(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When Alfred, Lord Tennyson, published “Ulysses” in 1842, his contemporaries tended to read the poem straightforwardly, as a speech given by a heroic figure who asserts that there is value in learning, in doing, and in taking risks. Later critics, however, have read it as the almost unconscious confession of a failed king trying to assert himself even as he reveals himself. Such later treatments, intelligent and insightful as they are, still tend to make the poem into a case study. It is true that Tennyson’s Ulysses is not a perfect man: He proposes to give up his duties, abandon his wife, and risk the lives of his companions, but his search is his reason for living, and Tennyson makes this need to go on searching the central theme of his poem.

“Ulysses” in form is a dramatic monologue—that is, it is delivered as a speech by a particular figure to a particular understood audience (not just the poem’s readers); in a sense, it is a scene from a play but nevertheless entire in itself. The poem’s title character and speaker, Ulysses (the Roman name of the Greek hero Odysseus), is best known from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). In this monologue, he addresses the crew of his ship, men with whom he has had many adventures. (According to Odyssey, Odysseus was the only survivor of his ill-fated voyages, so his current crew is likely made up of men who have shared in his adventures after his return from the war.) Thus, the quest he proposes to his men is not new.

The work is in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter—the verse form of most of William Shakespeare’s plays. Iambic pentameter can be readily spoken but is nevertheless rhythmic and, so, elevated in tone. Besides the effect of the verse form, the poem is filled with images and sounds that suggest the emotional state of the speaker. For instance, “the long day wanes, the slow moon climbs, the deep/ Moans round with many voices.” One should note the repetition of vowel sounds in “day” and “wane,” the alliteration of “moon” and “Moans,” and the slow, humming murmur of all those m’s and n’s. These aural components of the poem produce a musical effect that is melancholy but not, in the end, the voice of a man trying simply to escape: Ulysses follows these words with the harsher sounds of command: “Push off, and sitting well in order smite/ The sounding furrows.” These lines employ explosive sounds generated by the initial p and several t’s and a final hard d.

Some critics have held that the speaker is talking to himself in the first part of the poem, only later addressing his men, but the poem is better understood as a single long speech to an actual audience, even if the speaker sometimes does think aloud. In a way, there are three parts to the work. In the first part, Ulysses gives his reasons for setting off on a new journey. In the second part, he speaks about the situation in Ithaca and says that, by choosing his son as his successor, he has ensured that his people will be taken care of in his absence, so that leaving on a new quest is not an abandonment of his...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Ulysses” is ranked with several of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues as the best in the genre. Based on a passage in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), the poem depicts the hero of the Trojan Wars sometime after he has returned to his native land. Ironically, the man who had lived away from his beloved wife and son for ten years before the walls of Troy, and who had then wandered the Mediterranean for ten more as a result of a curse from the gods, is now displeased with the quiet life that he finds at home. The discomfort that Ulysses feels is emblematic of the dilemma that many of Tennyson’s contemporaries faced: whether to live life quietly, fulfilling one’s domestic duties, or to pursue some bold adventure. For Tennyson, the poem had personal significance as well: Written shortly after the death of his close friend Arthur Henry Hallam, it was the poet’s attempt to answer the question of whether to try to make a new life or to continue to wallow in his sorrow.

If one reads the poem in light of Tennyson’s personal comments, then the ending suggests a strong note of optimism. After convincing himself that he should not remain at home—his son, Telemachus, is more suited to rule a land where people have no aspirations for adventure—Ulysses summons a group of mariners to sail away with him to find new adventures. There is a recognized risk in such action: “It may be that the gulfs will wash...

(The entire section is 602 words.)