The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote “Ulysses” in October, 1833, shortly after the death of Arthur Henry Hallam, his close friend. Ulysses (called Odysseus in Greek) is a mythical Greek king whose story is told in the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.) and the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) by the epic poet Homer. “Ulysses” is based in part on book 11 of the Odyssey, which recounts the adventures of Ulysses on his ten-year voyage home from the Trojan War. During a visit to Hades, the abode of the dead, Ulysses is told by the ghost of the seer Tiresias that after he returns home he will set off on a new journey that will end in a gentle death, possibly far from shore.
“Ulysses” derives in larger part from book 26 of the Inferno (c. 1320) of Dante, who placed Ulysses in hell with the evil counselors—those whose sin was abuse of the powers given them by God. Ulysses tells Dante about his last voyage (Dante was a partisan of the Trojans, against whom Ulysses fought; the voyage is purely the invention of Dante). He left Ithaca, he says, because his desire for new experience was more compelling than the attractions of family and friends and the obligations he had to society. After he and his men passed the Strait of Gibralter and were within sight of the Elysian fields, the Greek paradise, they were drowned (a chasm behind The Straits was believed to lead to Hades).
Tennyson altered both versions of the story. Homer has Ulysses return home alone, without his men; the Odyssey ends with Ulysses preparing to defend himself against his enemies. In the Inferno, Ulysses says that after his last adventure (his escape from the sorceress Circe), he was not interested in retiring to Ithaca (in fact, his language suggests that he did not go home). Tennyson’s Ulysses refuses to accept a gentle death: He returns home with his men but becomes bored and leaves again.
Elegiac in mood—Ulysses appears to be embarking on his last journey—the poem resembles a dramatic monologue. Along with Robert Browning, Tennyson developed the dramatic monologue as...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The desire of Ulysses to leave for places unknown symbolizes a yearning for intellectual discovery. Although he speaks of “the Happy Isles,” most of his references to the physical world are generalized enough to suggest that his goal is not to find an actual place but to learn what is knowable. He says that he wants “To follow knowledge . . ./ Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”
Ithaca is no place for an active life of the mind, as the solemn, declamatory eloquence of the opening lines indicates. The lack of specificity (he is “an idle king” by a “still hearth,” with an unnamed wife), the close repetition of identical forms (six nouns paired with adjectives), and the metaphors for sterility (“still hearth,” “barren crags,” “aged wife”) suggest his sense of dissociation from his surroundings. Ulysses also sees no connection between himself and his subjects, whose needs he describes as solely physical. They are “savages” who do not understand him (they “know not me”), a thinker; the heavy closing iambs of the fifth line announce with resounding finality that Ulysses sees his subjects as animals: They “hoard, and sleep, and feed.” Wistfully, he thinks of his fellow sailors, who have shared his work, his achievements, and his thoughts (they “have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—”).
His needs are intellectual, although Ulysses uses images of drinking and eating to express them—he will...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Culler, A. Dwight. The Poetry of Tennyson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977. A discussion of the major poems up to Idylls of the King (1859-1885).
Francis, Elizabeth A., ed. Tennyson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1980. Excellent and insightful collection of essays reflecting trends in critical thought.
Jump, John D., ed. Tennyson: The Critical Heritage. 1967. Reprint. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1986. Collects a range of essays that provide older interpretations and discussions of the major poems.
Killham, John, ed. Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960. This collection includes E. J. Chiasson’s “Tennyson: A Re-Interpretation,” a reading that discusses the idea that Tennyson’s Ulysses may not be the admirable figure seen in earlier criticism.
Kissane, James D. Alfred Tennyson. New York: Twayne, 1970. A useful and well-written introduction to Tennyson’s works.
Nohrnberg, James. “Eight Reflections of Tennyson’s ’Ulysses.’” Victorian Poetry 47, no. 1 (2009): 101-150. Major essay discussing the relationship of the poem to other texts, such as Arthur Hallam’s “Timbuctoo” (1829).
Painter, Megan Gribskov. The Aesthetic of the Victorian Dramatic Monologue. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000. “Ulysses” is the major example text in this study of the poetics of dramatic monologues in the Victorian era.
Tennyson, Charles. Alfred Tennyson. 1950. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1969. A biography by the poet’s grandson. Useful for its accounts of Tennyson’s own thoughts on his works.