Stylistically, Tennyson writes in a subdued tone that is both simple and elegant. The poem is in unrhymed iambic pentameter, also known as blank verse. It is a soliloquy or dramatic monologue, not unlike similar passages in the works of Shakespeare and Milton. In dealing with a subject from antiquity, Tennyson is both faithful to the original setting—the period of Homer's epics—and creative in imposing upon the material the concerns and themes of his own time: the Victorian era.
Tennyson depicts Ulysses some years after his return to Ithaca, following the Trojan War and the additional ten years of struggle, adventure, and suffering that Homer depicts in the Odyssey. But Ulysses seems a man used up and defeated. He is "an idle king" ruling over a "savage race" who do not know him. At the poem's beginning, Ulysses is a symbol of the loneliness and sorrow of old age. A melancholy and retrospective vision has taken over his soul. The tone is similar to that of another of Tennyson's poems, "Tears, Idle Tears," in which the speaker looks back upon "the days that are no more."
This motif is emblematic of an aspect of the Victorian zeitgeist: a belief that the great days of mankind have already occurred and been lost, and that we are now living in a kind of post-spiritual age. Though some Victorians, such as Robert Browning, may have appeared to show a naive buoyancy and optimism, Tennyson's theme of quiet regret is more typical and links him to Algernon Charles Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, and others. At the same time, however, the poem ultimately resists this mood of resignation and despair. In fact, in its final stanza, the poem begins to seem almost triumphant as Ulysses recommits to his passion for exploration:
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Ulysses knows his time is past, but he will not give up or simply resign himself to inactivity and death. "Death closes all," he acknowledges, "but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done." This symbolizes humans' inherent impulse to continue, to keep living and striving even in the face of hopelessness and age. As such, "Ulysses" presents dual motifs: despair will invariably present itself, but it is human nature to resist and overcome it.
Tennyson wrote during an era when many intellectuals and artists felt that the "world's great age" (to use Shelley's phrase) was past. The achievements of the English Romantic poets—William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats—at the beginning of the nineteenth century had been unprecedented. Poets had the sense that they could never equal that achievement, just as composers of this period felt they could never equal the greatness Beethoven had achieved.
Arguably, Ulysses in Tennyson's hands is a metaphor of the contemporary nineteenth-century world. It was a time of tremendous technological advancement, yet one in which poets and artists began to feel alienated from the modern world and sought solace in dreams of the past. For Tennyson, these dreams were of England's legendary past and, in the case of "Ulysses," the primal European myth embodied in the Homeric world. By having Ulysses say that there is something still to be done, that one can still "strive, seek, find and not . . . yield," Tennyson can also be seen to allude to his own generation and the artistic achievements that are still possible.
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....
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