What are some thematic connections between Tennyson's poems "The Lady of Shallot" and "Ulysses"?

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Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems “Ulysses” and “The Lady of Shalott” are two of his most famous works. These poems share a number of common themes or motifs, including the following:

  • A sense that the two main characters of the poems are isolated from their societies.
  • A setting in a remote and mythical past.
  • A sense of melancholy shared by the two main characters.
  • A fascination, by both characters, with activity and movement, from which they both feel isolated at the moment.
  • A determination to make a significant voyage in a boat.
  • A sense that the voyage each character undertakes may (and in the case of the Lady does) result in death.
  • A sense that both characters enjoy a certain degree of stature in their societies.
  • A determination, by both characters, to break free of their isolation.
  • A sense that both characters have become almost mythical figures in their societies, as when Ulysses says “I am become a name” (11).
  • A sense of frustration, felt by both characters, with their present passivity, as when Ulysses exclaims,

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

As though to breathe were life! (22-24)

The poems also differ, however, in some significant ways, including the following:

  • In “Ulysses,” the title character is himself the speaker; in “The Lady of Shalott,” the title character is the subject of someone else’s speech.
  • Ulysses is a far more active, assertive character than is the Lady, who is essentially passive until almost the very end of her work.
  • The voyage that Ulysses undertakes at the end of the poem is undertaken with others; the Lady’s voyage only emphasizes her isolation.

The two poems both resemble and differ from one another, and, by comparing and contrasting the two, a reader can better appreciate the distinctive features of each work.


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