε λαθέσθαι.
to feed on lotus and forget return home.

τοὺς μὲν ἐγὼν ἐπὶ νῆας ἄγον κλαίοντας ἀνάγκῃ,
I brought them by force, weeping, to the ships, then,

νηυσὶ δ' ἐνὶ γλαφυρῇσιν ὑπὸ ζυγὰ δῆσα ἐρύσσας.
dragged them in the hollow ships and tied them under the benches.

αὐτὰρ τοὺς ἄλλους κελόμην ἐρίηρας ἑταίρους
Then I ordered the rest of my trusty comrades

σπερχομένους νηῶν ἐπιβαινέμεν ὠκειάων,
to board the fast ships in a hurry,

μή πώς τις λωτοῖο φαγὼν νόστοιο λάθηται.
lest by chance anyone eat lotus and forget return home,

οἱ δ' αἶψ' εἴσβαινον καὶ ἐπὶ κληῗσι καθῖζον,
then they went aboard at once and sat down at the oarlocks,

ἑξῆς δ' ἑζόμενοι πολιὴν ἅλα τύπτον ἐρετμοῖς.
and, seated in rows, beat the gray sea with their oars.     (9.82–104)

The life of the Lotos-Eaters is antithetical to the heroic norms by which Odysseus lives. Instead of striving to attain some ideal of a conqueror who returns in triumph, the lotophagoi prefer to stay on their island in a lotus-induced stupor. Tennyson relates their lifestyle to the melancholic personality as described in the ancient medical typology of humors.

The term humors refers to fluids or secretions in the human body. Hippocrates' son-in-law Polybus first presented a four-humor theory in his 5th C BCE medical text, De Natura Hominis / On the Nature of Man. Polybus claimed that good health depended on blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile being in proportion within the body. The 2nd C CE physician Galen extended this theory by suggesting that a person's temperament depended on which of these four humors predominated. The theologian John of Damascus (c. 650–750) summarizes Galen's view:

Συνίσταται δὲ ἐκ τεσσάρων στοιχείων, ἤγουν ἐξ αἵματος, φλέγματος, χολῆς ξανθῆς καὶ χολῆς μελαίνης ...

  1. Καὶ ὅσοιμὲν ἐξ αἵματος καθαροῦτ υγχάνουσιν, οὗτοί εἰσι πάντοτε χαίροντες καὶ παίζοντες καὶ γελῶντες, καί εἰσιν ἀνθηροί, καὶ καλόχρωοι
  2. ὅσοι δὲ ἀπὸ χολῆς ξανθῆς τυγχάνουσιν, εἰσὶ γοργοὶ καὶ εὔτολμοι, ὀργίλοι καὶ πικροὶ καὶ ἀλλόχρωοι
  3. ὅσοι δὲ ἀπὸ χολῆς μελαίνης τυγχάνουσιν, εἰσὶ ῥᾴθυμοι καὶ ὀλιγόψυχοι, φιλάσθενοι καὶ ὀκνηροὶ καὶ δειλοί
  4. ὅσοι δὲ ἀπὸ φλέγματος τυγχάνουσιν, εἰσὶ λυπηροί, καὶ μὴν καὶ ψυχροί, ἀμνήμονες καὶ διαλελησμένοι, τὰ πολλὰ κοιμώμενοι, καὶ λευκόχρωοι.

Translation:

Man comprises four elements, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile ...

  1. Those who are composed of pure blood are always joyous, joke and laugh; and they have a flowery complexion and nice skin.
  2. Those who are composed of yellow bile are passionate, courageous, quick-tempered, and have hair that changes colour.
  3. Those who are composed of black bile are indolent, pusillanimous, sickly, hesitant, and cowardly.
  4. Those who are composed of phlegm are despondent and also cold, forgetful with a short memory, sleep a lot, and have white skin.

(quoted and translated in Jouanna 343–344; translation here is lightly modified for clarity and punctuation.)

These four personality types have come to be called, respectively:

  1. sanguine, from sanguis, the Latin word for blood
  2. choleric, from χολῆς / cholīs, the Greek word for (yellow) bile
  3. melancholic, from the Greek μελαίνης χολῆς / melaīnis cholīs, the Greek for black bile
  4. phlegmatic, from φλέγματος / phlegmatos, the Greek word for phlegm.

The Lotos-Eaters are melancholy because they represent the melancholic temperament. An article on Persian medicine by Seyed Mahdi Mirghazanfari in the Tehran Times elaborates on the personality traits of melancholic types:

From mental point of view people with melancholic temperament tend to be introspective and introvert. They act and speak unhurriedly and might need more time to accomplish a task but they do it perfectly.

They might have negative thoughts.

It is easy to see that Tennyson ascribes melancholic traits to the Lotos-Eaters. Furthermore, eating the lotos makes the mariners share these antiheroic attributes. They begin to introspect and "have negative thoughts":

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.     (ll. 57–63)

It might seem far-fetched that a 19th C. poem would draw upon a theory that went back more than 1,700 years. However, the entry humoralism in the Webster's New World Medical Dictionary says that the theory of humors "was not definitively demolished until 1858" (p. 204). Tennyson published an early draft of this poem in 1832, and the final version a decade later, so this typology of humors was available to him. Indeed, Mirghazanfari's Tehran Times article is from 2017, and the author has both MD and PhD degrees, so at least in some circles the theory is considered relevant, perhaps metaphorically rather than literally, even today.

Tennyson calls the Lotos-Eaters "mild-eyed" because they are gentle, either by nature or because eating the Lotos makes them so. Unlike the actively hostile entities Odysseus's crew will soon meet elsewhere, Circe for example, the lotophagoi have no malevolent intent. All they do is hospitably offer Odysseus's men the lotus:

the Lotus Eaters did not intend destruction
for our comrades, but gave them lotus to partake of.     (ll. 92–93 above)

Translators of Homer emphasize this mildness through their various renderings. E.V. Rieu (1946):

Now these natives had no intention of killing my comrades; what they did was to give them some lotus to taste.     (p. 112)

Richmond Lattimore (1965):

Nor did these Lotus-Eaters have any thoughts of destroying
our companions, but they only gave them lotus to taste of.     (9.92–93, p. 139)

Robert Fagles (1996):

they mingled among the natives, Lotus-Eaters, Lotus-Eaters
who had no notion of killing my companions, not at all,
they simply gave them the lotus to taste instead ...     (9.103–105, p. 214)

Stanley Lombardo (2000):

They headed out and made contact with the Lotus-Eaters,
who meant no harm but did give my men
Some lotus to eat.     (9.91–93, p. 127)

Emily Wilson (2018):

The scouts encountered humans, Lotus-Eaters,
who did not hurt them. They just shared with them
their sweet delicious fruit.     (9.91–93, p. 243)

The lotophagoi are well-disposed toward the sailors. In contrast to Polyphemus, who will soon after this episode punish the sailors for eating his cheeses, or Circe, who will offer Odysseus's men a soothing drink laced with sedatives so that she can turn them into swine, their hospitality is not malign by intent. But it is nevertheless destructive, turning the sailors into Lotos-Eaters themselves and sapping their desire to continue homeward. They too begin to feel "the influence of mild-minded melancholy":

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;
To hear each other's whisper'd speech;
Eating the Lotos day by day,
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy.     (ll. 99–109)

Tennyson uses practically the same phrase (mild-eyed melancholy / mild-minded melancholy) to describe both the Lotos-Eaters and the sailors. Through this identification between the two, Tennyson lays bare some of the anxieties around the Victorian imperial project.

“The Lotos-Eaters” was first published in 1832, at a time when the British Empire was undergoing a rapid expansion and consolidation. In the context of Victorian empire-building, Odysseus, who travels far and wide, encountering savages, enduring severe hardships, and amassing fortunes, can readily be recast as the imperial hero. The expansion of the British empire was driven largely by commercial imperatives, but the overt justification was always that of a civilizing mission—what Rudyard Kipling was later to call the white man’s burden. But the mariners in Tennyson’s poem refuse to bear this burden:

Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?     (ll. 93–95)

As good imperialists, the mariners are under an obligation “to war with evil,” to reform the savage ways of their colonial subjects. In abandoning their journey back home and choosing to stay with the Lotos-Eaters, the mariners in Tennyson’s project are abandoning their civilizing mission.

The sailors are not only neglecting their duty, they have in fact succumbed to the worst temptation faced by a colonizer: the temptation to go native. Underpinning the imperial project was the assumption of the superiority of the colonizer’s culture over that of the colonized. A key aim of the imperial project was to transform the colonized subjects so that while they remained natives “in blood and color,” they became “English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect,” as Macaulay’s infamous Minute on Indian Education put it. Rather than influencing the hearts and spirits of the Lotos-Eaters, though, the seafarers here have yielded to the customs, habits, and world-view of the dark-faced, mild, melancholic colonial subjects.

It would be simplistic to say that Tennyson consciously intends “The Lotos-Eaters” as a critique of imperialism or a parable about the dangers inherent in the imperial undertaking. That is not the claim being made here. The point here is merely that as a product of its time, “The Lotos-Eaters” reflects the concerns of the Victorian age. Since imperialism was the era’s chief concern, the poem lends itself to a reading that situates it within the context of imperialist ideology. When the mild-eyed melancholy of the Lotos-Eaters infects the sailors so that they too cherish mild-minded melancholy, the tensions within that ideology are exposed.

References

  • Fagles, Robert, trans. Homer: The Odyssey. Intro and notes Bernard Knox. Penguin Classics Deluxe ed. New York: Viking Penguin, 1996.
  • Homer. The Odyssey. The Chicago Homer. Eds. Ahuvia Kahane and Martin Mueller; technical eds. Craig Berry and Bill Parod. Northwestern U. Accessed 26 February 2021.
  • Jouanna, Jacques. “The Legacy of the Hippocratic Treatise the Nature of Man: The Theory of the Four Humours.” Chapter 16 of Greek Medicine from Hippocrates to Galen: Selected Papers by Jacques Jouanna and Neil Allies, Ed. Philip van der Eijk. Leiden: Brill, 2012. pp. 335–360. JSTOR. Accessed 27 February 2021.
  • Kipling, Rudyard. "The White Man's Burden." 1899. The American Yawp Reader. Accessed 27 February 2021.
  • Lattimore, Richmond, trans. and intro. The Odyssey of Homer. 1965. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.
  • Lombardo, Stanley, trans. Homer: Odyssey. Intro Sheila Murnaghan. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000.
  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. "Macaulay's Minute." surajit.substack.com. Accessed 28 February 2021.
  • Mirghazanfari, Seyed Mahdi. "Melancholic temperament: Specifications and lifestyle." Tehran Times 26 July 2017. Accessed 26 February 2021.
  • Rieu, E. V., trans. Homer: The Odyssey. 1946. Revised trans. D. C. H. Rieu. 1991. Intro Peter Jones. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2003.
  • Tennyson, Alfred. "The Lotos-Eaters." 1832, rev. 1842. Poetry Foundation. Accessed 27 February 2021.
  • Webster's New World Medical Dictionary. 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008. Google Books. Accessed 26 February 2021.
  • Wilson, Emily, trans. Homer: The Odyssey. New York: Norton 2018.

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