Last Updated on August 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668
Tennyson’s dramatic monologue “Ulysses” tells the story of what happens to the aging hero after he returns home. Ulysses (the Latin name for Greek mythology's Odysseus) is well known as a hero who fought many battles as a young man, spent ten years battling in the siege of Troy, and took a journey of ten additional years to return home to Ithaca. Now, he has been home for some time, and he is troubled.
Ulysses, the poem’s speaker, begins by giving a picture of what his life has been like during the past years. He is an aging king, married to an aging queen, who lives unknown to his subjects. He describes them as “a savage race” who take advantage of all that he does for them without knowing who he truly is. He merely creates laws and rules idly. He is a man who is used to constant movement, so he cannot be expected to be happy living a quiet life.
Ulysses then nostalgically outlines some of his adventures in his younger days. He speaks of battles he fought with his comrades, people he met, and places he saw. All are a permanent part of the man he is today. He greatly misses those days when he traveled to many lands and was “honour’d of them all.” Young Ulysses was not merely a name—he was important to those he knew, unlike today, and they were all important to him, too. He says, “I am a part of all that I have met” and that each adventure, each being, each place remains in his “hungry heart.” He believes that he truly lived life in those days.
Ulysses expresses some regret that his present life is doomed to “rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use.” He longs to do something other than merely breathe in life; he knows that life is meant to be lived, and he does not want merely to exist. He is also keenly aware that as he grows older, he has little time left to live before “that eternal silence” of death takes over. He knows that with each hour that goes by, he has the opportunity to do something great before the final silence. Therefore, Ulysses is determined to follow his desires and stop sitting around waiting for death to overcome him.
He mentions his son, Telemachus, to whom he leaves his kingdom. Telemachus is a different person than his father and will rule in his own way. However, Ulysses is confident that he will do well “to make mild / A rugged people” and help them. Knowing that Telemachus is fit for the task gives Ulysses hope and confidence to continue on to the next part of his own life.
Ulysses next asks his friends, his former fellow mariners, to accompany him on an adventure. He points out the port, the ship, and the sea in an attempt to bring his nostalgia to their hearts as well. He knows he will have a difficult time convincing them to leave, since the journey will involve danger, and it is possible they won’t ever return home. However, he reminds them that if they don’t go now, they will merely sit and wait for death in boredom and inactivity. They may still do something before death: “Death closes all: but something ere the end, / Some work of noble note, may yet be done.” He urges his friends to join him in finding new lands, as they did in their youth. He acknowledges that they are old and do not have the strength and stamina that they used to have but assures them that, if they accept this fact, they can still seek adventure. What will keep them going are their noble hearts and wills, their heroic natures, and the knowledge that death is around the corner. Therefore, they must seize the moment before it’s too late; they must try “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1313
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 duty. In the third part, Ulysses encourages his men (he himself has no need of encouragement).
Because Odysseus (Ulysses) also appears in other works, Tennyson’s poem contains echoes of those variants, especially of the Ulisse (the Italian version of the name) portrayed by the medieval Italian poet Dante. Ulisse appears in the third volume of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Inferno (Hell). He has been consigned to Hell as a false counselor, having lied at various times and devised stratagems that brought about the destruction of Troy. He is also there because he went beyond the proper bounds of human existence, according to the standard Christian beliefs of Dante’s time, by seeking knowledge and experiences that are forbidden to humans. The arguments of Tennyson’s Ulysses suggest his motives for setting off on such a voyage, but Tennyson’s evaluation of the voyage and motives was very different from that of Dante. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, imperial European powers such as Great Britain would have encouraged such a voyage. Moreover, the fact that the ancient Roman orator Cicero praised Ulysses as a model of wisdom represented a significant stamp of approval to the educated English social classes of Tennyson’s era.
Tennyson wrote “Ulysses” in part to expresses his grief and to cope with the death of his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, to whose memory Tennyson would dedicate his long series of poems, In Memoriam (1850). Tennyson held that “Ulysses” expressed his feelings about Hallam’s death, as well as asserting “the need for going forward, and braving the struggle of life.” A writer’s intent is not always what he succeeds in presenting, so a reader should not automatically think that a poem is simply an emotional statement about the poet’s life or a direct expression of his emotions, but there is little doubt that Tennyson intended Ulysses, in a sense, to be the bearer of his own emotions.
In the beginning of the poem, Ulysses speaks of being an idle king, “match’d with an aged wife,” performing the duties of kingship, but obviously regarding them as an inferior way of living. These lines have been read as suggesting that Ulysses is egoistically revealing his own incompetence as king, as well as being a misogynist. His words about his wife are not flattering to himself, an old man wanting to escape his marriage, but in a sense he is speaking a truth. Tennyson is not being ironic here: Ulysses should be taken at his word. He expresses his true wish for the freedom to discover, for it is action, discovery, and learning that give meaning to his life. It is in action that he has really, intensely lived.
When Ulysses suggests that his son Telemachus is better fitted than he himself for the kingship role, he neither seeks to insult Telemachus nor to excuse himself. Telemachus does fit his role—he is not driven to be something he is not; he has prudence—a virtue but also a certain lack of spirit. He is unlikely to take chances. Ulysses sees his son as a creator of order, which makes him a valuable figure, but Telemachus is not a discoverer. He will find nothing new. He is a necessary figure in the world, the steady man who brings about structure—indeed, without such men, Ulysses himself could never set out. Ulysses, by contrast, is not suited to be an administrator, giving “Unequal laws” to a people who are not very civilized. He follows his true role, which is to take risks, to seek out the unknown, not just for egoistic pleasure but because he seeks the intensity of life.
Even the poem’s imagery, powerful and positive, suggests delight in action as well as in gaining knowledge. Again, images reinforce such a reading, as when Ulysses compares himself to a tool that rusts when it is not burnished after use. This “tool” is almost surely a sword, but it may symbolize bold action of any sort, not necessarily war. However, Ulysses does admit a certain pleasure in war when he speaks later of his own reputation. Warfare involves action at the peak of risk, so for Ulysses it is of great value. For Ulysses, then, one is not here simply to exist, to serve, or to carry on the ordinary duties of citizenship. Indeed, there is an egoism there, but “Life piled on life/ Were all too little, and of one to me/ Little remains.”
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