The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 883 words.)