Analysis: Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson
Tennyson’s Ulysses, when compared to Dante’s Inferno, is a more realistic version of Odysseus’ discontentment with domestic life and his yearning for his final journey.
Paragraph 1: Introduction to the poem
Paragraph 2: Overview of the form of the poem
Paragraph 3: Background of the poem followed by a discussion of Ulysses’ views of his domestic life, his country and his wife
Paragraph 4: Discussion of Ulysses’ view of his administrative duties, his people and his strong desire to live life to the fullest
Paragraph 5: Discussion on Ulysses’ view of his past adventures and his hopes for the future
Paragraph 6: Comparison between the characters of Ulysses and his son, Telemachus
Paragraph 7: Conclusion
Alfred Tennyson wrote the poem Ulysses in the immediate aftermath of the death of his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. Ulysses is another name given to Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. According to Homer, after the end of the Trojan war, Odysseus took 10 long eventful years to finally reach Ithaca, his country. Homer mentions that Odysseus is to make one final journey before he can finally settle into domestic bliss. In his poem Inferno, Dante describes this very journey, twisting the tale to show that Odysseus never returned home but simple sailed on. Tennyson uses ideas from both these works to create Ulysses, where the hero returns home but longs to sail the high seas again.
The poem is a dramatic monologue, a style that was vastly used by Robert Browning, Tennyson’s famous Victorian contemporary. A dramatic monologue consists of only one speaker who is responding to a person, a group or an audience who, although an obvious part of the story, does not speak within the poem itself. Tennyson uses a simple un-rhythmic iambic pentameter or dark verse to compose the poem, each line having five iambs. For examples, ‘ To strive,/ to seek,/ to find,/ and not/ to yield” (70). In order to make the poem more realistic, Tennyson places variety within the iambic pentameter by introducing trochees and spondees, and varying the beat, to make it appear as the speaker is actually talking.
Ulysses starts at the point in the legend where Odysseus takes his leave from the enchanting goddess, Circe. Following her advice, Ulysses travels to the gates of Hades or hell, where the spirit of renowned soothsayer, Teiresias, prophesizes that, although Ulysses will reach home, he is bound to take a final journey which will end in his death. After returning to Ithaca, Ulysses begins to tire to the monotonous day to day domestic life and is eager to embark on his final journey. Ulysses begins to refer to himself as the ‘and idle king’, and a ‘still hearth’. Like a fireplace that holds no ember or flame, Ulysses finds himself full of ashes, his fire swiftly dwindling. He calls Ithaca as ‘These barren crags’, referring to its barren, rugged and infertile nature. Ulysses is also unhappy that he is now ‘matched’ with Penelope, his wife, who is over 50 years of age at the time and does not share Ulysses’ passion for the unknown.
He considers his duties as a king as to ‘mete and dole’, or to weigh and bargain like a grocer. He is averse to the unequal treatment meted out to different strata of the society, where the ‘unequal law’ varied from case to case, from person to person. Ulysses felt that he was far above his half-civilized, ‘savage race’ who were blissfully complacent. His people seemed to be too content with their domesticity and routine life, and did not appeal to his intellectual needs. Ulysses is at an age where most people begin considered retirement and passing on responsibilities to their next generation. Yet, he proclaims that ‘I will drink/ Life to the lees’. Lees refers to the very last bit of drink that is left at the bottom of a vessel. This signified Ulysses’ intention to drinking every last drop of life, his desire for knowledge growing, instead of diminishing with age.
Ulysses attributes suffering to his long journey and loneliness to his current domesticated state. He reiterates that he ‘suffered greatly’ with ‘those/ That loved me’, referring to his trusted companions that shared in his trials but perished by the time he reached the island of Ogygia. He acknowledges that ‘this gray spirit yearning in desire’, referring to his aged soul that still burns for adventure and knowledge, and ‘To follow knowledge like a sinking star’ or knowing that his pursuit is doomed. ‘Beyond the utmost bound of human thought’ reveals Ulysses’ true ambition, the desire to acquire knowledge that is beyond human comprehension. Spurred by his absolute dissatisfaction with domestic and administrative life, Ulysses decides to pursue his final journey.
Tennyson introduced a sense of irony at this point. Ulysses hand over the reins of his household and his kingdom to his son, Telemachus. Being about 20 years of age at the time, Telemachus displayed all the qualities of a wise king that would ideally be expected from someone of Ulysses’ age and experience. However, while Telemachus reveals wisdom beyond his age, a great sense of responsibility and the composure required to civilize a backward race, Ulysses displays all the signs of restless, rebellious and impatient youth. Ulysses says ‘He works his work, I mine’, confident that Telemachus will be able to ‘gently control’ the Ithacans. With Telemachus ready to take over his duties as king, Ulysses is ready to make his final sailing.
It seems to me that Ulysses’ nature and his experiences molded him into a person who was no longer suited for domestic life. Odysseus has always been known as one of the most cunning minds in Greek history and used this ability throughout the Trojan war to great effect. However, the long journey home, the adventures he shared with his companions, and the world that he was exposed to was bound to alter his nature. He was no longer suitable to be a king. Tennyson is right in showing the restlessness that someone in Ulysses’ position would experience and does not paint him in a negative light, as Dante does. Ulysses seems to be a more realistic take on the story of Odysseus, relying more on human nature than moralistic values.