As Graves demonstrates in “Ulysses,” he was, above all else, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. His lyrical gifts were extraordinary, and his technical mastery of verse form, rhyme, and rhythm was unrivaled. Unlike many other poets of the modern era, Graves did not engage in free verse, idiosyncratic form, or unusual styles. He worked within the traditions of English poetry, almost always using a specific pattern of rhyme and a regular meter to frame his message. This message varies, but more often than not it is a variant of his central theme, the concept of the three-part goddess and the true poet’s devotion to her. Since the goddess often appears in the guise of a mortal woman, Graves is predominantly a love poet, and his lyrics celebrate the possibility of enduring affection between man and woman. Graves was not, however, without his sardonic side. The gulf between deity and daily life was all too obvious for Graves, and even the most heroic of men, such as Ulysses, could be blind to the truths offered by the goddess. Such is the case in this poem that has the hero’s name.
Ulysses is fated to need women but never truly understand them; at the same time, he is secretly terrified by the changeable nature of women. He comprehends enough to recognize the mutable nature of the goddess who appears sometimes as a virgin, a loving wife, a seductive temptress, and even as an implacable, natural force. The mythological Ulysses encountered all of these in his return from the Trojan War, and Graves’s poem is a compressed litany of this journey. Ulysses meets the goddess as the sorceress Circe, in the form of the Symplegades, or clashing rocks, and as the Sirens, destroyers of ships and men. The goddess also takes her form in Ulysses’s chaste wife, Penelope, who waits for him for twenty years while he is fighting on the plains of Asia and then trying to return home. What Ulysses senses, without consciously realizing it, is that all of these women are the same and are versions, avatars, of the White Goddess. What he does accept is that he needs them and that without them he is incomplete.